Campaigners say it’s a historic step, while critics insist it’s nothing more than symbolic. Foreign Editor David Pratt weighs up the significance of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons
It has become the symbolic timepiece that measures humanity’s proximity to Armageddon.
It was almost exactly a year ago now that Rachel Bronson, CEO of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (BAS), lifted a black cloth on the annual Doomsday Clock to reveal that its hands rested at 100 seconds to midnight.
Never since the clock’s first appearance in 1947 during the Cold War has it come so close to the supposed doomsday annihilation represented by the 12am hour.
According to BAS, the bringing forward of the clock’s hands to its most alarming closeness ever to that fatal time was made due to nuclear proliferation, failure to tackle climate change and cyber-based disinformation.
“Danger is high, and the margin for error is low,” Bronson announced on behalf of the science and security board of an organisation that has 13 Nobel laureates among its members and was originally founded by those scientists who worked on the atomic bomb-building Manhattan Project during the Second World War.
Last year’s alarming moving of the clock forward came, of course, only just before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic that for most of us has since had something of a doomsday feel about it. Right now, fear over the coronavirus remains uppermost in our minds.
But even before the onset of the virus the fear of nuclear war already felt like a distant memory. Such threats seemed synonymous with a bygone age, a time of superpower confrontation, the frosty and volatile relations of the Cold War and the likes of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.
But far from fading into the past, the threat from the existence of nuclear weapons has only become more pressing in recent years. For not only has their proliferation continued with new and even more powerful arsenals being produced, but ever-more countries have sought and obtained such a devastating capacity while efforts to halt such acquisitions appeared on the face of it to have been neglected or abandoned.
Just one such example of this grinding down of global nuclear controls was how the 1987 intermediate nuclear forces treaty (INF) of 1987 was allowed to expire in 2019 as Russia and the US exchanged accusations over breaches in the agreement.
Likewise, the new strategic arms reduction treaty (START) between the same two nations, which limits each country to no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed missiles and bombers, is due to expire on February 5 though efforts are under way to try to extend this for another five years.
But before those of you reading this stop doing so for fear of overloading with negative news, let me assure you that on Friday there was, for a change, a positive global development as the first-ever treaty to ban nuclear weapons entered into force.
Hailed as a historic step, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) is now part of international law, culminating a decades-long campaign aimed at preventing a repetition of the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War.
“I am pleased to recognise today’s entry into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the first multilateral nuclear disarmament treaty in more than two decades,” announced UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in a statement.
“The treaty is an important step towards the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons and a strong demonstration of support for multilateral approaches to nuclear disarmament,” Guterres added.
It would be a mistake to underestimate the significance of this treaty – the first of its kind in 50 years – completing as it does a set of international bans on all major weapons considered unacceptable because of their indiscriminate and inhumane effects. As well as nuclear weapons these include biological and chemical weapons, cluster munitions and anti-personnel mines.
It was back in 2017 that the accord was approved initially by 122 nations at the UN General Assembly, but it was civil society groups led by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) which had put in the “decades of activism” to secure the number of countries required to make the treaty a reality.
ICAN was to win the Nobel Peace Prize for its work back in 2017 but it was only in October last year when Honduras signed up, securing the 50th ratification necessary, that the treaty was able to enter into force on January 22.
The detail of the TPNW is worth examining and on the face of it the terms under which it was drawn up are impressive. To begin with, it requires that all ratifying countries “never under any circumstances … develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices”.
It also bans any transfer or use of nuclear weapons or nuclear explosive devices – and the threat to use such weapons – and requires parties to promote the treaty to other countries.
The treaty also mandates assistance, such as medical care, rehabilitation and psychological support to all victims under the signatory nations’ jurisdiction. It, in turn, obliges them to clear areas known to be contaminated by nuclear use or testing.
So far, fine, and to most of us it might seem incomprehensible that any nation or political leader would stand in the way of a treaty that seeks to be progressive and prevent the potential obliteration of humanity. Among the countries that ratified the treaty were New Zealand, Ireland, Mexico, South Africa, Nigeria, Malta, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and the Vatican City.
But as history has persistently shown there has never been a shortage of those for whom the existence or “need” for nuclear weapons has been a prerequisite. Even as the TPNW was approaching the 50 ratifications needed to generate its entry into force, the US administration of former president Donald Trump was lobbying countries that signed the treaty insisting in a letter that they had made “a strategic error” and urging them to rescind their ratification.
The treaty “turns back the clock on verification and disarmament”, the US administration letter stressed and would endanger the half-century-old Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), considered by many the cornerstone of non-proliferation efforts.
The Trump presidency has, of course, now ended, and doubtless there was a collective sigh of relief in many quarters when the nuclear football, also known as “the biscuit” – a briefcase carried by US officials whenever the commander-in-chief travels – was transferred from Trump to his successor Joe Biden on inauguration day last week.
But even with Trump’s departure from the global leadership scene there remains no shortage of those unwilling to sign up to the treaty and it’s likely Biden, as new US president, will be no exception.
The whole issue of possessing nuclear weapons has always been contentious and provoked strong emotional and political responses – the entry into force of the TPNW has similarly stirred up controversy.
“Advocates expect an acceleration of the climb to the summit of Mountain Global Zero. Opponents repeat that the nuclear-armed states will never sign the Treaty,” observed Tom Sauer, professor in international politics at the Universiteit Antwerpen in Belgium, writing recently on the website of the European Leadership Network (ELN), a think tank that examines security challenges.
As Sauer rightly pointed out, sceptics insist fanfare over the treaty remains meaningless when so far none of the nine countries known or believed to possess nuclear weapons – the US, Russia, UK, China, France, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel – supported it and neither did the 30-nation Nato alliance.
These nine nuclear-armed states around the world have more than 13,000 nuclear bombs with command-and-control networks vulnerable to human error and cyberattacks. The power of many of those warheads now vastly supersedes those dropped in the 1945 bombs that killed more than 100,000 people in Japan, the world’s only country to suffer nuclear attacks.
Curiously, Japan also does not support the treaty, even though the ageing survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings strongly campaigned for it to do so.
While Tokyo on its own renounces use and possession of nuclear weapons, the Japanese government has said pursuing a treaty ban is not realistic with nuclear and non-nuclear states so sharply divided over it.
Nowhere, though, is opposition to the treaty more obvious than at Nato which has always insisted that as long as nuclear weapons exist, it will remain a nuclear alliance.
Jens Stoltenberg, the alliance’s secretary general, is only one of numerous influential figures who have been explicit in their criticism of the TPNW. Speaking as early as last November he said the treaty disregarded the realities of global security.
“Giving up our deterrent without any guarantees that others will do the same is a dangerous option,” insisted Stoltenberg. “A world where Russia, China, North Korea and others have nuclear weapons, but Nato does not, is not a safer world,” Stoltenberg stressed.
Even a cursory glance across news headlines these past weeks might be enough to convince doubters of Nato’s positioning that Stoltenberg has a point.
In North Korea, Kim Jong-un has signalled plans to develop new nuclear weapons and described the US as North Korea’s “biggest enemy” in moves that threaten to raise tensions with new US president Biden.
“Our external political activities going forward should be focused on suppressing and subduing the US, the basic obstacle, biggest enemy against our revolutionary development,” Kim said, according to a translation by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.
Meanwhile, French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said recently in an interview that Iran is in the process of building up its nuclear weapons capacity and it is urgent that Tehran and Washington return to a 2015 nuclear agreement.
But even if both sides were to return to the deal it would not be enough, Reuters news agency reported Le Drian as saying.
“Tough discussions will be needed over ballistic proliferation and Iran’s destabilisation of its neighbours in the region,” Le Drian insisted.
Critics of the TPNW say that it is precisely such threats that make the treaty’s evolution from banning nuclear weapons to their complete banishment or elimination a fanciful notion and not grounded in the realpolitik of global security.
If the nuclear armed and allied countries don’t join the treaty, they are not bound by it, the same sceptics argue. Those who have worked long and hard to make the treaty happen, however, are the first to admit that its entry into force is only one step if nevertheless a very significant and concrete one.
“What the treaty does not do, quite obviously, is magically eliminate the world’s current nuclear arsenal. Indeed, it would be naive to expect the TPNW to deliver a world without nuclear weapons tomorrow,” admits Robert Mardini, director-general of the International Committee of the Red Cross. “The new treaty should instead be viewed as the moral and legal starting point for a long-term effort to achieve nuclear disarmament. We must now work to ensure the broadest possible adherence to the treaty’s prohibitions,” Mardini emphasised.
Others echo such views. Speaking recently to the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, Leo Hoffmann-Axthelm, ICAN’s representative in Brussels, said that from now on there would be “much more pressure on nuclear powers to finally make good on their old promises to disarm.”
Those like Hoffmann-Axthelm, who have actively campaigned on a more political footing, say those states that are already signatories to the TPNW could make a significant impact on the remaining nuclear-armed states by banning the transit of nuclear weapons in their territorial land, sea and airspace.
While the UK remains outside the TPNW, such a suggestion will doubtless still resonate among activists here as it will in other countries still not signed up. Only recently, according to a report by anti-nuclear weapons campaigners at Nukewatch in Scotland, as many as 22 nuclear warheads were transported from England to Scotland in eight road convoys during 2020 despite coronavirus restrictions.
Last year, it was Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland – a country that has ratified the TPNW – who, during the unveiling ceremony of the Doomsday Clock, described it as “a striking metaphor for the precarious state of the world, but most frighteningly, it’s a metaphor backed by rigorous scientific scrutiny”.
That scientific scrutiny has already revealed to humanity the destructive potential of nuclear weapons. Equally it has just presented humanity with a constructive way out of our current calamity brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Science or politics – it’s all about choices, good or bad. Perhaps, therein, lies a lesson for all of us.