A survivor walks through the ruins of atomic-bombed Hiroshima in August 1945. Photo: AFP

Of all the weapons created throughout human history, nuclear weapons are the most destructive and indiscriminate. They are capable of causing enormous devastation involving “uniquely persistent, spreading, genetically damaging radioactive fallout.”

Whereas a single nuclear bomb detonated over a large city could kill millions of people, the deployment of tens or hundreds of them could disrupt the global climate, creating intolerable conditions for both humans and other species.

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, commonly known as the Non-Proliferation Treaty, was adopted in 1970 with the objectives of halting the adoption of these weapons and disarming those that already existed.

The NPT recognized five states as nuclear-weapon states (NWS). In order of acquisition, they are the United StatesRussia (successor to the Soviet Union), the United Kingdom, France and China. Ironically, these states are also the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

The NPT has had limited success in curtailing nuclear weapons’ proliferation and the motivation of states to acquire them. The five recognized NWS have also shown a reluctance to disarm.

Since the adoption of the NPT, three more states, India, Pakistan and North Korea, have conducted overt nuclear tests. North Korea, which had been a party to the NPT, withdrew in 2003, while Israel, which is known to have nuclear weapons, does not acknowledge it.

Together, according to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), these nine countries possess nearly 14,000 nuclear warheads, enough to destroy the planet many times over.

Five more states – Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey – also host US nuclear weapons. Twenty-six other countries “endorse” the possession and use of nuclear weapons on their behalf in accordance with defense alliances, including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

Despite the NPT’s calls for “a diminishing role” for nuclear weapons in security policies, the five declared NWS have maintained huge stockpiles, leading critics to question the legitimacy and enforcement capacity of the treaty.

US plans to develop new weapons, including anti-ballistic missiles, earth-penetrating “bunker busters” and new “small” bombs, have been of particular concern. Strongly anti-nuclear countries like New Zealand also see the NPT’s inability to subject Israel, India and Pakistan to the treaty’s restrictions as a major problem.

As geopolitical conflicts intensify, nuclear-weapon states continue to modernize and rearm their arsenals, while still other states, such as Iran, are believed to be developing nuclear weapons. The danger of a limited nuclear war, if not a full-scale one, in the near future is real.

Anti-nuclear movement

Among those leading the movement to ban nuclear weapons are the few remaining hibakusha, the victims of the US nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Setsuko Thurlow, who was a 13-year-old schoolgirl when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, is today a leader at ICAN in Geneva.

On October 6, 2017, ICAN was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its “ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons.” The landmark Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was adopted at the United Nations on July 7, 2017, with the support of 122 nations.

The TPNW (also known as the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty) is the first legally binding international agreement comprehensively to prohibit nuclear weapons and to seek their total elimination.

Article 1 of the treaty, on “Prohibitions,” states that each state party undertakes never under any circumstances to do the following:

  • Develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices;
  • Transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices directly or indirectly;
  • Receive the transfer of or control over nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices directly or indirectly;
  • Use or threaten to use nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices;
  • Assist, encourage or induce, in any way, anyone to engage in any activity prohibited to a State Party under this Treaty;
  • Seek or receive any assistance, in any way, from anyone to engage in any activity prohibited to a State Party under this Treaty;
  • Allow any stationing, installation or deployment of any nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices in its territory or at any place under its jurisdiction or control.

For the TPNW to come into effect, 50 countries must sign and ratify the treaty. As of October 23, 84 states had signed and 49 had ratified or acceded to it. Only one more state is needed to complete ratification. A mere 90 days after the 50th ratification, the TPNW will enter force as international law, binding on countries that have ratified it.

US opposition

Stating that it won’t sign the TPNW, US President Donald Trump’s administration continues to move away from international agreements to curtail nuclear weapons.

On August 2, 2019, the Trump administration officially withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the United States and Russia. As critics have pointed out, by withdrawing from the INF Treaty, the administration eliminated consequences for Moscow’s alleged non-compliance

The US and Russia are currently negotiating an extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the only remaining treaty placing limits and monitoring transparency on the growth of the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals. New START is set to expire on February 5, 2021. Whether the Trump administration will complete the extension before the November 3 US election remains uncertain.

Meanwhile, the United States is urging countries that have ratified the TPNW to withdraw their support as the pact nears the 50 ratifications. The TPNW’s supporters believe that the 50th ratification needed to bring it into effect could happen any time soon.

However, a recent letter sent by the Trump administration to signatories and obtained by The Associated Press states that the five original nuclear powers – the US, Russia, China, Britain and France – and America’s NATO allies “stand unified in our opposition to the potential repercussions” of the TPNW.

The letter also states that the TPNW is detrimental to the objectives of the NPT, claimed to be the cornerstone of global non-proliferation efforts. It further says to the countries that have ratified the TPNW: “Although we recognize your sovereign right to ratify or accede to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), we believe that you have made a strategic error and should withdraw your instrument of ratification or accession.”

Beatrice Fihn, executive director of ICAN, the sponsor of the TPNW, responded by saying, “That the Trump administration is pressuring countries to withdraw from a United Nations-backed disarmament treaty is an unprecedented action in international relations … shows how fearful they are of the treaty’s impact and growing support.”

There is no fundamental difference between the Democratic and Republican parties on US foreign policy and US militarism. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has affirmed support for continuation of US military and imperial agendas. However, it remains to be seen if a Biden administration would take a more favorable stance toward the TPNW, which is endorsed by the majority of countries in the world.

Collective power for peace

Small and medium-sized countries have joined the TPNW to avoid possible nuclear buildups and conflagrations on their soil. Indeed, the vast majority of countries that have ratified the TPNW thus far are small states struggling to maintain their neutrality and independence from powerful nuclear-armed states.

Take a country such as Sri Lanka, faced with simultaneous interventions by three nuclear-armed powers, China, the United States and India. The TPNW provides such beleaguered countries a means to assert their sovereignty vis-à-vis external powers that support neither the abolition of nuclear weapons nor the demilitarization of the world.

Nuclear weapons represent the myopic geopolitics of domination, subordination and annihilation. Wisdom, compassion and partnership are needed instead. Perhaps, with these values, Sri Lanka will accept the honor of being the 50th state to ratify TPNW and bring this historic treaty into effect.

Asoka Bandarage's latest book, Crisis in Sri Lanka and the World: Colonial and Neoliberal Origins: Ecological and Collective Alternatives, was released by De Gruyter Contemporary Social Sciences on May 22, 2023.