The nuclear weapons ban treaty: Opportunities lost

Scott SaganBenjamin A. Valentino

On July 7, almost 72 years after the first atomic bomb was detonated in the New Mexico desert, 122 nations voted at the United Nations headquarters in New York to permanently ban nuclear weapons under international law. None of the nine states that possess nuclear weapons even attended the negotiations. The Netherlands was the sole NATO member to participate, and it cast the sole no vote. The ban treaty will be open for signatures from all UN member states beginning in September and will officially enter into force after 50 states have accepted it.

With not a single nuclear weapons state signing up as a member, even the treaty’s strongest proponents acknowledge that it is a largely an aspirational document designed to promote disarmament by delegitimizing nuclear weapons. “Weapons that are outlawed are increasingly seen as illegitimate, losing their political status and, along with it, the resources for their production, modernization, and retention” the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) has claimed. The treaty does not really “outlaw” or make nuclear weapons “illegal” under international law, however, because any state that is not a member of the treaty is not bound by its terms. Indeed, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom issued a joint statement following the vote: “We do not intend to sign, ratify or ever become party to it. Therefore, there will be no change in the legal obligations on our countries with respect to nuclear weapons. For example, we would not accept any claim that this treaty reflects or in any way contributes to the development of customary international law.”

The treaty, however, does stand as a symbol of missed opportunities. The energy, organization, and genuine passion that eventually resulted in the ban treaty were assets that might have been used to address dangerous realities about nuclear weapons that are too often ignored: the human costs of…

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