As the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), popularly referred to as the Ban Treaty, opens for signature on 20 September 2017, it is most likely that it will garner the 50 endorsements that are necessary for its entry into force. After all, it was adopted in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on 7 July 2017 by a vote of 122 in favour with one against (Netherlands) and one abstention (Singapore). But having entered into force, would the treaty, as Ambassador Elayne Gomez of Costa Rica, president of the Conference negotiating the instrument said, bring the world “one step closer to the total elimination of nuclear weapons”? Will the treaty facilitate universal nuclear disarmament?
The answer, at this juncture, is not a clear yes since all nuclear weapon possessors have shunned the treaty. The US, UK and France have even described themselves as “persistent objectors” to the treaty, expressing that they do not “intend to sign, ratify, or even become party to it”. The three have accused the treaty of creating “even more divisions at a time when the world needs to remain united in the face of growing threats.” China and Russia too have voiced similar objections and rue the absence of a feasible, comprehensive, verifiable and enforceable nuclear disarmament regime.
Given this response of the nuclear weapon states (NWS), the ability of the treaty to further the cause of universal elimination of nuclear weapons is doubtful. The treaty prohibits development, testing, production, manufacture, acquisition, transfer, possession, stockpiling of nuclear weapons as well as their use or threat of use. But only the non-possessors seem to be accepting its mandate. For the states possessing nuclear weapons, it is fairly certain that the dawn of 21 September will be no different from those before. These countries have made it clear that they cannot yet visualise a world without nuclear deterrence. Rather, each one is engaged in updating, upgrading or modernising its nuclear arsenal in view of the growing rifts in their relationships – US-Russia; US-China; US-North Korea; Russia-France; China-India; India-Pakistan – none of the nuclear dyads is in a comfortably stable situation right now. The salience of nuclear weapons appears to be at an all-time high since the end of the Cold War. Who then amongst these is interested in the Ban Treaty?
Supporters of the treaty, however, emphasise that it would increase normative pressure on the NWS, especially in forums such as the NPT RevCon or at the UN High Level Conference on Nuclear Disarmament due in 2018. However, any such impact is yet to be seen. In fact, nearly all nuclear weapon possessors have pretty much bandied together in criticising the treaty for being low on details on how to bring about a real elimination of nuclear weapons. For instance, the treaty lays down that a NWS could join it so long as it agrees to remove its nuclear weapons “from operational status immediately and to destroy them in accordance with a legally binding, time-bound plan...for the verified and irreversible elimination of that State Party’s nuclear weapon-programme, including the elimination or irreversible conversion of all nuclear weapons related facilitates.” Legal eagles have already punched holes in these statements. How, they ask, does one define "operational status," "destruction of nuclear weapons," "legally binding, time bound plan of elimination," and who would determine and enforce it? For the NWS, these issues are of major concern. Given that these countries consider nuclear weapons as central to national security, it becomes difficult for them to envisage their elimination in the absence of definitely laid out processes and mechanisms that would enforce necessary verifications.
Non-nuclear weapon state (NNWS) supporters of the treaty respond to this criticism by saying that the treaty has only created a framework and that it should now be the task of the NWS to flesh in the details. However, at this juncture, none of the NWS appears in a mood to do so. In the immediate future then, it appears that the entry into force of the Ban Treaty will be hailed and celebrated by the scores of NNWS who voted for it at the UNGA as also the non-governmental organisations and civil society movements that put their weight behind it. Meanwhile, states with nuclear weapons and those under the nuclear umbrella are likely to ignore the development and carry on their business as usual for now.
The next RevCon in 2020, however, might be the first major battleground where the relationship between the NWS and NNWS and the normative strength of the Ban Treaty will be tested. The interaction between both sides on the matter to stop their divide from deepening and threatening the NPT will be something to watch out for. For the sake of stability and survival of the NPT, it is necessary that both sides find a way to work together on furthering nuclear disarmament. The significance of the Ban Treaty, the first multilaterally negotiated legally binding instrument with the objective of eliminating nuclear weapons, cannot and should not be discounted. However, the treaty would be able to live up to its promise only with the cooperation of the nuclear weapon possessing states.
Therefore, it is in the interest of the NNWS supporting the treaty to find ways of engaging with the NWS to gradually bring them on board. Meanwhile, if non-proliferation has to be sustained in the coming decades, the NWS must heed the concerns of the NNWS and discover pathways to a nuclear weapons-free world. The future depends on the sagacious and patient interaction of these two sets of states. Are they up to the task? More importantly, do they understand how important it is for them to bridge the divide? Otherwise, the Ban Treaty will be successful enough to enter into force, but end up banning the bomb for only those who anyway do not have them.