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Nuclear Weapons Will Soon Be Illegal Under International Law

Photograph Source: MAPW Australia – CC BY 2.0

Flash!  Nuclear bombs and warheads have just joined landmines, germ and chemical bombs and fragmentation bombs as illegal weapons under international law, as on Oct. 24  a 50th nation, the Central American country of Honduras, ratified and signed a UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

Of course, the reality is that despite this outlawing of landmines and fragmentation bombs by the UN, the US still uses them routinely and sells them to other countries, has not destroyed its stockpile of chemical weapons, and continues with controversial research on weaponized germs which critics say has a potential dual defensive/offensive utility and purpose (the US is known to have used illegal germ warfare against both North Korea and Cuba during the ‘50s and ‘60s).

That said, the new treaty outlawing nuclear weapons, which the US State Department and Trump administration strenuously opposed and which it has been pressuring countries not to sign or to withdraw their endorsement of, is a big step forward towards the goal of abolishing of these horrific weapons.

AsFrancis Boyle, professor of international law at the University of Illinois, who helped author the international law against germ and chemical weapons, tells ThisCantBeHappening!, “Nuclear weapons have been with us since they were criminally  used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. We are only going to be able to get rid of them when  people realize that they are not just illegal and immoral but also  criminal. So for that reason alone this Treaty is important in terms of criminalizing nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence.”

David Swanson, author of several books arguing for a ban not just on nuclear weapons but to war itself, and a US director of the global organization World Beyond War, explains how the new UN treaty against nuclear weapons, by making the weapons illegal under international law under a UN Charter that the US is both an author of and an early signatory to, will help the popular global movement to eliminate these ultimate weapons of mass destruction.

Says Swanson, “The treaty does several things. It stigmatizes defenders of nuclear weapons and countries that have them. It aids the divestment movement against companies involved in nuclear weapons, since nobody wants to invest in things of dubious legality. It aids in pressuring nations that align with the US military to join in signing the treaty and abandoning the ‘nuclear umbrella’ fantasy. And it aids in pressuring the five nations in Europe that currently illegally allow the stockpiling of US nukes pithing their borders to get them out.”

Swanson adds, “It may also aid in encouraging nations around the globe with US bases to start putting in place more restrictions on what weapons the US can deploy at those bases.”

The list of 50 nations that have thus far ratified the UN Treaty, as well as the other 34 that have signed it but have yet to have their governments ratify it, is available for inspection here.  Under UN the Charter’s terms ratification of an international UN treaty requires ratification by 50 nations in order for it to go into effect. There was considerable motivation to get the final required ratification by 2021, which will mark the 75th anniversary of the dropping of the first and thankfully the only two nuclear weapons in war — the US bombs dropped in August 1945 on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  With the Honduras ratification, the Treaty will now go into effect on January 1, 2021.

In announcing the ratification of the treaty, which was drawn up and approved by the UN General Assembly in 2017, UN Secretary General António Guterres praised the work of civil society groups around the world that pushed for ratification. He singled out among them the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which received a Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 for its work.

ICANW’s Executive Director Beatrice Fihn declared the treaty’s ratification, “a new chapter for nuclear disarmament.”  She added, “Decades of activism have achieved what many said was impossible: Nuclear weapons are banned.”

Indeed, effective Jan. 1, the nine nations with nuclear weapons (the US, Russia, China, Great Britain, France, India, Pakistan, Israel and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), are all outlaw states until they eliminate those weapons.

When the US was racing to develop the atomic bomb during World War II, initially out of concern that Hitler’s Germany might be attempting to do the same thing, but later, with the object of obtaining a monopoly on the super weapon to gain control over adversaries like the then Soviet Union and Communist China, a number of the Manhattan Project’s senior scientists, including Nils Bohr, Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard, opposed its use after the war and attempted to get the US to share the bomb’s secrets with the Soviet Union, America’s ally during WWII. They called for openness and for an effort to negotiate a ban on the weapon. Others, like Robert Oppenheimer himself, the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, strenuously but unsuccessfully opposed the subsequent development of the vastly more destructive hydrogen bomb.

Opposition to the US intention of maintaining a monopoly on the bomb, and fears that it would be used preemptively against the Soviet Union after the end of WWII (as the Pentagon and Truman administration were secretly planning to do once they produced enough bombs and B-29 Stratofortress planes to carry them), motivated several Manhattan Project scientists, including German refugee Klaus Fuchs and American Ted Hall, to become spies delivering key secrets of the uranium and plutonium bombs’ design to Soviet Intelligence, helping the USSR to obtain its own nuclear weapon by 1949 and preventing that potential holocaust, but launching the nuclear arms race that has continued down to the present day.

Luckily, the balance of terror produced by multiple nations developing enough nuclear weapons and delivery systems to deter any one nation from using a nuclear weapon, has improbably but fortunately managed to keep any nuclear bomb from being used in war since August 1945. But as the US, Russia and China continue to modernize and expand their arsenals, including into space, and continue to race to develop unstoppable delivery systems like the new hypersonic maneuverable rockets and super stealthy missile-carrying subs, the risk only grows of a nuclear conflict, making this new treaty urgently needed.

The task, going forward, is to use the new UN treaty banning these weapons to pressure the nations of the world to eliminate them for good.

 

Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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