The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons—More than Nuclear Gesture Politics

Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, Japan
Cover Photo: ShanoPics, 2001

By EVA SIEGMANN,
2nd-year student in the Franco-German campus of NANCY


On the 6th August 1945, “Little Boy” was dropped on Hiroshima. Little Boy, very much a euphemism for the first nuclear bomb ever used, killed 70.000 civilians immediately. The unimaginable scale of this explosion in an almost finished war astounded the world. Humanity had opened Pandora’s box and tapped into the dark, not quite knowing which horrible consequences their newly gained capabilities could have on humanity’s future.  And humanity has tried to live up to this incredible challenge in attempting to stop nuclear proliferation and place multilateral and bilateral disarmament agreements; however, nuclear weapons are the only one among the trio of weapons of mass destructions governments legitimately threaten to use against an enemy.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) comes with the ambition to fill this gap in international law, as it entered into force on the 22nd of January, 2021. The TPNW prohibits countries to “develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons”, as well as “to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons”. The treaty has been adopted by the Conference at the UN in July 2017 and opened for signature by the Secretary-General of the UN only two months later. Among the 86 signatory states, 51 states have ratified the treaty since it has been opened for signature 2017. The ratification process has thus happened on average in the same speed as for other treaties on weapons of mass destruction such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).

Each State Party undertakes never under any circumstances to: (a) Develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons. […] (d) Use or threaten to use nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.”

Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW)

Many claim, however, that all of these big words and promises are nothing more than gesture politics—first and foremost because all of these prohibitions will have no direct feasible influence. Before signing the treaty, most signatory states were already members of regional nuclear-weapon-free zones, such as Nigeria and Benin in Africa, Venezuela, Panama and Mexico in Latin America and many more in the Caribbean, Central Asia or South-East Asia. Their commitment to the TPNW therefore only extends and confirms their former commitments to nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament efforts. Ireland and Austria, both EU member states, have become states parties without being members of any nuclear-weapon-free zone. Austria especially, however, has been raising awareness for the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons for multiple years and has declared nuclear disarmament to be a priority of their foreign and security policy prior to signing the TPNW. In this case too, the signing of the TPNW seems to be only a confirmation of former engagement.

Many claim, however, that all of these big words and promises are nothing more than gesture politics—first and foremost because all of these prohibitions will have no direct feasible influence.

Furthermore, all nuclear weapon states and their military allies have absented themselves from the TPNW. Currently, other than the 5 nuclear weapon states recognized in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)—USA, China, France, United Kingdom and Russia—North Korea, Pakistan and India also possess nuclear weapon arsenals. Israel is generally understood to as well dispose over capable nuclear weapons, despite the lack of official confirmation. Iran is probably in possession of highly enriched uranium needed to produce nuclear weapons, but not of capable nuclear warheads. None of these eight are members of the TPNW. As the treaty is not universal, but only partial international law which induces binding commitments only for states parties, it will thus have no direct disarming impact. It is also important to note that no NATO member, all taking part in nuclear sharing, has signed the treaty, let alone ratified it. Only the Netherlands was present at the voting—after having been pressured by their parliament—and became the only state to vote against. Therefore, even through indirect channels, such as close allies of the nuclear weapons states, the legal effects of the TPNW tend to zero.

Knowing that, is the treaty only gesture politics? If gesture politics mean an action without feasible influence through legal channels, then yes, it is. Indeed, gesture politics are more than they seem to be, and there are more ways to create an impact than binding international law. In a global context, where disarmament agreements are continuously ending or being foreclosed, the TPNW may have a negotiable impact on the existing international nuclear arms control regime.

Currently, we live in a world of worsening global security and decreasing stability. One reason is the increasing military deployment of “small” tactical nuclear weapons. The term “small”, however, is misleading—most of them are around the size of the Hiroshima bomb, which is only small compared to the most threatening nuclear weapons that have been built. With their deployment, the use of tactical nuclear weapons has become more likely, especially as multiple nuclear weapon states frame the use of tactical nuclear warheads increasingly as an extension of conventional conflict, instead of as the weapon of mass destructions that they are. In 2020, the US has for the first time in history deployed such weapons, stationing them on submarines in the Baltic Sea. In Russia and Pakistan, similar developments can be seen. With less no-first-strike pledges or pledges to only use nuclear weapons against nuclear attacks, the risk of nuclear warfare increases even further. Additionally, the modernization of nuclear arsenals around the world has been extremely expensive. For example, on a more technical note, the development of new delivery systems makes nuclear missiles even more effective. The development of  more capable missile defense systems, such as the one the US have recently tested, may seem like a compensating development towards a safer world—in reality, better missile defense may bury the belief in nuclear deterrence once and for all and make a nuclear first strike even more likely.

Consequently, the risk of nuclear warfare is rising steadily. A new impulse which helps to leave the impasse nuclear nonproliferation, disarmament and risk reduction currently find themselves in, is desperately needed to ensure global security. Within the framework of existing treaties and agreements, however, state actors have not managed to do so. Therefore, a new, more ambitious solution is needed in addition to existing multilateral agreements and bilateral nuclear arms control. 

The non-proliferation treaty (NTP), most well-known and fundamental out of the bundle of multilateral agreements to restrict nuclear proliferation and extend cooperation rests on three fundamental pillars—one of them being complete nuclear disarmament. Despite the fact that the NPT has entered into force in 1970, the regular revision conferences of the treaty haven’t led to substantial results in nuclear disarmament matters yet. The disappointment with this unequal treaty has even been the incentive for states parties such as India to leave the NPT and start their own nuclear weapon program. Disenchantment with the NPT as a fundamental pillar of disarmament has risen, and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons gives a voice to these sentiments. It represents thus an important symbol, breaking with trends that steadily increase nuclear risks and a possibility to revive the debate on nuclear disarmament.

The term “small”, however, is misleading—most [“small” tactical nuclear weapons] are around the size of the Hiroshima bomb, which is only small compared to the most threatening nuclear weapons that have been built.

Still, there’s more to the TPNW than symbolism. Supporters hope for a political impact on nuclear weapons states aside from legal channels. Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign for the Abolishment of Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a main initiator of the TPNW and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017, puts these aims as follows: “We hope that it [the TPNW] will help countries make other choices. We saw, for example, with the Land Mines Treaty, that the United States or Russia or China didn’t sign it, but they changed their policies and behaviors. This treaty creates a norm that nuclear weapons are bad”. 

These effects are starting to become visible in the latest events. Despite being constantly taunted as insignificant and ineffective, especially by NATO states, the treaty has triggered negotiable controversy among nuclear weapon holders. In January 2021, shortly before the TPNW’s entry into force, NATO released a common statement saying that the TPNW “does not reflect the increasingly challenging international security environment and is at odds with the existing non-proliferation and disarmament architecture”, adding that “the NPT remains the only credible path to nuclear disarmament”. This statement, though proving once again the opposition of the bloc to the nuclear disarmament treaty, has also demonstrated the importance of the TPNW. It confronts nuclear weapon states and forces them to concern themselves with the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, and justify their involvement with these weapons of mass destruction.

We hope that [the TPNW] will help countries make other choices. We saw, for example, with the Land Mines Treaty, that the United States or Russia or China didn’t sign it, but they changed their policies and behaviors. This treaty creates a norm that nuclear weapons are bad.”

Beatrice Fihn, executive director of International Campaign for the Abolishment of Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)

[TPNW] does not reflect the increasingly challenging international security environment and is at odds with the existing non-proliferation and disarmament architecture […] the NPT remains the only credible path to nuclear disarmament.”

NATO Common Statement

Taking a closer look at NATO’s position, the bloc doesn’t seem as united as they claim to be. Belgium, one of five NATO states to host US nuclear weapons on their territory and thus part of technical nuclear sharing, released a government declaration in September 2020 which reads that the Belgian government will examine “how the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons can give new impetus to multilateral nuclear disarmament”. In Germany, it was technical nuclear sharing which triggered a debate on Germany’s position towards nuclear weapons. Despite the government’s official position which relies on nuclear deterrence and its participation in NATO’s nuclear umbrella, SPD politicians, whose party is the junior partner in Merkel’s government coalition, have launched a debate on the continuation of nuclear sharing in April 2020. This opposition from within the German government parties may challenge NATO’s call for unity. If the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was as insignificant as many nuclear weapon states make it seem, it wouldn’t have triggered as much controversy as it has.

The TPNW was never supposed to single-handedly vanish every existing nuclear warhead into thin air. Instead, it comes as a new impulse for nuclear disarmament, strengthening the voice of many opponents of nuclear weapons and putting pressure on nuclear weapon states that start to struggle to legitimize the threat of their destructive potential. And in that, nuclear gesture politics might be exactly what we need. ▣

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