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Written by Katariina Simonen, LL.D., Senior Researcher and Pugwash Council Member.


In July 2017, the total of 122 member states to the United Nations (UN) voiced their support for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, or the Nuclear Ban Treaty. The Treaty will be open for signatures on September 20th, 2017. It will enter into force 90 days after 50 states have ratified it.

The treaty comprehensively prohibits every type of activity related to nuclear weapons or nuclear explosive devices. This ranges from development to possession, transfer or stationing on the territory of those states that have signed the treaty.

This last prohibition is tricky, as it illegalises the nuclear deterrence on which many states, such as NATO-member states, rely on for their defence. In fact, this was the reason the Netherlands, the only NATO-member having participated in the work on the treaty, felt obliged to vote against it.

The treaty itself has its roots in the frustration of most of the member states, a significant number of civil society organizations, the Red Cross, the Red Crescent and the Academia regarding the slow pace of nuclear disarmament, which has practically stalled nowadays. Nuclear weapons are back in states´ defence strategies and discourse, as latest exemplified by nuclear threats issued in the context of North Korea’s missile tests. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT, signed 1968), regardless of its comprehensive participation by 190 States, has not succeeded in enhancing disarmament significantly. Swedish Research Institute SIPRI´s World Nuclear Forces report from 2016 indicates clearly the lack of disarmament: most nuclear states, especially the US and Russia, have significant modernisation programmes underway; Pakistan is constantly producing fissile material for nuclear weapons and the initiative regarding the Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zones has stalled, mainly because of Israel.

In addition, the world´s attention has been excessively focused on Iran’s nuclear program and North Korea’s missile tests in a context in which nuclear States themselves are not disarming and possess over 15,000 nuclear weapons, of which over 4,000 are kept in immediate operational readiness for strike.

In these conditions it is no wonder that the majority of member states and other actors are frustrated. The approach chosen to advance disarmament became humanitarian: in 2013 and 2014 three major conferences were organised on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons caused by nuclear weapon explosions. Therein, the representatives of the Red Cross, who were the first in the field after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings in 1945, have attempted to convey the message that nuclear weapons are illegal from the point-of-view of international humanitarian law. It will not be possible to prevent the immense humanitarian, ecological and societal destruction resulting from a nuclear explosion. This work has served as a background for the present Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

However, a nuclear free world is not yet realistic. The US, together with the UK and France, have issued a statement in which they decline to sign the treaty. They consider the treaty flawed as it does not take security risks into account, which are covered by the nuclear deterrent (e.g. Russia, probably China, too). They also consider that the treaty is detrimental to the NPT. Undoubtedly, other nuclear weapon states concur with these arguments.

However, the concept of deterrence is at best a suicidal concept, if one departs from the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. For instance, a nuclear explosion of 200 Kt at NATO’s military base in Aviano in Italy (where most of the US nuclear weapons in Europe are stationed, in addition to the Incirlick base in Turkey) would lead to a radioactive fallout that within a few days would contaminate large parts of Europe. Deterrence becomes a deadly security concept. Secondly, the NPT’s non-proliferation dimension is not weakened but strengthened by states signing the Nuclear Ban Treaty. The NPT’s stance on disarmament is also stalling since the nuclear weapon states do not have any intention to disarm yet.

The proponents of the comprehensive ban of nuclear weapons aim to contest the legitimacy and, in time, the legality of nuclear weapons by changing public opinion. This is not going to be easy, but it is not impossible either. Prior treaties, like those on land mines, cluster munitions and biological and chemical weapons have managed to make these formerly accepted weapons illegitimate and illegal in the eyes of the world.

In the 1960s, Finland was actively working with Sweden to promote a comprehensive ban on nuclear weapons. Finland also participated in the work on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and has, in general, a long track-record of supporting the UN´s disarmament goals. Today, this has been forgotten and the justifications of nuclear weapon states are blindly accepted. Some officials even went so far as to compare the future Nuclear Ban Treaty to the first treaty on the prohibition of war, the Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928), considering both treaties as failures. The Kellogg-Briand Pact is the first universal treaty still in force, setting restraints on warfare and having contributed to the adoption of the UN Charter and especially its Article 2.4, which made illegal all unilateral uses of force.

If Finland supports disarmament in earnest, should it not participate in the work which aims to make nuclear weapons illegal, instead of supporting the position of nuclear weapon states?

The Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs is an organisation founded in 1995 by eminent scientists, like Albert Einstein, to promote disarmament, non-proliferation and peaceful conflict resolution. It is a network of scientists and high-level policymakers all over the world. Pugwash received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 for its efforts in creating the Convention for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Photo: Lehtikuva / AFP / Getty Images North America / Mark Wilson