Nuclear weapons states and their allies risk reputational ruin if they flout a new UN Treaty, Carolina Panico argues

The United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will come into force this month, on January 22, 2021, turning nuclear weapons into illegal objects.

It is an achievement that will be celebrated worldwide. Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, has referred to it as “the culmination of a worldwide movement to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons”.

The last three years have been intense for disarmers, who have waited anxiously for the ratification from 50 nations that was required for the Treaty (TPNW) to enter into force. Every new ratification was celebrated with great joy and welcomed by the international community as the right thing to do.

Honduras submitted an instrument of ratification on October 24, 2020, which meant the Treaty reached the “magic 50”, the critical milestone which would move the world closer to reaching the nuclear-zero goal.

The TPNW, of which New Zealand is a signatory and key supporter, is a comprehensive prohibition Treaty; it forbids any nuclear weapon-related activity and establishes rules on victim assistance and environmental remediation.

Despite the euphoria, however, questions remain about whether the TPNW will be strong enough to create real change. The fact that the big nuclear powers, which include the US, China, Russia, France, the UK and their allies, are unlikely to join, calls into question its effectiveness and supporters’ optimism.

But the fact is the absence of nuclear weapons states does not undermine the Treaty’s significance. Although it will not immediately abolish nuclear weapons, in time the TPNW will contribute to a sea change in the way they are viewed.

From January 22, nuclear weapons will be illegal under the provisions of international law, placing a heavy load on the shoulders of those who have defended the wonders of nuclear deterrence. Like it or not, the nuclear weapons states and their allies will have two choices ahead of them; either stand with the good international citizens, where the supporters of the rules-based order ought to be, or stand against the rule of law and risk damaging their reputation.

The hope is that the power and weight of international law will pressure nuclear supporters into thinking differently about the bomb.

International law has a social significance which compels actors to behave in a certain way. Compliance is aligned with socially determined standards of appropriateness and for most countries, following the rule of law is an ultimate duty. Being on the right side suits their image, it’s a powerful motive which supports decision-making.

We have already seen that, as a result of the landmines and cluster munitions prohibitions, the US, while not even a signatory of the treaties, has significantly reduced the use, acquisition and production of these weapons and many manufacturers have stopped producing them altogether. Orbital ATK, for example, a former cluster munition producer based in the US, has noted that “cluster munitions have no place in the arsenal of modern armies”.

Similar reasoning applies to nuclear weapons. Expectations are that those private actors who fund the weapons, and those states which possess or support the bomb, will not want to be international lawbreakers, with their name and reputation ruined by this burden.

Ultimately, what is at stake is a shift in mindset; what before was the currency of power, will soon become illegal, and thus a symbol of inadequacy.

So now the Treaty is set to enter into force, the hope is that the power and weight of international law will pressure nuclear supporters into thinking differently about the bomb.

For too long, these weapons have been considered a symbol of power and modernity and states that had them enjoyed great privilege and influence in international politics. They were the world’s self-appointed ‘responsible policeman’ who would threaten the use of nuclear weapons for the sake of the global security.

But now the taint of illegality will put the bomb in the same category of previously banned weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical and biological weapons. From now on, disarmers hope the nuclear bomb will finally be seen for what it has always been; a scourge on humanity.

Carolina P. Panico is a PhD student in Politics and International Relations in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Auckland.

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