On September 20th, 2017, presidents and prime ministers from around the world will be at the United Nations in New York to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. This is probably the most important news of the year, but you will not hear about it on TV or the radio. You will not read about it in the newspapers or in your favourite magazine.
More than 150 governments have indicated at one time or another their support for this treaty. It is a hugely significant treaty which outlaws, for the first time, the development, testing, production, manufacture, acquisition, possession or stockpiling of nuclear weapons. Parties to the treaty undertake never to use or the threaten the use of nuclear weapons; never to assist, encourage or induce any other country to do so; and never to allow the stationing, installation or deployment of nuclear weapons on their territory.
Of course there are countries who boycotted the international negotiations which created this treaty and who vow never to sign it. These include the nine nuclear weapon states plus most NATO and other nuclear allies of the US. However, many of these countries are under intense pressure to sign the treaty and renounce nuclear weapons once and for all.
NATO is by no means united on the issue of nuclear weapons. Canada, Greece and the UK used to host US nuclear weapons on their soil but no longer do so. Denmark, Norway and Spain prohibit the stationing of nuclear weapons on their soil in peacetime, while Iceland and Lithuania have constitutions which expressly forbid nuclear weapons on their soil at any time.
New Zealand, of course, famously refused to allow US nuclear ships to dock at its ports back in 1987 and has been leading the charge for nuclear disarmament ever since.
Netherlands, the one NATO country to take part in the treaty negotiations at the UN this year and then to vote against it, will be under huge public pressure in the coming weeks and months to sign this treaty. Their parliament has already voted to support the treaty, which is why the government was there at all.
Norway, another NATO member, actually initiated the international discussions in 2013 which eventually led to the present Treaty. They had a change of government in the meantime and withdrew from the process, but they could well have another change of government later this year…
Even some of the US’s closest allies, like Canada, UK, Germany and Japan, are likely to sign this treaty sooner or later. The Labour Party in the UK supports this treaty and could well be in government sooner than later if the present disarray over Brexit continues. Japan is under intense pressure from its own people to renounce nuclear weapons and sign the treaty.
And in Germany, anti-nuclear sentiments run as high as 93% of the population, according to a recent opinion poll. A German parliamentarian was at the UNnegotiations in July and assured the delegates there that Germany would, sooner or later, sign this treaty.
The truth is that even without the nuclear weapons states and other powerful countries signing this treaty, they are going to start feeling its impact. In a letter from the US to its NATO allies, urging them to boycott the treaty negotiations, there was concern that the ban treaty would ‘delegitimize’ nuclear deterrence, make it ‘impossible’ to undertake nuclear planning or training or nuclear-related transit, ‘preclude’ the US from using nuclear-capable delivery systems involving its allies.
Most importantly, this treaty could immediately affect the companies involved in the maintenance and upgrading of nuclear weapons. The nuclear weapons industry relies on manufacturers, natural resources and supply chains which extend far beyond the borders of the nuclear weapons states themselves. These companies have offices and industrial sites in many countries, and depend upon financial institutions and other infrastructure located even further afield. Companies and banks and suppliers are going to face the prospect of trading illegally in countries which do sign the treaty, and that in itself could shift the profitability and prospects of those engaging in nuclear activities.
So while the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons may not, in itself, get rid of a single nuclear weapon, its significance cannot be overestimated. It has taken the world 72 years to finally make an unequivocal and legally-binding treaty that puts nuclear weapons exactly where they belong – in the category of Weapon of Mass Destruction, along with chemical weapons and biological weapons, along with other weapons which cause indiscriminate and disproportionate death and suffering to civilians. These weapons have been universally condemned and banned as inhuman and unacceptable. Now, at last, the most inhuman and unacceptable of all weapons ever invented are now also banned.