The First Meeting of States Party to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) begins on Tuesday in Vienna. Back here in Scotland there is still only a very limited understanding of the huge significance of the meeting and the changing norm around nuclear weapons.

Four states which are members of NATO (Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium and Norway) have decided to be in attendance at the meeting with observer status. This is a big deal. Back in 2016 the US wrote to all the NATO states warning them not to have anything to do with the TPNW, acknowledging that if it was to adopted at the UN it would cause big problems for what the US calls its “extended deterrence”. In spite of this fierce hostility the Treaty was adopted by the UN in 2017 and entered into force in January 2021. It has has been signed by 80 states, ratified by 61 and regularly attracts the support of around 130 countries when it is discussed in the UN General Assembly. And now the fact that four NATO states have decided to defy the US veto underlines the fact that the Treaty is continuing to acquire status and credibility. Australia, which is seen as a country sheltering under the US “nuclear umbrella” has also decided to attend the meeting. And there are other signs that the Treaty is changing the norm around what is acceptable. A number of big financial institutions in Japan and Europe have changed their investment criteria to exclude the funding of nuclear weapon production and deployment, noting that these weapons must now be classed, along with chemical weapons, landmines and cluster munitions as utterly inhumane.

Elaine Whyte Gomez, who presided over the Treaty’s adoption negotiations has put it perfectly:

When you go back in history and analyze the way in which the international community has dealt with challenges over time, the first finding is that norms taketime to have an impact on behavior. Cases like the norms against slavery, discrimination, and colonialization strengthened over time.

Another point to consider is that, many times, interestingly enough, norms are adopted at a moment in which they counteract the prevailing views and the power structure of the time. So, the main contribution of the TPNW is to create a norm that triggers a new mindset and a new political momentum, as a mechanism and as a channel for the overall majority of the international community to express our view of the need for new thinking and action toward nuclear disarmament.”

Two features of the growing power of the Treaty stand out. One is the relentless focus on the nature of these weapons, their horrific and inhumane consequences and the threat they pose to the future of civilisation. The other is the recognition that nuclear disarmament is everyone’s business and that the agenda is no longer restricted to or controlled by the Big 5 nuke states or the nine states in all which possess them.

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