Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

Nuclear Weapon Treaties

Blog 196

The facts of this tentative treaty are readily available on Wikipedia Treaty

The Treaty was adopted by the UN General Assembly in July 2017 by a vote of 122 States in favour (with just the Netherlands voting against and Singapore abstaining.) 193 UN members would have been entitled to vote.  69 states did not vote. Apparently they did not wish to make a public spectacle of their choice to retain the ‘protection’ afforded by their possession of, or alliance with a possessor of nuclear weapons. As an indictment of humanity’s lax guardianship of the only planetary refuge it has, 36% of the nations of Earth preferred not to go on record as being opposed to nuclear weapons. Thus, these states clearly acquiesce in just nine (so far) nuclear-armed states retaining the option to ending the Anthropocene epoch at a few minutes’ notice.

The reality is even more depressing. Though 122 UN members voted for the treaty, only 83 have actually signed it. More depressing than that is that the treaty will not come into force until at least 50 of those signatories have ratified it. To date, only 44 have done so. Thus, it is less than 23% of the 193 sovereign states into which humanity is divided, that are prepared to go on record as willing to take concrete steps towards removing this single greatest threat to the continuance of human civilisation.

Even were the treaty to be ratified and come into force, it would achieve no more than the unambitious goals set out for it in the Wikipedia.

 “The nuclear-weapon-ban treaty, according to its proponents, will constitute an “unambiguous political commitment” to achieve and maintain a nuclear-weapon-free world….Proponents of the ban treaty believe that it will help “stigmatize” nuclear weapons, and serve as a “catalyst” for elimination.” In other words, even if ratified by all 123 original signatories, the Treaty will have no enforceable effect except as a moral reproach, or an encouraging example to those states still preferring to retain the protection of nuclear weapons.

The fundamental reason for this perilous situation is that the UN’s constitution has been deliberately designed not to guarantee collective security to all nations. The intention of the power-brokers at the 1945 San Francisco conference was always to preserve their sovereign power, as victors of WWII, to exert power over weaker states. Until all nations unite in solving this major problem with the UN constitution (in which some nations are more equal and some humans have more rights than others) they will remain in thrall to paranoid and opposing armed camps. Such camps are bound to each strive to permanently negate, or in America’s case, remove the threat posed by the continued existence of the other.

Familiarity breeds contempt and thus the vast majority of humanity has been lulled into not giving daily thought to this man-made threat hanging over their continued existence. Like the ostrich’s head in the sand, the insouciance of the majority does not make their lives any more secure. Everyone’s security is sacrificed to the limitless paranoia of the few and everyone’s livelihoods, to a minority’s grotesque expenditure on weaponry and mutual economic destruction.

At least the attempt at a treaty prohibiting the ownership and use of nuclear weapons is a step in the right direction. It allows the powerless the opportunity to point accusatory fingers at the leadership elites of pro-nuclear powers and ultimately (after the first military nuclear accident?) to alert and make vocal the protests of their compliant populations. If just another six signatories ratified and the treaty came into force, the hands on the Nuclear Clock might be pushed back by a second or two: if all signatories ratified, then the hands would be pushed even further back. With the stakes so high and the costs of signing apparently so low, why are so many states dallying?

Thanks to the Lange government’s courageous withdrawal from ANZUS, New Zealand still retains the reputation of being among the foremost of nations against nuclear weapons. Humanity demands that it should take responsibility and capitalise on this reputation by becoming much more proactive in the diplomatic arena.

There is a suggestion being advanced by World Without War (an international NGO with a New Zealand office) that NZ should establish a Ministry for Peace. This would be tasked with global advocacy for disarmament and for the collective global security that has to precede it. This would be a vast undertaking, ultimately involving a dramatic reform of the UN constitution.

Such a ministry is indeed a far cry from the NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. This ministry currently has official responsibility for disarmament and peace-making and was, no doubt deeply involved in NZ’s decision to sign and ratify the prohibition treaty. It also has in place a PACDAC committee that meets three times a year PACDAC

However, one cannot expect a Ministry primarily tasked with trade and industry, to devote significant resources and energy to questions of disarmament. Unless, among the multiple concerns of the office, New Zealand’s Foreign Minister of the time is also fired with enthusiasm for this particular cause, very little initiative can be expected. 

Given current alliances and budgetary constraints,  the formation of a new Ministry, uniquely concerned with matters of peace and disarmament, would be a huge leap for any government to take and would generate significant political opposition.  However, the matter could be approached incrementally.

A first step that could be taken is one which could achieve progress towards the ultimate objective out of all proportion to the minimal costs involved. This would be for NZ to appoint a Plenipotentiary for Peace. The initial task of that office would be to coax from state governments the six additional ratifications to the Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons that are required to bring the treaty into force (and thereafter, to add further signatures and ratifications.)

 Given that it would apparently cost so many states so little to both sign and ratify the treaty, why have only 22% of UN member states  managed to do so? I have attempted to answer that question with a very rough and ready analysis of the obstacles such a Plenipotentiary would face.

Firstly the Nuclear Armed nations: all have the money and technical capability to acquire nuclear weapons and all suffer from the paranoid and hard to justify belief that without nuclear weapons they would be attacked by others. In short, these nine states have acquired nuclear weapons because they see them as essential to their national security and will actively discourage any nation proposing to remove them. There are nine nuclear powers; UK, USA, France, Russia, China, N.Korea, Israel, India and Pakistan. Obviously, none of these signed the treaty prohibiting such weapons.

Then there are those twenty-seven states which, as members of a formal military alliance, NATO, believe they find security under other nations’ joint nuclear umbrella and that removal of that umbrella would place them in jeopardy. This group includes Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Montenegro, Netherlands, North Macedonia, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, and Turkey. Australia joins this group under ANZUS.

There are many other states which, though not formally allied, have informal arrangements with nuclear armed ‘protectors.’ The relationships might be either military, or economic in nature, and may, or may not be strong enough to be the reason that prevents the lesser power from signing the treaty for fear of giving offence to the greater.

American and British ‘protectorates’ in this category of approx. thirty-five states that have not signed the Prohibition Treaty include many officially classified as ‘NATO Allies’ and ‘NATO Partners.’ These thirty or so states include Colombia, Argentina, Morocco, Tunisia, Kuwait, Jordan, Bahrein, Taiwan, Switzerland, Finland, Sweden, Andorra, Liechtenstein, San Marino, Ukraine (NATO applicant) Moldavia, Georgia, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Cyprus, Malta, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, South Korea, and Japan. Others, not formally associated with NATO but with similar bonds of allegiance, are such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Singapore, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Oman, Yemen, Qatar, and the UAE.

There are nuclear armed ‘Protector’ powers other than the USA and UK.  France brings into the group francophone ex-colonies such as New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Equatorial Guinea, Bukino Faso, Gabon, Mauritania and Mauritius.  India exerts influence over Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka as does China over Mongolia and Russia over Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Belarus.

The above lists are not exhaustive and the reasons for their not having signed the Treaty are not necessarily due to pressure exerted by their ‘protector.’ There are thirty-eight states that signed but are yet to ratify: this too, in individual cases, might be due to pressure from one of the nuclear powers.

At a rough and unresearched guess, the following among the signatories who have not ratified may not have done so due to pressure from a nuclear France: Algeria, Benin, Ivory Coast, Cape Verde, Comoros, Guinea-Bissau: Brazil, Guatemala, Philippines are exposed to pressure from the USA: Myanmar, and Cambodia are close to China.

With an initial choice of lowest hanging fruit so restricted, where would New Zealand’s plenipotentiary start looking for countries on which to exert charm? Signatory states, which at first sight be more easily persuaded to ratify are:

  • In Africa:  Angola, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, Malawi, Madagascar
  • In the Americas: Jamaica, Peru
  • In Asia: Indonesia, Malaysia, Timor Este, Tuvalu

There are also Pacific Forum Members not listed under any of the headings above that have yet to sign: Cook Islands, Tonga, Nauru, PNG and the Solomon Islands. Forum members don’t lack examples of members, who have both signed and ratified: New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Kiribati, Vanuatu, Samoa and Fiji.

At the moment, the sovereign state system is in turmoil. The fact that a state seems deeply embedded in its decision to resist the Prohibition Treaty doesn’t mean that will always be the case. Circumstances are changing continuously, governments under both democratic and autocratic systems are equally conscious of public opinion. The far-sighted among their populations are already agitating for détente and disarmament. The short-sighted will join their clamour when the next accident, or close shave occurs – which it will.

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