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Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

Rajiv Nayan is Senior Research Associate at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • August 11, 2021

    The world once again bowed its head in shame and paid tribute to the victims on the Hiroshima and Nagasaki days on 6 August and 9 August, respectively. The comity of nations wrestled with the guilty conscience on the 76th anniversary of both days. Quite ritually, the future of nuclear weapons or nuclear disarmament came up for discussions during many of the prayer meets.

    A section of the international community strongly believes that the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), popularly known as the Ban Treaty, could help in realising the idea of nuclear disarmament, and has therefore urged the international community, especially the nuclear weapon states to sign the treaty. In fact, the Mayor of Hiroshima appealed to the Japanese government to sign the treaty a few days before the Hiroshima Day. Japan is one of the important countries, which has not signed the treaty as yet. The treaty, at present, has 86 signatories.

    Is nuclear disarmament going to become a reality soon? The idea of nuclear disarmament has somewhat gathered momentum after the Ban Treaty came into force, i.e., became operational after 90 days of ratification by the 50th member on 22 January 2021. The treaty now is generating curiosity as well as hope.

    The oft-repeated question is: Is this a treaty for nuclear disarmament? Is it similar to The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) or the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)? The BTWC and the CWC are the disarmament treaties for the other two categories of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). A large number of nuclear disarmament enthusiasts belonging to civil society along with some non-nuclear weapon countries want the world to believe that TPNW, or the Ban Treaty, is nuclear equivalent to the BTWC or the CWC.

    In fact, like the other two WMD treaties, the Ban Treaty, too, has comprehensive prohibition measures. The treaty bans development, testing, production, manufacturing, acquisition, transfer, use, threat to use, and so on. However, the most interesting provision of the treaty is the ban on “stationing, installation or deployment of any nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices” in the territory or at any place under the jurisdiction or control of a member country.1

    The treaty has indeed regenerated hope and optimism for nuclear disarmament in the international community. Although President Barack Obama did not deliver the promised nuclear disarmament for which he had received the Nobel Peace Prize in advance, yet his promise at least did not weaken the nuclear taboo or norm against the use of nuclear weapons existing since the first and last use in 1945.  The Ban Treaty is credited to have assembled support for the nuclear disarmament narrative in the Donald Trump era.

    Nuclear disarmament did not enthuse President Trump much. Even other dominant nuclear weapon powers did not go beyond some inconsequential resolutions in the United Nations (UN) for nuclear disarmament. The Ban Treaty consolidated the momentum of humanitarian initiatives. The treaty, in its preamble, has maintained the essence of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons.  In fact, the treaty was adopted and opened for signature in 2017 in an adverse situation, for nuclear disarmament.

    However, the treaty has not succeeded in adding any additional universal stigma to nuclear weapons. In fact, it lacks the support base needed for replacing the Cold War vintage “Mutual Assured Destruction” with “Mutual Assured Abstinence”. The nuclear weapon countries’ faith in the deterrence logic remains intact. Nuclear deterrence, even though the most sanitised narrative, requires a continuance of nuclear weapons.

    None of the nuclear weapon countries participated in the negotiation process for the treaty. All had different arguments, logic and rationale for abstaining from negotiations for the treaty. Some of the reasons could be valid but in general, the reliance on the salience of nuclear weapons has put a spanner in the participation for the treaty. Moreover, carving a new treaty by sidestepping the crisis-ridden Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which has a larger base, including all old nuclear weapon countries, has not gone down well with many countries and writers. A major section believes that the non-nuclear member countries should have forced member countries possessing nuclear weapons to implement Article 6 of the NPT.

    Interestingly, not only nuclear weapon countries but also as discussed, the nuclear umbrella holding countries like Japan have stayed away from negotiations. Of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members, only the Netherlands participated in negotiations but cast the only negative vote against the treaty. All the NATO countries, including the Netherlands, are still desisting from the treaty.

    The treaty exhibited an intriguing response pattern of some peace activist nations. Sweden participated in negotiations but has not signed the treaty as yet.  Norway, which has been at the forefront of funding various peace, humanitarian and disarmament initiatives, too, skirted negotiations and of course, the signing of the treaty. A former nuclear umbrella holding country, New Zealand, has signed, ratified and submitted the declaration that it does not possess or station any nuclear weapon on its territory.

    Over the years, the institutions for disarmament have evolved. The Special Sessions of the UN General Assembly devoted to Disarmament have been of immense help. The United Nations Disarmament Commission and the Conference on Disarmament (CD) have played an important role in shaping the disarmament initiatives. Admittedly, these institutions are turning non-functional. For instance, the CD has not succeeded in delivering a treaty in years because of the principle of consensus. However, escaping the negotiating body is not a solution. The challenge lies in building a consensus over the provisions for a disarmament treaty and galvanising public opinion in its favour.

    Quite significantly, even the provisions of the Ban Treaty are blocking the path of many countries joining it. The treaty merely mentions the need for bearing the cost for verification but any disarmament treaty needs an elaborate verification and inspection machinery and infrastructure to build confidence among the members and the global community. The verification deficit indicates the ad hoc nature of the treaty.

    At the time of negotiations, many accused that some dominant forces pushed a readymade text and that the entire process of negotiations was merely a façade. The treaty does not have a roadmap for nuclear weapons disarmament/dismantlement. The next meeting may set a deadline but the absence of nuclear weapon countries will make it futile.

    Several countries have complained that through the Ban Treaty the longstanding principle of sovereign consent prevalent in international law is damaged. Proponents of the Ban Treaty are advised to read the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties in letter and spirit.

    India, too, has stayed away from the treaty. It has neither participated in negotiations nor signed the treaty. India wants a treaty to be negotiated in the CD for universal, non-discriminatory and verifiable nuclear disarmament. The Indian government observes that the Ban Treaty “does not constitute or contribute to the development of customary international law; nor does it set any new standards or norms.”2

    In the absence of other nuclear weapon countries, India joining the treaty may amount to opting for unilateral nuclear disarmament. This cannot be recommended to a country, which is surrounded by two hostile nuclear neighbours. However, the Ban Treaty needs to be seen as a transitional initiative of a creative new disarmament politics. The oft-repeated idea—a feasible, comprehensive, verifiable and enforceable nuclear disarmament regime—could become a reality only by a genuine commitment of nuclear weapon countries to a Nuclear Weapons Convention negotiated in the CD.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.

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