How Nuclear Weapons were Banned

As from now, nuclear weapons are illegal. Co-founder and first president of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) Rebecca Johnson explains how the movement to establish the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons came about, what it means, and what happens next.

As the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) becomes international law on 22 January, a new President, Joe Biden, and Vice-President, Kamala Harris, have just been inaugurated in the United States.  I celebrate both, in hope that in their different ways this ground-breaking humanitarian disarmament treaty and this new US administration will advance our collective and human security, wherever we live in the world.  But we should harbour no illusions about what this will take and the struggles ahead. 

The TPNW is part of a larger shift away from dominant security approaches that have long been based on force and power projection.  From 1945, after the first atomic weapons were used on the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons have dominated security discourses in the most heavily militarised nations, developed and promulgated by influential US military-industrial-bureaucratic-academic (MIBA) actors and establishments. 

MIBA networks dominated the technologies, doctrines and justifications for nuclear weapons to such an extent that these WMD were wrapped in peace and security rhetoric. And national security became increasingly framed in terms of nuclear possession, ‘strategic balance’, ‘nuclear security’ summits and projections of power and threats rebranded as ‘deterrence’.  Language is important, from sanitized euphemisms to the names given to missiles (‘Trident’, ‘Peacekeeper’), to the term ‘independent deterrent’.  The ‘bad actors’ have (or seek) nuclear weapons; we have an independent deterrent, which is much more civilised.  Try asking the question ‘does the deterrent deter?’

Nine nuclear armed states currently hold over 13,000 nuclear weapons.  Around 30 states, mostly in NATO, endorse nuclear policies that rely on threats by the US, Britain or France to use nuclear weapons, and some of these actively station US bombs and provide aircraft to carry and launch them.  Most if not all nuclear-armed and nuclear-endorsing countries hide behind national-military discourses that justify the possession of nuclear weapons as ‘deterrence’.  

The Humanitarian Initiative

The group that came together in 2007-10 to build the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) included doctors, feminist peace activists, and survivors – ‘hibakusha’ – of nuclear use and testing. We recognised that we would have to reframe prevailing national and international assumptions about power and security in order to marginalise, stigmatise and ban nuclear weapons.  So that’s what we set out to do.

We needed to convince ‘non-nuclear’ countries that they had rights and responsibilities to ban nuclear weapons, because the existence and use of such weapons of mass extinction threaten their security, wherever they live. Many governments were used to being treated as if their security depended only on the decision-making of the nuclear armed states in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime.

That changed as the humanitarian initiatives developed.  Through international conferences on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons from 2010 onwards, including UN mandated ‘open-ended working groups’ in Geneva, resolutions to the UN First Committee (on Disarmament and Security) and the UN General Assembly (UNGA), the negotiations were open to all governments ‘but blockable by none’.  Nuclear armed states that enjoyed a veto on many security issues found themselves unable to block any of the steps that led to the multilateral negotiations under UNGA rules in 2017.

The humanitarian framing of nuclear weapons changed the game from arms management, dominated by a club of weapons possessors, to abolition, in which nations and peoples combine and exert aggregate power and collective political will to prohibit the weapons and take away the desirability, value and status that for years had been attached to nuclear weapons by MIBA applying the techniques of advertising and marketing.

The Treaty  

When the TPNW was adopted on 7 July 2017, 122 states voted in favour, with one against (the Netherlands) and one abstention (Singapore). All states in the General Assembly Hall were also NPT states parties.  Prior to the TPNW, many had engaged with nuclear armed states on developing action plans and menus of steps. Some of these had even been adopted by some if not all nuclear armed governments. None had been implemented.  

The fundamental purpose of the Treaty is to prevent nuclear weapons being used again. This is framed in terms of nuclear risks, humanitarian impacts and the responsibilities of everyone to contribute to ‘the achievement and maintenance of a world free of nuclear weapons, including the irreversible, verifiable and transparent elimination of nuclear weapons.’ 

The preamble enshrines the humanitarian imperative for banning and eliminating nuclear weapons, highlighting ‘that the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons cannot be adequately addressed, transcend national borders, pose grave implications for human survival, the environment, socioeconomic development, the global economy, food security and the health of current and future generations, and have a disproportionate impact on women and girls, including as a result of ionizing radiation…’

Thus it was, that informed by the objectives of biodiversity, racial and sexual justice, mutual respect and cooperation to strengthen collective efforts for security, health and environmental remediation, the diverse people and organisations that came together in ICAN reframed the discourse on nuclear weapons.

We achieved the Treaty by bringing home what nuclear weapons do to real people – by all kinds of testimonies, in person, by video, pictures.  We put emphasis on the actual humanitarian impacts of nuclear possession, production, deployment and use, highlighting testimonies from survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings in 1945 and the indigenous communities that had been harmed by over 2,000 nuclear tests, which harmed people from the Pacific to the Arctic, the Sahara, downwinders and indigenous communities in the United States, Kazakhstan, Xinjiang, and not forgetting the Aboriginal communities of Australia which have been devastated by uranium mining and the UK’s infamous plutonium tests in the 1950s.

What, then, does the Treaty do?

In essence, the TPNW bans the main activities that enable and assist any country or individual to use, make or acquire nuclear weapons, and requires the total elimination of nuclear arsenals. 

The key prohibitions cover all activities that develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess, stockpile, use or threaten to use nuclear weapons, and makes it illegal to encourage, induce or assist anyone to commit these prohibited acts. Notably, these prohibitions apply to all states parties and ‘anyone’ under their jurisdiction or control, which is interpreted as meaning companies, organisations and individuals.

In requiring the ‘total elimination of nuclear weapons’, the TPNW provides basic obligations, principles and a choice of ‘join then eliminate’ or ‘eliminate then join’ pathways. These recognise that one size doesn’t fit all where nuclear arsenals, disarmament and verification are concerned. 

After entry into force, the next treaty stage is to decide on the decision-making rules and processes for the Meetings of States Parties to develop the necessary legal, technical and institutional capacities to oversee compliance and enforcement.  As well as verification and developing what the Treaty calls the ‘the competent international authority’, the TPNW creates positive obligations for environmental remediation and victim assistance. 

No-one is claiming that the TPNW is the final word on nuclear disarmament.  We see it as the vital next step towards freeing the world of nuclear weapons.  With it, we have better tools and stronger teeth to persuade the nuclear armed governments and their military allies that it is in their security interests to get rid of nuclear weapons and build sustainable human security rooted in International Humanitarian Law.


The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.


Image Credit: ICAN.

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: