Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons 2017

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treaty on prohibition of nuclear weapons

First Anniversary of the Adoption of the Text of the Treaty

By Dr Bahram Ghiassee

Seventh of July is the first anniversary of the adoption of the text of the ‘Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons’ by the UN General Assembly, on 7 July 2017.

The Treaty bans a wide spectrum of nuclear-weapon-related activities, including, inter alia, measures to develop, test, produce, manufacture, acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.  The Treaty, also, prohibits the use or threat of use of such weapons.

The Treaty was constituted to address and, in due course, remedy the lack of credible progress on nuclear disarmament by the Nuclear-Weapon States, and the stalemate which has persisted in multilateral disarmament fora established by the international community.

The Treaty, as a multilateral legal instrument, thus aims to promote international peace and security, and to strengthen the international legal frameworks governing Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Disarmament.  It is the outcome of the efforts by the international community in addressing the significant risk posed by the continued existence of nuclear weapons, and the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences of their testing and use.

The text of the Treaty was adopted by a vote of 122 in favour to one against (Netherlands), and with one abstention (Singapore) – the culmination of a diplomatic process spanning over seven decades.  The UN General Assembly, in its first resolution, on 24 January 1946, adopted measures for the ‘Establishment of a Commission to Deal with the Problem Raised by the Discovery of Atomic Energy’, and called for ‘the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction.’  Every year, since 1946, the General Assembly has adopted resolutions on disarmament and non-proliferation by a majority vote or by consensus.

The Treaty, which opened for signature at the UN Headquarters in New York on 20 September 2017, shall enter into force 90 days after the deposition of the 50th instrument of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession.  It is a brief 10-page document, containing 20 Articles, the substantive provisions of which are enshrined in Articles 1 (Prohibitions); 2 (Declarations); 3 (IAEA Safeguards); 5 (National Implementation); 6 (Victim Assistance and Environmental Remediation); and 7 (International Cooperation and Assistance).

The Treaty is highly anthropocentric in its approach and scope, reflecting the international community’s concern with the humanitarian dimension of nuclear weapons, and the risks  associated with such weapons. This is in line with the ‘Final Document’ of the 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which notes ‘the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons’.

The Treaty was adopted following the conclusion of three conferences on the ‘Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons’ in Norway (Oslo, March 2013), Mexico (Nayarit, February 2014) and Austria (Vienna, December 2014).  The Vienna Conference was attended, inter alia, by 158 States, international organisations from the UN system, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, and representatives of civil society.

The Treaty also addresses the grave environmental consequences of use and testing of nuclear weapons, albeit to a limited extent.  In the Preamble, it notes that ‘the catastrophic  consequences of nuclear weapons cannot be addressed, transcend national borders, pose grave implications for human survival, … .’  Environmental remediation of contaminated areas is addressed under Article 6(2), and ‘international cooperation and assistance’ for the purpose of environmental remediation is stipulated under Article 7(6).

The Civil Society has been instrumental in their constructive contribution to the development of the text of the Treaty, and its adoption in July 2017.  The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was awarded the Noble Peace Prize, in December 2017, in recognition of their work ‘to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons’ and their ‘ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons’.  ICAN, a coalition of 468 NGOs in 101 countries across the globe, promotes adherence to the Treaty and its implementation.

The Treaty, under Article 1, prohibits, inter alia, the development, testing, production, manufacturing, acquisition, possession, stationing, deployment, stockpiling or use of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.  Obligations in relation to ‘National Implementation’ are stipulated in Article 5. Under Article 6(a), States Parties are obliged to provide assistance to those under its jurisdiction who are affected by the use or testing of nuclear weapons, and, under 6(b), to take ‘necessary and appropriate measures’ towards the ‘environmental remediation’ of contaminated areas.  International cooperation and assistance is the subject of Article 7, which stipulates, inter alia, that assistance shall be provided by a States Party in a position to do so for the victims of use or testing of nuclear weapons and other nuclear explosive devices (7(4)), and through the UN system, NGOs, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, or on a bilateral basis (7(5)).  Article 7 also imposes specific obligations on a State Party which has used or tested nuclear weapons and other nuclear explosive devices to provide adequate assistance to affected States Parties for the purpose of victim assistance and environmental remediation of contaminated areas (7(6)).

Noting the significant environmental and humanitarian impact of the production and testing of nuclear weapons, and the catastrophic consequences of the use of nuclear weapons, the Treaty, once in force, may prove instrumental in the realisation of the policy objectives of the international community – States and Non-State Actors – in elimination of the environmental and humanitarian risks associated with the production, testing and use of nuclear weapons.  The Treaty shall enter into force upon ratification by 50 States.  To date, 59 States have signed the Treaty, and 11 have deposited their instrument of ratification.  It is anticipated that the Treaty will be operational in the next few years, noting that 122 States approved the Text of the Treaty, adopted on 7 July 2017.  Notwithstanding, some States may require assistance in ratifying or acceding to the Treaty, and some may also require legislative drafting assistance and advice for its implementation.  Moreover, Civil Society organisations, who played a major role in the development and adoption of the Treaty, may require advice in promoting adherence to and implementation of the Treaty.

GSDM would be delighted to offer its technical and legal advice to international organisations and Civil Society, and to assist States Parties in meeting their international legal obligations in relation to the ‘National Implementation’ of the Treaty.

Dr Bahram Ghiassee is a Principal Associate at GSDM, and holds dual qualifications in Nuclear Science & Technology and International Law.

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