By Jon Letman
Nuclear tensions and nuclear spending are on the rise, but the elevated danger of nuclear weapons is overshadowed as other urgent global threats from the COVID pandemic, climate and environmental emergencies, and other urgent crises dominate news headlines. The United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which entered into force in January, receives scant media attention, even as the United Nations prepares to mark September 26 as the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.
Unlike other nuclear treaties and agreements, the TPNW, or nuclear ban treaty as it is also known, prohibits all activity including development, testing, production, acquisition, possession, stockpiling, and the use or threat to use nuclear weapons. The treaty also has provisions to assist victims of nuclear weapons use or testing, and for environmental remediation.
Yuriy Kryvonos, director of UNRCPD, said nuclear-armed states often claim their arsenals serve as a deterrence tool. “Against whom [does] this deterrence tool exist? Against other nuclear-armed states.” The argument, he said, is “nonsense” because a nuclear war cannot be won; claiming protection from nuclear weapons is an illusion. Arguments that the TPNW undermines the NPT, Kryvonos insisted, do not hold water.
Support for the TPNW stems in part from the lack of progress after 50 years since the adoption of the NPT, as “nuclear weapon states have not participated in, or supported” negotiations on effective measures for nuclear disarmament, according to New Zealand’s Minister of Disarmament and Arms Control Phil Twyford.
“The nuclear weapons states have not kept their part of the deal,” Twyford told Truthout in a written exchange, adding, “frustration at this situation, and our desire to implement our own [NPT] obligations, was a key driver behind New Zealand’s support for the TPNW.”
The Republic of Ireland is one of five European state parties that have ratified the ban treaty. In an address on the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, Ireland’s minister for foreign affairs and defense, Simon Coveney, said, “I am proud that Ireland today ratifies the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” adding that the treaty “sets a global norm prohibiting all nuclear weapons.”
Nuclear disarmament, Coveney said, has long been a feature of Irish foreign policy, adding, “the only guarantee of protection from nuclear weapons use is their complete elimination.”
Few countries have suffered the effects of nuclear weapons as the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI). The 67 nuclear tests conducted between 1946-58 by the U.S. at Bikini and Enewetak atolls caused health, environmental, social and economic impacts that persist. Yet despite its leading role in negotiating the TPNW, the Micronesian nation has yet to ratify the treaty.
Speaking from New York, the Marshall Islands ambassador to the United Nations, Amatlain Kabua, asked how her country can ratify the treaty when nuclear nations are unwilling to engage. “How do we in good faith sign up [for] something that we don’t see any commitment from the countries that really are the powerful ones that should come to the table?”
“Those countries with the nuclear weapons, they now [do] not even show up for this kind of debate at the UN. They should be there so we can see what’s the importance of having all these weapons that kill humankind,” Kabua said.
While the RMI strongly supports the treaty’s ultimate goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons, she said, “it requires partnership and commitment, especially from those countries that possess nuclear weapons.”
Chief among RMI concerns is whether treaty ratification will force the Marshall Islands to accept sole responsibility for environmental remediation and assistance for the victims of U.S. nuclear tests. Additional questions remain about how ratification would affect a bilateral compact of free association (COFA) between the RMI and the U.S. The compact allows Marshallese citizens to live and work in the United States and also for the operation of a U.S. missile-testing range at Kwajalein Atoll. Under COFA, which was first negotiated in the 1980s, the U.S. tests nuclear capable intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) under a lease agreement through at least 2066 (with a 20-year option to extend).
The amount the U.S. pays local landowners (not the RMI government) to use the atoll is adjusted annually for inflation, with the U.S. paying over $22.6 million this year, according to the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Majuro. If the RMI were to ratify the ban treaty, continued ICBM testing at Kwajalein could raise questions of compliance, specifically under the Article 1 obligation to never “assist, encourage or induce” prohibited activity.
A 2018 study by the Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic examined compatibility of the TPNW with COFA and suggests the compact does not preclude the Marshall Islands from ratifying the ban treaty.
But asked if she sees treaty ratification posing a specific conflict with COFA, Kabua said, “Of course. Because we would like to extend hosting the base [at] Kwajalein and also our ability to come and live and work [in the U.S.] without a visa.”