Russia’s continued invasion into Ukraine has brought the conversation regarding nuclear disarmament into the public consciousness once again. As Putin’s unhindered invasion has proven that nuclear weapons do not serve as a deterrent for war, and instead serve as a deterrent for counter-actions, people are more willing to reconsider their perspectives on the value that nuclear arsenals bring. 

Enter, Vienna: the host city of the first Meeting of States Parties (MSP) to the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). At the end of June hundreds of diplomats, civil society activists, and parliamentarians will convene to partake in a week’s worth of forums, discussions, and diplomatic engagements, which will culminate in the three-day Meeting of States Parties that will attempt to hammer out the details regarding the implementation of the TPNW, which entered into force in January of 2021. 

The TPNW has been ratified by 61 states, and only representatives from signatories will be able to participate in the MSP, with members from all other states invited to engage as observers. Unsurprisingly, no nuclear-weapon states have expressed intent to attend the MSP or any lateral events, preferring to take a hardline stance against the TPNW in favour of its predecessor, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT, as its name suggests, does not prohibit nor seek to abolish nuclear weapons, but instead seeks to ensure their non-proliferation. Nuclear-weapons states have had no trouble working within (and often flouting) the parameters of the NPT to continue advancing their nuclear arsenals. 

The reason why nuclear-weapons states are resisting the TPNW is the same reason why so many others are for it: it focuses on the humanitarian catastrophe that using nuclear weapons will create, in lieu of prioritising the national security advantages that having nuclear weapons supposedly affords. This prioritisation of humanitarianism is a cornerstone of the TPNW and the upcoming MSP, and is entirely needed to advance the cause for global nuclear weapon abolition. Due to pandemic postponements, the MSP now precedes August’s quinquennial Review Conference for the NPT, meaning that the humanitarians have the opportunity to set the tone of nuclear discourse for the coming period. 

And as we remain confronted by the Russian war crimes being committed, a humanitarian tone is exactly what’s needed. The rhetoric that nuclear weapons make the world safer is being challenged. Clearly, the world isn’t safer because the most powerful nations in the world have the ability to trigger a nuclear holocaust. The humanitarians are acting with this in mind. 

Vienna thus serves as an opportunity for participating states to rally together and exhibit strength under their common humanitarian agenda. The nuclear-weapons states will remain steadfast in their opposition only until they see a strategic benefit in participating with the MSPs to set the agenda on their terms, mirroring their acquiescence with the NPT in its early years. Looking forward, it’s likely that China will be the first nuclear-weapons state to come to this conclusion, following their pattern of establishing strong diplomatic presences at all international conferences to reinforce their global power.

When the time for nuclear-weapons state participation in the TPNW comes, the humanitarian agenda will already be set. June’s MSP in Vienna will create perennial changes to the future of disarmament diplomacy, slipping control out of the grasp of the superpowers and into the hands of those fighting for global security. These changes, however, will not mean much without everyone coming to the table. Whilst the humanitarians have considerable momentum, don’t expect a miracle. 

Written by Christina Kelly