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The beginning of the end for nuclear weapons

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“I have been waiting for this day for seven decades and I am overjoyed that it has finally arrived,” said Hiroshima survivor Setsuko Thurlow in July, when a new treaty banning nuclear weapons was agreed at the United Nations in New York. “This is the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons.”

However agreeing on a new treaty is only the first step towards a treaty becoming valid international law. As of Wednesday 20th September, governments can take the next step and officially sign the Treaty on the Prohibition on Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Once a country signs, it needs to have it adopted as national law to ratify it. And 50 countries need to do this before this treaty becomes agreed international law.

Governments that sign and ratify the treaty have real obligations. They commit to: “never under any circumstances … develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices … (or) use or threaten to use nuclear weapons.”

The treaty also prohibits states from allowing any stationing, installation or deployment of any nuclear weapons in their territory. (You can read the full text here.)

There is already overwhelming support for this treaty.

122 countries supported it back in July. Many of these countries are expected to sign and ratify it in the coming weeks and months.

This is a good start. But it is not enough.

Sadly, the world of nuclear weapons is an extremely unequal one. Just nine states in the world own nuclear weapons: the USA, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, India, North Korea, Pakistan and Israel.

There are five more states that host U.S. nuclear weapons as part of NATO’s nuclear sharing policy: Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands and Turkey. These countries and all the other NATO countries, with the exception of the Netherlands, boycotted the negotiations of the new treaty. The Netherlands attended the negotiations but voted against it.

They all remain adamant that they will not sign the treaty. The US has also been using its considerable influence to pressure other countries not to support it.

This is significant; unless a country ratifies the treaty, it is not bound by it.

Nuclear Security Summit Protest in Washington D.C, April 2016.

Although this is a reality, it is certainly no reason to despair, quite the contrary. September 20th marks a new era and, indeed, the beginning of the end for nuclear weapons.

Each state that does sign and ratify this treaty will contribute to strengthening its impact in global politics, and help delegitimize the role of weapons of mass destruction in security policies.

It may even influence military practices in states that do not initially sign the treaty. It will make it  harder for their proponents to describe nuclear weapons as a legitimate and useful means to provide security. It creates a — long overdue — global norm against nuclear weapons.

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,” Gandhi allegedly said.

Even a year ago, the idea of a treaty banning nuclear weapons supported by a majority of countries in the world, negotiated in a record time of only four weeks, would have seemed like a dream — laughable to many.

But it was achieved. Countries that are often sidelined when global security is discussed have stuck together, and, supported by civil society, made this a reality.

The many states that have supported this treaty so far, and those that will sign up to it in the coming weeks and months, make a clear point on behalf of their citizens and on behalf of millions around the world.

We do not allow the few to define security for all. Nuclear weapons are not a path towards peace and security. In the year where nuclear war has once again became thinkable to some, there is no better time to denounce these evil weapons.

September 21st marks the International Day of Peace. There can be no better commitment to peace than to join this treaty. We must all call on our governments to do so.

What can you do?

Write to your representatives/member of parliament and ask them support the treaty – clear instructions from ICAN here.

Sign this petition by ICAN, asking your UN representatives to sign the treaty.  

Jen Maman is the Senior Peace Adviser at Greenpeace International


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