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The Beginning of the End of the Nuclear Age

Eitan Barak
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Anti-nuclear activists stage a protest with 51 flags of countries that ratified the UN Treaty to Ban Nuclear Weapons in front of the Chancellery in Berlin, on January 22, 2021.
Anti-nuclear activists stage a protest with 51 flags of countries that ratified the UN Treaty to Ban Nuclear Weapons in front of the Chancellery in Berlin, on January 22, 2021.Credit: TOBIAS SCHWARZ / AFP
Eitan Barak

January 22, 2021 was an important date in international relations in general and in the realm of disarmament and arms control in particular: On that date, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons went into force. In addition to prohibiting the development, testing, manufacture, distribution, acquisition and stockpiling of nuclear weapons, the treaty requires its signatories to destroy any nuclear weapons in their possession and it strives for a world that’s free of nuclear weapons. In addition, signatories must provide aid to anyone affected by the use or testing of nuclear weapons, and to ameliorate any environmental damage caused as a result. On October 24, 2020 Honduras became the 50th country to ratify the treaty, which took effect in all countries that ratified it by that date, last Friday.

After the Biological Weapons Convention went into force in 1975, it took the international community 46 years to draw up the treaty that seeks to eliminate all nuclear weapons. The Chemical Weapons Convention took effect in 1997, a full 24 years after the biological weapons pact. Except for China, the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (Britain, France, Russia and the United States), which all have nuclear weapons, did everything they could to hold on to their stockpiles of the three categories of weapons that since 1948 have been defined as weapons of mass destruction – and they had their reasons. Both the unparalleled destructive force of nuclear weapons (Hiroshima, Nagasaki) and their deterrent effect have been proven. But despite various efforts, the power of civil society increased and with the assistance of supporting states the international community now has a treaty, specific to nuclear weapons, that aims to eliminate them.

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This treaty – the initiative of hundreds of organizations and individuals from around the world that united under the banner of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons – was ready to be signed in September 2017, after a difficult battle with the nuclear powers and their supporters, which as expected did everything possible to thwart it. No nuclear states took part in the conference that negotiated the terms of the accord, which took place at the United Nations in March and in June-July 2017.

Discussions on the treaty only began after a failed attempt by the United States to deny funding to the conference. The Netherlands, the only one of NATO’s then-29 member states to participate in the event, was also the only one of the 124 participating states to vote against the treaty. One country, Singapore, abstained. In an extraordinary gesture of protest, the U.S. and British ambassadors to the UN, as well as envoys from France, Albania and South Korea, stood outside the General Assembly on the first day of the talks, March 27, 2017.

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons was awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of its work. In protest, Britain, France and the United States sent deputy chiefs of missions rather than their ambassadors to the awards ceremony in Oslo.

The Trump administration went so far as to ask states that had already ratified the treaty to withdraw their support for what it called a “strategic error,” saying in a letter that the five original nuclear powers – the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France – “stand unified in our opposition to the potential repercussions” of the treaty, which the administration said would actually weaken the countries’ efforts to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Supporters of the pact believe that if anything can bolster global nuclear nonproliferation efforts it is the nuclear weapons treaty. In signing the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the nuclear powers undertook to give up their nuclear arms as soon as possible, but did not through. According to supporters of the new treaty, nuclear arms endanger humanity, are unnecessary and are a distraction from the main threats to global security such as the climate crisis and, now, the coronavirus pandemic.

It is obvious that no countries with nuclear weapons will join the treaty in the foreseeable future, and thus they are not legally bound to uphold its provisions. But the power of this accord supersedes its legal implications. As with the 1999 Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention and the 2010 Convention on Cluster Munitions, the main contribution of the nuclear weapons treaty will be its normative effect – its power to delegitimize the use of nuclear weapons.

Among the academic community it is commonly thought that drafting a treaty is an important stage, for example, in delegitimizing the use of the type of weapon it seeks to eliminate, in that it differentiates that type of weapon from ostensibly legitimate types of weapons. Nuclear weapons are in any event distinct from other categories due to the “tradition of nonuse” of them that has existed for more than 75 years, since the bombing of Hiroshima and of Nagasaki in August 1945.

Israel, along with 35 states that include the permanent members of the Security Council (excluding China), opposed the General Assembly resolution of December 2016 to begin discussions on the treaty, and did not take part in the conference in 2017. Israel sent its ambassador to the Nobel awards ceremony to avoid, as it said in an announcement, the appearance of engaging in a “political act.”

Israel is a supporting player in the epic battle between civil society and the nuclear powers. But it is worthwhile to follow developments that increase the importance of Israel’s integration into the region and the promotion of sustainable peace agreements with its neighbors. Not only will this nearly eliminate the possibility of the doomsday scenario that constitutes the background for developing the nuclear option (a scenario that senior researchers in any event doubted would come about), but it would also complement Israel’s “long corridor” policy – according to which its willingness to forgo the nuclear option as part of the disarmament of the Middle East is conditioned first and foremost on enduring peace accords with the countries of the region.

It’s possible that the dream of the treaty’s supporters will only come true in another 20 years or more, if at all. But the growing number of banks and funds – 36 as of May 2020, including Deutsche Bank and Norway’s sovereign wealth fund – that have pledged not to invest in companies involved in the manufacture of nuclear weapons gives one hope that it will take less time. In any even, the very fact of the treaty’s existence and its coming into force, despite the efforts of the nuclear powers, as well as the mounting economic pressures and increasingly positive attitude toward it in the international community in general and even by a few members of NATO in particular show that the forecast of Hiroshima survivor Setsuko Thurlow, an important activist in the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, should be taken seriously. Her prediction, repeated in her 2017 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, was: “Let this be the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons.”

Eitan Barak teaches in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s department of international relations.


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