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Nuclear weapons abolition milestone is reached as ban treaty enters into force

January 21, 2021

The multinational Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons entered into force today, meaning that its prohibitions against developing, testing, producing, acquiring, possessing, stockpiling, and using or threatening to use nuclear weapons have now become part of the body of international law. Those prohibitions are binding on the 51 states that have joined the Treaty and on those that will join in the future. While the nuclear-armed states and their allies have so far resisted joining the TPNW, experience with similar treaties suggests that, over time, these prohibitions will increasingly influence the policies and practices of even the most recalcitrant governments, especially as the numbers of ratifications increase.

A coalition of the world’s largest health federations welcomed the TPNW’s entry into force with a joint statement hailing the Treaty as “an essential step towards preventing the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons and a big win for planetary health.”

IPPNW, along with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the World Medical Association (WMA), the International Council of Nurses (ICN), the World Federation of Public Health Associations (WFPHA), and the International Federation of Medical Student Associations (IFMSA), warned that “the danger of nuclear war is as great as it was during the Cold War and continues to grow.…Increasing armed conflict in a climate-stressed world increases the danger of nuclear war.…Climate research tells us that even a limited nuclear war, involving less than 2% of the global nuclear arsenal, would loft millions of tons of smoke from burning cities high into the atmosphere and spread worldwide, abruptly cooling the earth to ice age temperatures, causing global nuclear famine putting billions of people in jeopardy. 

“The TPNW provides a vital antidote and our best path forward. 

“Not only does the treaty provide a comprehensive and categorical prohibition of nuclear 

weapons, it also provides the first internationally agreed framework for a process by which all nations, with and without nuclear weapons, can fulfill their legal obligation to eliminate nuclear weapons.”

Panelists at the webinar marking the TPNW’s entry into force included (from top left) Tilman Ruff, IPPNW; Carlos Umaña, IPPNW; Erica Burton, ICN; Mahmood Al-Hamody, IFMSA; David Barbe, WMA; Bettina Borisch, WFPHA; and Veronique Christory, ICRC.

Leaders of all six federations spoke during a webinar held to mark the Treaty’s entry into force and the release of the joint statement. They noted their organizations’ long-standing policies condemning nuclear weapons, their participation in the UN negotiations that produced the TPNW in July 2017, and their intent to work together in the future to make the Treaty an effective tool for the elimination of nuclear weapons.

IPPNW co-president Tilman Ruff chaired the webinar, celebrating the fact that the Treaty makes the worst weapons of mass destruction not “only immoral but illegal.” He pointed out that, as an artifact of international time zones, the first places in the world where the TPNW officially entered into force were the Pacific island territories that were among the first victims of nuclear testing. 

Veronique Christory, ICRC’s senior arms control advisor and representative at the UN, after showing a short new video to mark the Treaty milestone, said “We owe the treaty to the survivors.” Calling on all world leaders “to act with courage and join the right side of history,” Ms. Christory said that the work to make the Treaty effective begins immediately, and that “what may seem unreality today can become reality tomorrow.”

Bettina Borisch, Executive Director of the WFPHA insisted that “weapons have nothing to do with good health, particularly nuclear weapons.” She observed that while the Covid-19 pandemic had placed enormous strains on the capacity of public health systems, in the event of a nuclear war the whole health care system would be destroyed. Ms. Borisch emphasized that advocacy and leadership for peace and justice have benefitted from the participation of women and that success in peace agreements increases when women are at the table and take an active role.

David Barbe, President of the WMA, noted the significance of the fact that “our groups can speak with one voice on the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons. We can hardly imagine an atrocity or crisis more devastating than a nuclear war,” he said. WMA policies recognize that even a limited nuclear war would have catastrophic effects, including on climate. Science has led the effort for this treaty. “As a physician, I know that the best treatment is always prevention.”

Mahmood Al-Hamody, the liaison officer for human rights and peace issues at IFMSA, talked about the crucial role of medical education in linking peace and security issues with public health. “Peace as a determinant of health is often neglected or under-calculated. Nuclear arms are a threat to peace,” he said. Noting that the health impacts of nuclear weapons extend beyond their actual use in nuclear war, he discussed the potential psychological and mental health effects, and agreed with the other panelists that “workers in the health field have a special responsibility to advocate for the elimination of these weapons before they can cause these catastrophic effects.”

Erica Burton, the senior advisor on nursing and health policy at ICN, said that her organization’s code of values requires nurses to eliminate all threats to life and health. Nurses have a duty, therefore, to advocate for the elimination of the threat posed by nuclear weapons. “Peace and security are fundamental to health and development,” she said. “Our position has been that the complete elimination of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons is necessary.” Ms. Burton also noted the disproportionate impact on certain population groups—women and girls and indigenous populations in particular. The Covid pandemic has shown how unprepared and short-staffed we really are for something on such a large scale; it would not even be possible to have the capacity to respond to nuclear war. The voices of nurses and other health professionals need to be included in other policy areas, including peace and security.

Carlos Umaña, IPPNW’s regional vice president for Latin America concluded the formal presentations by linking the two existential crises faced by humanity: climate change and nuclear weapons. Even a limited nuclear exchange would have dire climate effects; a major nuclear war would cause climate collapse “leading to the extinction of many species, perhaps even our own.” He called the TPNW “a triumph of international diplomacy,” born out of an evidence-based understanding that the nuclear weapons problem is global and that all countries are stakeholders, whether they have nuclear weapons or not. He added that shifts in international behavior are already noticeable as the treaty’s norms take effect, particularly among financial institutions that have started to divest from nuclear-weapons-related activities.

Dr. Ruff concluded the webinar with a reminder that the very first UN resolution called for nuclear disarmament 75 years ago, and that it was long past time to complete this urgent, unfinished business. “We should be encouraging all governments to send representatives to the first meeting of states, whether they have joined the treaty or not.” That meeting will be held within one year of today’s entry into force.

International health and humanitarian organizations welcome the entry into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

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