It's Time to Outlaw Nuclear Weapons

It's Time to Outlaw Nuclear Weapons

A treaty banning the bomb could lead to real progress.

Perhaps for the first time, the nuclear-weapon states are really afraid. Not because of their enemies’ nuclear weapons, let alone their own, but because of the likely start of multilateral negotiations for a nuclear-weapons ban. The odds are good that nuclear weapons will be declared illegal in the foreseeable future.

In fact, it is surprising that nuclear weapons are not yet declared illegal, just as chemical and biological weapons are. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the cornerstone of the nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament regime, only forbids the possession of nuclear weapons. The five nuclear-weapon states that acquired nuclear weapons before the entry into force of the NPT—the United States, Russia, the UK, France and China—were allowed to keep them. At the same time, they pledged to get rid of them. The problem is that this promise dates back to 1970 and there are still fifteen thousand nuclear weapons in the world, endangering every state, not just the few nuclear-weapon states.

Because of the relatively slow rate of nuclear reductions, and the stalemate of classic multilateral diplomacy like the UN Conference on Disarmament and the repeated failures of the NPT Review Conferences, a group of middle powers and NGOs (especially the International Red Cross and ICAN) launched the so-called Humanitarian Initiative. The goal of the Humanitarian Initiative is to change the existing narrative of nuclear deterrence, nuclear proliferation and more recently nuclear terrorism to the question of the humanitarian consequences that will ensue, for societies and individual human beings, if nuclear weapons are ever used again.

Over the last several years the Humanitarian Initiative has been successful in stirring up multilateral nuclear diplomacy: three international conferences were organized in 2013 and 2014, with an increasing number of states attending, and there is growing support at NPT “Prepcoms” and NPT Review Conferences, as well as at the UN General Assembly First Committee. Around 150 states have either supported the so-called Humanitarian Pledge (which was previously called the Austrian Pledge) or the UNGA First Committee resolution that resembles it. The pledge aims “to identify and pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.” In fact, most states in the world apart from the nuclear-weapon states and their allies have at least implicitly expressed their support for starting a process that will lead to a nuclear-weapons ban, something that was still regarded as utopian as recently as ten years ago. In 2016, the diplomatic focus will be on the UN Open-Ended Working Group , where the same issues will be discussed.

The Humanitarian Initiative has sparked new interest in nuclear disarmament within global civil society, including within the younger generation and in continents (like Africa) that were previously less involved in nuclear disarmament. The signing of a nuclear-weapons ban will empower civil society worldwide even more, accumulating the momentum required to tackle other challenges, such as climate change.


There are two major misunderstandings about the prospect of a nuclear-weapons ban. The first is about the scope of the treaty; the second is on the need for having the nuclear-weapon states on board. Some believe that a nuclear-weapons ban means the abolition of nuclear weapons. Others think that a hypothetical Nuclear-Weapons Ban Treaty would be the same thing as a treaty outlining the steps needed to abolish all nuclear weapons. Both are wrong. A Nuclear-Weapons Ban Treaty is a relatively minor step in the process of getting rid of nuclear weapons. The text of a Nuclear-Weapons Ban Treaty can and would be relatively short. The major goal of the treaty is to outlaw nuclear weapons, just as other weapons categories have been declared illegal before. To abolish nuclear weapons thereafter, two additional and more complicated steps are needed: first a Nuclear Weapons Convention (NWC), similar to the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972 and the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993. A NWC will outline the steps that are required to reach zero nuclear weapons worldwide, including a far-reaching verification and sanctions regime. The second and last step towards zero consists of all states’ implementation of the NWC, including all nuclear-weapon states. As long as some nuclear-weapon states object to the principles and timelines outlined in the NWC, a world without nuclear weapons will remain a pipe dream.

However, in comparison with the negotiation and implementation of a NWC, the negotiation of a nuclear-weapons ban is a piece of cake. Negotiating a multilateral nuclear-weapons ban, in fact, resembles the logic of the step-by-step approach that the nuclear-weapon states and their allies generally favor.

This brings us to the nuclear-weapon states’ allies. While it is perfectly understandable that the nuclear-weapon states do not favor a ban on nuclear weapons, this position does not hold for their allies. The latest NATO Strategic Concept , from 2010, no longer explicitly states that nuclear weapons are fundamental for the alliance’s security. Nevertheless, the non-nuclear-weapon states that are allied with a nuclear-weapon state (including all NATO member states, as well as Japan, South Korea and Australia) find themselves in a very awkward position. At first sight, they will have to choose between their membership in a nuclear alliance and their commitment to a world free of nuclear weapons. On the other hand, NATO's Strategic Concept includes the goal of a world without nuclear weapons and promises further nuclear-arms reductions. Being a member of NATO and signing up for a Nuclear-Weapons Ban Treaty is therefore not incompatible. It is not because NATO has stated that as long as there are nuclear weapons NATO will remain a nuclear alliance that individual member states cannot actively cooperate in helping to bring about a world without nuclear weapons. The Washington Treaty does not even mention nuclear weapons.