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Nuclear weapons ban treaty is now international law

January 26, 2021

by Arjun Makhijani

Today, January 22, 2021, is a historic day. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons enters into force, three months after the 50th country, Honduras, ratified it. Nuclear weapons are now illegal under international law in every aspect. Possession is illegal; manufacture is illegal; use is illegal; threatening to use is illegal; transfer is illegal; aiding and abetting any of these things is illegal.

I salute the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, where the idea for this treaty originated — though its antecedents go much farther back — to the 1990s, when many non-government organizations, including IPPNW, created a mock treaty to ban nuclear weapons. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was formed to bring the idea to fruition; it won the Nobel Peace Prize for doing so.

It is a comprehensive treaty; no nuclear weapon states have signed it. There are nine: the United States, Russia (the successor nuclear state of the Soviet Union), Britain, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea (though Israel does not confirm or deny possessing these weapons). The first five are parties to the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, whose Article VI requires them to negotiate “in good faith” to achieve nuclear disarmament. In the 1990s, the World Court interpreted this to mean actually achieving nuclear disarmament in all its aspects. Both the good faith and the achievement have been sorely lacking.

Avoiding further humanitarian catastrophes that the manufacture, testing, and use of nuclear weapons have already created are at the heart of the treaty; so, of course, is preventing the true apocalypse of a nuclear war. Countless families since the first chain reaction was achieved at the University of Chicago on December 2, 1942 have suffered. IPPNW and IEER documented those disasters, so far as public information would allow, in three volumes published in the 1990s: Radioactive Heaven and Earth on testing; Plutonium Deadly Gold of the Nuclear Age; and Nuclear Wastelands (published by MIT Press). Health and environmental harm was at the center of the first nuclear weapons treaty — the 1963 treaty that banned nuclear testing in the atmosphere, undersea, and in space. 

But much remains in obscurity. Radioactive waste problems continue to fester. The fact that uranium was mined in many non-nuclear weapons states, leaving behind ill-health and radioactive waste, has hardly registered on the global political scene. Nuclear testing was done largely on indigenous and colonial lands. At the 2014 conference in Vienna, one of three that led up to the treaty, I argued that every nuclear weapons state has first of all harmed its own people without informed consent. That fact remains almost as obscure as it was in July 1945, when the first nuclear weapons test lit the New Mexico sky with the most ominous light the world had seen to that point; worse was to come. Indeed, the families irradiated by the intense fallout from that “Trinity test” and their descendants, organized as the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, are still struggling for recognition and compensation.

In view of this history, it seems appropriate to ask the states parties to the TPNW to set up a Global Truth Commission on Nuclear Weapons under the auspices of the United Nations. Bringing to light the awful truths of the poisoning of the Earth and the lawlessness that has accompanied it (“A secret operation not subject to laws” one high U.S. government official said in 1989) may help being some justice to those who have suffered. At the same time, it may help mobilize the public in the nuclear weapons states and their allies — who live under a malignant “nuclear umbrella” whose use would destroy them and everyone else — to demand an end to something that has been immoral since its creation and is now also unequivocally illegal.

Arjun Makhijani is president of the Institute on Energy and Environmental Research (IEER). This article originally appeared on Arjun’s Science and Democracy Blog.

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