Marking the Progress of The Nuclear Ban Treaty

As far as the Nuke Ban Treaty is concerned the 22nd January is a day for a double celebration. On that day the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) enters into force as international law, binding those states that have ratified to abide by its articles. It’s a day to bang the drum, ring the bells, hang the banners, chalk the streets.

The other cause for celebration is the real progress of the Treaty itself. While awareness of the TPNW is very low in the UK, in the fresh air of the wider world things are shifting in the right direction. Here are just a few indicators of how positions are moving from initial disregard and criticism of the TPNW towards a level of recognition and acceptance. When the UN General Assembly got a further opportunity to endorse the Treaty on the 7th December last year it did so emphatically with 130 nations registering there continued support. There have also been nuanced but significant position changes by both China (itself a member of the nuclear Big Five) and Canada. On the 25th October a Tweet from the Chinese Mission to the UN ran: “China has always been advocating complete prohibition and thorough destruction of nuclear weapons, which is fundamentally in line with purposes of #TPNW. China will continuously make relentless efforts towards a nuclear-weapon-free world.” Cynical perhaps, but taken at its lowest it is still a recognition that to speak against the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons does not place you well in global opinion.

In 2017, Canada’s premier Justin Trudeaux called the Treaty “useless”, echoing the sneers that were current then from the US, France and the UK, and when it was adopted by the UN in July that year he said it was “premature”. There has been a small but meaningful shift. Following the 50th ratification of the Treaty in October last year Global Affairs Canada said: “We acknowledge the widespread frustration with the pace of global efforts toward nuclear disarmament, which clearly motivated the negotiation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of of Nuclear Weapons.”

The point here is that in a globalised world the big players, states, corporations and institutions, are concerned for their reputations. Japan, as a state theoretically sheltering under the US nuclear umbrella, refuses to sign the TPNW. Yet it is also a country which, uniquely, has suffered a nuclear attack and where 75% of the population want Japan to join the Treaty. Two of Japan’s biggest financial institutions have now begun to take account of the TPNW. Sumitomo Life Ins. Co., whose huge tower dominates the Shinjuku skyline, does not have guidelines on investing in nuclear weapons companies, but has recently said it will consider exercising restraint as investing in such companies would hurt its reputation once the nuclear ban treaty takes effect. The stance taken by the investment giant MUFG is less opportunistic and more ethically based. It will no longer invest in nuclear weapon production as it now classes them along with “other inhumane weapons”.

Another key sign is the failure of the US to stop the TPNW reaching entry into force. To date it has only just managed to keep its NATO clients in line but its attempt in October last year to prevent new states from ratifying, and to urge those who had already ratified to withdraw, was a complete and humiliating failure.

It is the emphasis on the inhumanity of nuclear weapons together with the hard reality of the risks of nuclear exchange that has been the key to the growing enhancement of the Treaty’s stature. The basic message is simple: nuclear weapons are horrific in their effects and the risk over time that they will be used is utterly intolerable. The petrol can sits on the edge of a shelf close to the open fire. The only solution is elimination.

Like the climate emergency nuclear weaponry is an existential threat to humanity and the planet. Beyond that there is a further parallel. Up to this point it is the possessors of nuclear weapons who have been able to have almost complete ownership of the disarmament agenda. The TPNW is a claim to shared ownership of the nightmare problem, since any nuclear exchange is a threat to us all, just as the Global South, already suffering the effects of climate change, is increasingly challenging the disproportionate carbon emitters of the rich nations. The pandemic is surely teaching us that on this wee, fragile planet we have to come together for solutions. The Nuke Ban Treaty is bang on that track.

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