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A controversial ban and the long game to delegitimize nuclear weapons via The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

Sharon Squassoni

Sometimes it pays to be in the room when your future is being negotiated, even if it includes a ban on your favorite weapons. This is what nuclear weapon states and their allies may find out by the end of this year or early in the next, when the nuclear weapons ban treaty approved in New York on July 7 is likely to enter into force.

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Supporters apparently are not deterred by the prospect that the treaty may be ignored by the countries that possess all the world’s nuclear weapons. After all, 70 years of hollow promises of nuclear disarmament have accustomed them to play the long game. They are gambling that the new treaty will lead to the erosion of legitimacy for nuclear weapons.

Contrary to all expectations, negotiators managed to avoid the worst pitfalls anticipated for the treaty. Before the talks, nuclear weapon states argued that a treaty would do more harm than good, eroding existing obligations within the nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation regime. They envisioned scenarios in which countries would join the ban, and either ignore the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or even withdraw from it. The approved text, however, explicitly calls for non-nuclear weapon states to adhere to their NPT safeguards obligations.

At the same time, the ban treaty does not allow nuclear weapon states off the hook (should they join) by assuming that their current voluntary safeguards agreements could work in a future nuclear-weapons-free world. Once their nuclear-weapons-free status is confirmed, they will be subject to the same rules and inspections that govern non-nuclear-weapon states now.

The treaty specifically calls upon the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to handle compliance for states without nuclear weapons, but it did not assign the IAEA the primary role in verifying the elimination of nuclear weapons and the irreversible conversion of nuclear weapons-related facilities in those countries that now have nuclear weapons. Instead, this role was given to a vaguely mysterious “competent international authority.” One imagines that the next 10 years could be spent figuring out how to set up such an authority to be competent without revealing security information that countries consider highly confidential. (A first task should be to jettison the unfortunate acronym CIA.)

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