Flashpoints | Diplomacy | Security

Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons Set to Enter Into Force

On January 22, 2021 the TPNW will enter into force. But will it matter?

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan
Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons Set to Enter Into Force

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), or the Nuke Ban Treaty, is set to enter into force soon. In 2016, the U.N. General Assembly, through resolution 71/258, decided to hold a conference for the negotiation of the treaty. The conference took place in March 2017. The treaty was subsequently adopted by a vote with 122 states in favor (with one vote against and one abstention) at the United Nations on July 7, 2017 and was opened for signature by the U.N. Secretary General on September 20, 2017.  When Honduras ratified the treaty in late October, it reached the requisite 50 ratifications, and is set to enter into force on January 22, 2021.  

The TPNW contains provisions that prohibit states from participating in any nuclear weapons-related activities including development, testing, possession, stockpile, use, or threat of use of nuclear weapons. Signatories are required “to prevent and suppress any activity prohibited under the TPNW undertaken by persons or on territory under its jurisdiction or control.”  

While this is commendable on its own, the efficacy of the treaty is questionable because none of the current nine nuclear-armed states support the treaty or have signed it.  The United States in a recent letter sent to signatories of the TPNW stated that the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the P-5 countries, who also happens to be the five nuclear weapons states recognized by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) — and NATO allies “stand unified in our opposition to the potential repercussions” of the treaty. In fact, the only NATO country that took part in the negotiations was the Netherlands but due to its NATO commitments, it voted against the treaty when it came up for adoption.

The letter from the United States went on to add that the TPNW also “turns back the clock on verification and disarmament and is dangerous” to the NPT. Urging the signatories to walk out of the treaty, the letter further said that while these states have the sovereign right to determine whether to become parties to and ratify the treaty, “we believe that you have made a strategic error and should withdraw your instrument of ratification or accession.”  

The day when the treaty was opened for signature at the U.N., the United States, the United Kingdom, and France issued a joint statement slamming the treaty, saying it “risks undermining the existing international security architecture which contributes to the maintenance of international peace and security,” and that all states “share a common responsibility to protect and strengthen our collective security system in order to further promote international peace, stability, and security.”  

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Countries like India, which have opposed the treaty. also made their positions clear.  While responding to a query on the Indian position on the treaty, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) spokesperson said that it “did not participate in the negotiations… Also, none of the other States possessing nuclear weapons participated in the negotiations.” It had also voted against a U.N. General Assembly resolution in 2019 welcoming the adoption of the treaty. Earlier in 2016, it abstained from voting on the U.N. General Assembly resolution that gave the formal mandate for states to start the treaty negotiations.  

Much of Asia and the Middle East also remains outside of the TPNW. Ratification of the treaty by just 50 state parties still means that there is a sizeable number of countries that remain outside the TPNW. The International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) has engaged in an effort to name and shame states that are not party to TPNW, but how effective that effort will be remains to be seen.  

Without the support of the nuclear armed states, it may not be possible to promote nuclear disarmament. Beyond nuclear-armed states, even those states such as Japan that are under the extended U.S. nuclear umbrella may be somewhat reluctant to support the TPNW.  While prestige may remain a factor in countries’ decision to pursue nuclear weapons, security considerations may not entirely be absent. These considerations should not be allowed to prevent progress on nuclear disarmament, of course, but treating such concerns as serious may help move the conversation in a more helpful direction than simply preaching or castigating such states.

There are also complications that arise from the relationship of the TPNW to the NPT.  The NPT also includes obligations toward nuclear disarmament, though these obligations have not been seriously addressed by the nuclear weapon states. Some believe that the nuke ban treaty undermines the importance of the NPT as the foundation of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime. Gustavo Zlauvinen, president-designate of the 2020 Review Conference for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) raised questions about the effectiveness of the TPNW saying that it cannot challenge the “legitimacy of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).” 

In a recent interview to Kyodo News, he said, “You can’t have nuclear disarmament without the nuclear weapon states in that system. And that’s why, for the time being, the only treaty that has been accepted by at least five nuclear weapon states, that includes obligations on nuclear disarmament, is the NPT.” He added that there exists a “huge difference” between the NPT and the TPNW and that the TPNW should not “erode the validity and the legitimacy of the NPT.” He also feared that this will be “another issue of contention” at the upcoming review conference. Maintaining the significance of the NPT as the cornerstone of the global non-proliferation regime, he added that “I believe that once the TPNW reaches numbers similar to the NPT, and obviously includes the signature and ratifications of nuclear weapon states, then probably we can talk about that new treaty being another pillar of the regime.”

Although the TPNW is the realization of a long and dedicated struggle by civil society activists and some states, the history of previous such efforts are not encouraging. For example, the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines (ICBL) has done stellar work that led to the Land Mine Ban Treaty and for greater endorsement of the treaty globally, with the aim of banning landmines and cluster munitions. While the Mine Ban Treaty is often showcased as one of the more successful treaties with only 32 states outside the treaty, many critical states including the U.S., Russia, China, India, Iran, and Pakistan remain outside.  Their refusal to adhere to the treaty undermines its effectiveness, and there has been little pressure on these states to change their minds. This experience suggests the need for some caution about the TPNW. Addressing the critical problem of nuclear disarmament should fare better than that example.