Two years ago, on January 22, 2021, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) entered into legal force after Honduras became the fiftieth country to ratify it. Already at that time, nuclear dangers were considered very high. The Doomsday Clock stood at 100 seconds before midnight. The 2021 statement pointed to a dark nuclear landscape against which the entry into force provided a glimmer of hope.
Since then, this landscape has only darkened further.
Russia’s implicit but unmistakable nuclear threats and the risks of escalation to nuclear use in the war in Ukraine are arguably the most pertinent and worrying development in the nuclear field. However, nuclear risks have already gotten worse during those two years—from the fast development and modernization of nuclear programs, renewed dynamics of arms races, and new fronts of proliferation.
What is worse, nuclear rhetoric is becoming increasingly strident. In the wake of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s irresponsible nuclear threats, we also hear and read much about the use of tactical nuclear weapons or about nuclear versus non-nuclear responses in case Russia breaks the taboo of nuclear use.
As a result of this rhetoric, the use of nuclear weapons is being “normalized”—a very dangerous situation not seen since the Cold War. Last August, during the opening meeting of the NPT’s Tenth Review Conference, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned: “We have been extraordinarily lucky so far. But luck is not a strategy. Nor is it a shield from geopolitical tensions boiling over into nuclear conflict. Today, humanity is just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation.”
Given these developments, one could be forgiven for concluding that any hope for nuclear disarmament and a world free of nuclear weapons is further away than ever; that geopolitical tensions simply result in seemingly unstoppable dynamics toward an even stronger emphasis on nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence. Against such a backdrop, one may wonder about the value and impact of a treaty seeking to ban nuclear weapons when all vectors seem to point in the opposite direction. But the TPNW is more relevant than ever, for two main reasons.
Concrete efforts for nuclear disarmament. First, the TPNW is a multilateral effort by the international community to make concrete progress on nuclear disarmament. At a time when the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is under great duress—not least due to the eroding credibility of the implementation of its nuclear disarmament obligations and commitments and increasing proliferation risks—the TPNW is an important reinforcement of the nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation regime. Moreover, given the bleak prospect for the entry into force of the of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the equally bleak chance for negotiations of a treaty prohibiting the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons in the stalled Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, the multilateral nuclear disarmament regime needs every support it can get.
In June 2022, the TPNW signatories embarked on the implementation of this new treaty at the First Meeting of States Parties in Vienna. Participants came in with considerable enthusiasm and commitment—in sharp contrast to other current multilateral disarmament forums—with the many and active civil society organizations, scientists, and representatives of affected communities showing their joint will. The positive spirit was reflected in the meeting’s substantive and ambitious decisions. All parties unanimously adopted a key document—the Vienna Action Plan—which lays out how countries will implement the treaty in the coming years, with countries committing themselves to an ambitious and concrete work program to move the treaty’s objectives forward.
The June meeting also established several informal working groups tasked with guiding the treaty’s implementation. These groups will focus on the treaty’s positive obligations, pathway to elimination, universalization, scientific advice, and complementarity.
First, the TPNW’s obligations on victim assistance and environmental remediation are the first such provisions in an international treaty that recognize the humanitarian legacy of past nuclear weapons use or tests. In several TPNW member countries, such as Kazakhstan and the Pacific Island states, affected communities suffer to this day from the devastating impact of past nuclear testing campaigns conducted by nuclear-armed countries on their territories. TPNW states initiated a cooperative process to address and seek to remedy these injustices by putting affected communities at the center of collective efforts. This long-term engagement will likely become the most visible embodiment of the humanitarian rationale of the treaty.
Second, states parties will also continue to work to develop the pathways provided in the treaty for the elimination of nuclear weapons, to be prepared if and when nuclear-armed countries are ready to join the treaty. It includes discussions to develop a coherent approach for the future designation of a competent international authority or authorities foreseen in Article 4 of the TPNW.
Third, a scientific advisory group is being established to assist TPNW states on issues related to the implementation of the treaty. This includes technical advice for example on disarmament verification but also on new scientific research on the humanitarian consequences and risks of nuclear weapons. The group will operate upon request from states parties but will also proactively bring developments relevant for the treaty to the attention of states. This will not just benefit the TPNW but potentially also the wider nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation regime.
Fourth, the frequent and politically motivated assertions by the treaty’s critics that the TPNW would somehow be in competition or incompatible with the NPT called for the TPNW signatories to address this issue. A detailed working paper, agreed to by all TPNW members, puts these assertions comprehensively to rest by explaining that the NPT is a framework treaty whose nonproliferation obligations and provisions on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy were implemented and concretized over time through numerous additional legal and non-legal measures. The NPT’s Article VI on nuclear disarmament, however, has so far largely been not implemented. A comprehensive legal prohibition of nuclear weapons is an essential element of the future full implementation of the NPT disarmament obligation. As such, the TPNW is legally, structurally, and logically an effective mechanism to implement Article VI.
The Tenth NPT Review Conference further underscored the complementarity between these two treaties. TPNW member countries worked constructively to conclude this conference with a meaningful outcome, while highlighting the case for the TPNW and its complementarity with the NPT. The NPT has many problems, but the TPNW is not one of them. It gives another reason for the NPT to urgently implement its disarmament obligations and serves as an additional nonproliferation mechanism by strengthening the taboo of nuclear weapon use.
The breadth and depth of the discussions and decisions taken at the first meeting surprised many observers. Finally, a multilateral disarmament forum was able to agree to substantive documents and allow countries from all regions to work together constructively—in contrast to other consensus-blocked disarmament forums. Furthermore, it welcomed observers—including Australia as well as several NATO countries such as Germany, Norway, Belgium, and the Netherlands—despite their clear stance that they had no intention of joining the TPNW.
Even if one may disagree on whether a ban should be the starting or end point of nuclear disarmament, a prohibition norm on nuclear weapons will be needed—as a nuclear-armed country diplomat admitted at the UN General Assembly—to ever achieve and maintain a world without nuclear weapons. By claiming agency on nuclear disarmament and building a framework necessary for concrete progress, the TPNW members are doing their share to implement the NPT obligations. The ban treaty community has become the unlikely key driver in the nuclear disarmament debate.
Important and timely. The second aspect that makes the TPNW of utmost importance is that it comes at the very moment that nuclear risks are high again and some countries are seeking to re-emphasize the relevance of nuclear weapons. The TPNW, on the contrary, points to a way out of the nuclear deterrence paradigm. This is not based on idealism but on increasingly compelling evidence of the catastrophic and global consequences of nuclear weapons should this paradigm fail. Against the current backdrop of increasing nuclear risks, the TPNW represents not only legitimate concerns for its member countries but also a firm and realist security assessment by them.
The TPNW challenges the core assumption of nuclear deterrence by highlighting that this theory is fraught with uncertainties and risks. Rather than assuming the “non-use” of nuclear weapons based on the belief in the stability of nuclear deterrence, the TPNW assumes the opposite: the instability of nuclear deterrence ultimately leads to nuclear weapon use. Misinterpretation, miscalculation, and misuse cannot be avoided indefinitely. Policy and decision-making about nuclear weapons must be grounded on empirical facts about the potentially catastrophic consequences and existential risks of nuclear weapons rather than on an assumed stability paradigm based on rather shaky evidence.
TPNW members have expressed this clearly in the political declaration adopted in Vienna: “[W]e stress that any use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is a violation of international law, including the Charter of the United Nations. We condemn unequivocally any and all nuclear threats, whether they be explicit or implicit and irrespective of the circumstances.” Then, they went on: “Far from preserving peace and security, nuclear weapons are used as instruments of policy, linked to coercion, intimidation and heightening of tensions. This highlights now more than ever the fallacy of nuclear deterrence doctrines, which are based and rely on the threat of the actual use of nuclear weapons and, hence, the risks of the destruction of countless lives, of societies, of nations, and of inflicting global catastrophic consequences.”
Proponents of nuclear deterrence will continue to disagree and draw different legal and political conclusions or actively oppose the ban treaty, but the TPNW’s underlying arguments are profound, legitimate, and inescapable. If the TPNW continues to rally the international community against nuclear weapons, which, in doing so, expresses that the nuclear status quo has no legitimacy and that any nuclear threat—and evidently any nuclear use—is considered unacceptable and unlawful, this is a big deal.
The current momentum of the ban treaty community has already revigorated public debates about nuclear weapons, all the way to the G20 Summit declaration in November 2022 which denounced nuclear threat and use as “inadmissible.” Today’s strong opposition to the TPNW by proponents of nuclear deterrence may be a sign of its strength and potentially transformational underlying rationale.
What’s ahead? The TPNW is still a young treaty. As of this writing, 92 countries have signed the treaty, with 68 having ratified it. The ban treaty has already had a significant impact by giving voice to the majority of countries that are largely disenfranchised by the global nuclear order. The universalization of the TPNW and the debate on the prohibition of nuclear weapons are key objectives of the treaty. TPNW signatories, together with civil society organizations, will continue to pursue this goal gradually and steadily. This entails convincing more countries to join the treaty, as every ratification and signature of the TPNW strengthens its normative value on a global scale. At the same time, it is equally important to continue the promotion of the underlying rationale regarding the humanitarian consequences and risks of nuclear weapons, which underscores the urgency of seeing progress on nuclear disarmament and moving away from the precarious nuclear deterrence paradigm.
The TPNW’s multilateral effort points to an alternative approach to the problem of nuclear weapons and security. While it cannot coerce anyone to give up its nuclear weapons, the treaty can provide a convincing rationale for the lack of legitimacy, legality, and sustainability of nuclear weapons through strong arguments and evidence. The ban treaty can lay the groundwork for when nuclear-armed countries are ready to engage in concrete steps toward nuclear disarmament and away from the precarious nuclear deterrence paradigm.
When most nuclear developments point in the opposite direction of nuclear disarmament and the leadership of nuclear-armed countries on this issue has all but disappeared, the TPNW is an indispensable and potentially consequential ray of hope against an otherwise very bleak backdrop of currently failing leadership on nuclear disarmament.
Editor’s note: The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position of the Austrian Foreign Ministry.
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