#Decryption – The elimination of Nuclear Weapons : an achievable goal?

The elimination of Nuclear Weapons remains the highest disarmament priority of the United Nations”. Antonio Guterres.

On January 22, 2021, the Treaty of Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) enters into force making it the first multilateral agreement legally binding that prohibits all type of use or creation of nuclear weapons. The nuclear disarmament has always been at the top of the UN General Assembly’s agenda and with the entry into force of the TPNW, it seems like their agenda has finally been concreted. However, this treaty is surrounded by some uncertainty without taking away its symbolic and moral importance.  

The concern of nuclear weapons through history

The world knew its first nuclear weapons explosion on July 16, 1945, when the United States tested its first nuclear bomb in New Mexico. Only three weeks later, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima (6 August 1945) and Nagasaki (9 August 1945), causing permanent damage to both the city and its inhabitants and killing more than 100,000 people. This incident changed the world, a weapon of massive destruction has been used for the first time ever.

Le champignon de fumée créé par la bombe atomique larguée sur Hiroshima, le 6 août 1945.
Photo AP. US ARMY. Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

One year later, the very first resolution on nuclear weapons was adopted by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly on January 24, 1946. In the resolution the UN called for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons and established a commission to ensure this goal. However, in the following years other states developed and tested their own nuclear weapons showing the short impact this resolution had on the international community. In 1949, the Soviet Union became the second country to develop and successfully test a nuclear device, followed by the United Kingdom in 1952. Since the start of the Cold War, the concern for the danger and the consequences of nuclear weapons increase among scientists and the UN itself. In 1955, Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein and other prominent scientists issued a manifesto warning of the danger of a nuclear war by the impact this type of weapons can have, this manifesto was followed by the petition of nearly 10,000 scientists in 1958, that begged the UN Secretary-General “to effect an international agreement to stop testing of all nuclear weapons”. The scientists and the detractors of nuclear weapons called out the catastrophic humanitarian consequences these weapons can have, and even if different states continued to develop and test their own nuclear weapons, in the eyes of the majority of scientists, international organizations such as the UN, and many people, these weapons should no longer exist in our world.

Nowadays, there are seven nuclear-armed states: France, Russia, the United States, India, the United Kingdom, Israel and North Korea, and five states that hosts nuclear weapons in their territory: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey.

The attempts to regulate and eradicate nuclear weapons

Since the Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s incident, numerous efforts have been made by many States and the UN to regulate and eliminate nuclear weapons, three international treaties in particular had an important impact on this goal. The Partial Test Ban Treaty was signed in 1963, in which it was established the prohibition of all nuclear testing in the atmosphere, outer space and underwater. It was signed by the governments of the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States as an effort to reduce the public concern on the numerous nuclear tests that had been taking place. Five years later, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was signed. This treaty is significantly important as it prohibits the non-nuclear States to develop or acquire nuclear arsenal and allows the peaceful use of nuclear weapons. The main nuclear powers had signed and ratified the agreement. Finally, in 1996, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was adopted by the UN, that bans all nuclear tests, for both civilian and military purposes in all environments. China, France, the United Kingdom, Russia and the United States all signed the treaty.

Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons
British Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart (third from right) signing the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, London, 1968. © AP/IAEA

At the same time, bilateral agreements were made In 1987, the Soviet Union and the United States signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, in which they eliminate all land-based missiles held by the two states, leaving behind the Cuba Missiles Crisis incident. Therefore, many efforts have been made by the international community to regulate nuclear weapons by international legal means but these agreements have been seen over time as insufficient and call out the necessity of a new treaty that would prohibit once and for all testing or use of nuclear weapons.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW)

 After a renewed interest was showed in the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, different conferences took place notably the ones that were convened in 2013 and 2014, which included the participation of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and principally coordinated by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). The UN General Assembly understood the necessity to negotiate a new agreement that would finally prohibit nuclear weapons. A UN conference was established to negotiate this new agreement, the conference took place between March and July 2017, in New York City. During this conference the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was conceive. This is also the first multilateral legally binding instrument that prohibits the development, testing, acquisition, possession, stockpiling, use or threats to use nuclear weapons. It is also the first treaty that includes provisions to help address the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapon use and testing. In fact, the States parties have to assist individuals that were affected by the use or testing of these weapons. The Treaty opened for signature on September 20, 2017, and entered into force on January 22, 2021, after a 50th State, Honduras, ratified the treaty.

However, this treaty has been the target of both critics and compliments from the beginning. The ICAN, who played an important role during the TPNW negotiations, was awarded in 2017 the Nobel Peace Price “for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons”. This treaty seems to be the start of a new era on the elimination of nuclear weapons, but his effectiveness is still unknown. Neither the nuclear-weapon states nor the members of the United Nations Security Council have signed the agreement and many of them have strongly opposed and criticized the treaty, criticism joined by NATO members. Many of them expressed their concern that this treaty would undermine the NPT and the CTBT. But the Proponent States of the Treaty believe the opposite, for them the TPNW is going to complete these two treaties and would finally close a “legal gap” that exist regarding nuclear weapons. In his statement for the entry into force of the treaty, Mr. Guterres, the UN chief, said, “The entry into force is a tribute to the survivors of nuclear explosions and tests, many of whom advocated for this Treaty”. This treaty has a symbolical meaning as it shows to the international community that even if States continue to test and spent millions of dollars on nuclear weapons, the UN and many other States would continue to fight for disarmament.





Ivana Garcia

USG – Pôle Presse








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