Nuclear Ban Treaty Seeks to Make an End Run Around Nuclear Powers

Once nuclear weapons are declared illegal, momentum may build toward their abolition. (Photo: Steve Jurveston / Wikimedia Commons)

Once nuclear weapons are declared illegal, momentum may build toward their abolition. (Photo: Steve Jurveston / Wikimedia Commons)

It might be news to you, but a treaty banning nuclear weapons is being negotiated. Wait — are nuclear-weapons states signing on? Of course not. Then what’s the point?

As the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), at the forefront of the movement, states in its presentation Ban Nuclear Weapons Now:

The prohibition of weapons typically precedes and stimulates their elimination, not the other way around.


Negotiations on a treaty banning nuclear weapons should be undertaken by committed nations even without the participation of those armed with nuclear weapons. The alternative is to continue allowing the nuclear-armed nations to control the process and perpetuate two-tier systems and treaty regimes that have no power to compel disarmament.

In other words, it’s not a top-down movement as most nuclear treaties have been. Nor is it exactly a bottom-up since it’s not a traditional mass movement movement with demonstrations. It kind of leapfrogged that stage and has gone straight to trying to shape policy by creating a treaty. From the presentation:

At the UN, three in four nations – including all of Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa – have supported the goal of prohibiting nuclear weapons. They must now translate this support for the goal of a ban into action to start negotiations on a treaty.

In December, the United Nations General Assembly established a working group, backed by 138 nations, to explore measures, presumably the treaty, to make nuclear weapons illegal. Its first meeting began at the end of January in Geneva In the Los Alamos Study Group blog Forget the Rest,* LASG Executive Director Greg Mello shares a letter he sent to the group (on the rare occasion that he wasn’t able to be present for such an event).

The nuclear weapon states believe their arsenals are fully legitimate – fully supported not just by international law but also by reason, morality, and their own governments’ responsibilities to prevent war. That is how they see it. Why should there be good faith negotiations to get rid of something as legitimate and important as nuclear weapons (in their view)?

… States can only accomplish this through law, conventional law, which is to say by a treaty that prohibits nuclear weapons. By definition, there is no other way.

… Without a treaty on the table, the various well-intentioned and indeed excellent statements by diplomats are really just opinions and postures.

… Nuclear weapons will be legal – de facto legal, and de jure legal as well as morally necessary in the eyes of those who possess them – until they are made illegal.

This work “has to be done by non-nuclear weapon states, not by nuclear weapon states,” which, of course, “will resist.” Next Mello explains how a ban treaty could actually result in nuclear-weapon states signing on. For example:

A growing ban would reach deep into the human conscience, affecting everything, including career decisions. It would affect corporate investments as well as congressional enthusiasm for the industry. I have spoken with nuclear weapons CEOs who know it is a “sunset” field with only tenuous support in the broader Pentagon, despite all the nuclear cheer-leading we see.

Especially because …

Modernization of the whole nuclear arsenal is very likely unaffordable, even assuming current economic conditions hold (they won’t).

“Beyond all this,” writes Mello …

I believe a ban would also help decrease popular support in the U.S. for war and war expenditures in general. Why? There is a tremendous war-weariness in the U.S., right alongside our (real, but also orchestrated) militarism. A growing ban on nuclear weapons would be a powerful signal to political candidates and organizations that it is politically permissible to turn away from militarism somewhat, that there is something wrong with the levels of destruction this country has amassed and brandished so wildly and with such deadly and chaotic effects.

Whether or not you believe in deterrence, it’s tough to argue with that.

*From the Russell-Einstein Manifesto issued by Bertrand Russell and signed by Albert Einstein, among others, to alert the world to the dangers of nuclear weapons: “We appeal, as human beings, to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.”