Treaty Banning the Ultimate Weapon of Mass Destruction Enters into Force

Photograph Source: ICAN Global Parliamentary Appeal/Tim Wright – CC BY 2.0

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) takes effect Friday, January 22, 2021.

After decades of campaigns of every kind to “ban the bomb,” to prevent the nuclear arms race, to freeze the arms race, humankind finally has a global treaty.

The nuclear weapons prohibition outlaws not just their development, testing and possession, but forbids any threatened use — commonly known as “nuclear deterrence.” Like with other multi-generational struggles against slavery, torture, the death penalty, child labor, TPNW campaigners justly call it “the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons.”

The new international law — which for the first time in weapons treaty law requires reparations and compensation to victims of H-bomb testing and production — is similar to earlier global prohibitions such as the Geneva Protocol (outlawing gas warfare), the Hague Conventions (forbidding poisoned weapons), the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Biological Weapons Ban the Convention on Cluster Munitions and the (land) Mine Ban.

The difference here is that the world community has finally added to the list of despicable, loathsome, appalling and shunned weapons of war those devices whose effects contain and exceed beyond comprehension the accumulated evil of the all the rest—nuclear and thermonuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons have been earnestly condemned for 75 years by legal scholars, religious leaders, peace groups, military commanders, prime ministers, presidents and corporate CEOs. They’ve been called “the ultimate evil” by the International Court of Justice in 1996 and any use of them was declared by the UN General Assembly as early as 1961 “a crime against [hu]mankind and civilization.” The TPNW’s language makes clear why: “Cognizant that the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons cannot be adequately addressed, transcend national borders, pose grave implications for human survival, the environment, socioeconomic development, the global economy, food security and the health of current and future generations, and have a disproportionate impact on women and girls, including as a result of ionizing radiation…”

Yet nuclear-armed countries all hold that their plans and threats to commit atomic violence are legal. For example, the US Navy Field Manual says, “There is at present no rule of international law expressly prohibiting States from the use of nuclear weapons in warfare. In the absence of express prohibition, the use of such weapons … is permitted.”

No more. The TPNW rebukes and nullifies this artful dodge, which is partly why its establishment is a monumental accomplishment. Forbidding nuclear weapons by name is also a triumph of harrowing urgency, considering the number of doddering heads of state with access to nuclear launch codes and especially in view of the atomic scientists’ “Doomsday Clock” being set at 100 seconds to midnight.

Countries with nuclear arsenals rejected the UN negotiations in 2017 that produced the TPNW, and they dismiss its obligations because the law applies only to states that ratify it. The duplicity of the nuclear-armed governments was displayed by then US UN Ambassador Nikki Haley who led 35 countries in a boycott of the talks. Haley said the treaty would end up disarming the nations “trying to keep peace and safety.” At the time, the United States was militarily occupying and/or at war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Niger. Haley’s speech must have reminded the more than two-thirds of the UN Ambassadors that “hypocrisy is the respect that vice pays to virtue.”

The power of the new Treaty is worth celebrating for now, but then it must be employed by us all to end the public’s ignorance, denial, forgetfulness, and habituation regarding plans for nuclear war, and to bring the nuclear weapons states into compliance.

John LaForge is a Co-director of Nukewatch, a peace and environmental justice group in Wisconsin, and edits its newsletter.