The UN Banned Nuclear Weapons, But the U.S. Isn’t Listening

The United Nations has officially banned nuclear weapons, though notable holdouts such as the U.S. and Russia may make it difficult to turn into a reality. 

On Saturday, Honduras became the 50th country to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which proponents say will create an international legal framework for the dismantling of nuclear weapons. It will enter into force on January 22, 2021.

The U.N. first approved the TPNW in 2017 when 122 members of its 193 members assembly voted in favor of its adoption. Iran voted in favor. The nine countries possessing nuclear weapons—including the United States and North Korea—boycotted the negotiations, and the U.S. has asked nations to withdraw. Three years later, 50 countries have ratified the treaty and given it the ability to become part of international law.

The abolition of nuclear weapons has been a goal of the United Nations since its founding in 1945,in the aftermath of the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the first resolution of the UN General Assembly, the organization said the Security Council would work towards “the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction.” Seventy-four years later, the TPNW seeks to do just that. 

By the terms of the treaty, all state parties must report to the UN on the status of its nuclear forces 30 days within the treaty going into force. Even if a country is hosting the nuclear weapons of another country, it must report them. Any state that is hosting nukes for another country must remove them.

The treaty also seeks justice for those harmed by nuclear weapons, such as the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or people who survived nuclear testing in France or the Marshall Islands. According to the treaty, member states must also “take necessary and appropriate measures” towards fixing the environment in affected areas. 

This could hypothetically force the United States to fix the plutonium leaking nuclear tomb it left behind in the Marshall Islands, although, again, the U.S. has not signed the treaty.

The ratification of the treaty has been a big deal for survivors of nuclear testing. 

“When I was 17 the French government tested a nuclear weapon 170 kilometres from my home. It was like an earthquake. Now 60 years later people are still getting sick, babies are still being born with deformities and the French government will still not tell us how much waste lies underneath our sand,” Touhami Abdelkrim, a survivor of French nuclear testing in Algeria said in a press release. “We never asked for these weapons to poison our children. All we ask is that France acknowledge what they have done, and join the other countries in making sure it does not happen again.”

More than 13,000 nuclear warheads remain in the world, and 90 percent of those belong to the United States and Russia. 

“It is true that the nuclear ban treaty cannot be the final vehicle for disarmament without the participation of the nuclear states; however, the nuclear ban treaty can still raise the political, economic, and security costs of relying on nuclear weapons even for states that do not join the treaty,” Jennifer Knox, Policy and Research Analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists—the people behind the Doomsday Clock—told Motherboard in an email. “The aim of the nuclear ban movement is to stigmatize nuclear weapons, incentivizing nuclear weapons states to take further steps towards reduction and elimination.”

Some experts are cold on the treaty, however, pointing to the abstention of the major nuclear powers and the failure of existing treaties.

“It’s not the treaty we wanted, but it’s the treaty we deserve,” Jeffrey Lewis, Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Project at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said over the phone. “The U.S. and its allies refused to participate in this project. As a result, I think there are shortcomings to that agreement. The problem with the agreement is that it exists as an alternative to the non-proliferation treaty.”

Lewis said the treaty’s goals were noble and that he didn’t fault the U.N. for its shortcomings. “Look, we should ban nuclear weapons,” he said. “It’s not clear to me that this treaty, as it is written, represents a viable path to do that. I want to be clear that I’m not blaming the people who made the treaty. I’m blaming the U.S. and other nuclear powered nations who refused to participate.”

Still, it seems clear that the nuclear-armed nations have been put on notice by the new treaty.

“You can’t say the P5 [U.N. shorthand for the countries with officially declared nuclear weapons] is unbothered by the [new treaty]—the U.S. letter encouraging countries to withdraw from the treaty proves that’s not the case,” Jessica Sleight, Program Director of Global Zero—a nonprofit that advocates for a world without nukes—told Motherboard in an email.

While all nuclear powered nations boycotted the negotiations, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a Cold War era treaty aimed at dismantling nuclear weapons over time, is still in effect. The United States, Russia, the U.K., France, and China have all signed the NPT. 

“I do think the P5 needs to refrain from claims the treaty will undermine the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty regime. That doesn’t have to be the case. The P5 should take it as an additional prod to reignite arms control and disarmament efforts and make real actionable progress toward their Article VI commitments, the lack of progress of which is the real threat to the NPT,” Sleight said.

According to Sleight, the growing nuclear arms race between the U.S. and Russia demanded a new treaty. She pointed to the importance of the Iran Deal and New Start as critical to achieving widespread disarmament.

New START is an Obama-era deal between Russia and the United States aimed at limiting the amount of deployed warheads. It’s set to expire in February unless renewed, and negotiations haven’t been going well. Trump has said he wants China to be part of the negotiations. China has pointed out that it has roughly 300 nukes whereas Russia and the U.S. have more than 12,000 combined. Both Russia and the U.S. have teased the development of new types of nuclear weapons in the past few years

Lewis said that this new treaty is part of a growing divide he sees in the U.N. 

“It reflects a hardening of position, a growing sense among non nuclear weapon states—which I agree with—that the existing mechanisms are not working,” he said. “And a growing complacency on the part of the nuclear weapon states that they don’t have to take seriously their obligation to work towards disarmament.”

Knox agreed that the U.S., Russia, and others haven’t been acting in good faith when it comes to nuclear weapons. “Many non-nuclear states believe that the nuclear powers are not fulfilling their treaty obligation to pursue nuclear disarmament in good faith,” she said, adding that these tensions predate the nuclear ban movement

Sleight is more hopeful. “The [new treaty] is meant to close the legality gap, providing a prohibition of nuclear weapons based in humanitarian law,” she said. “While nuclear weapons will be illegal in the states that signed and ratified the treaty, there is a question over whether the treaty, especially in its nascent stage, is enough to make nuclear weapons illegal under customary international law. The requirements for such a distinction are murky, so it will be interesting to see how this plays out in the International Court of Justice.”

It will take years, and possibly trials in the International Court of Justice, to measure the impact of the treaty. But for survivors of nuclear weapons, the effect was immediate and clear. 

“When I learned that we reached our 50th ratification, I was not able to stand. I remained in my chair and put my head in my hands and I cried tears of joy,” Setsuko Thurlow, a survivor of the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima said in a press release. “I have committed my life to the abolition of nuclear weapons. I have nothing but gratitude for all who have worked for the success of our treaty.”

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Matthew Gault Jordan Pearson