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2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons: Answering Common Questions and Concerns

By Samantha Hussey

UN General Assembly First Committee meets to discuss the treaty on prohibiting nuclear weapons

The United Nations General Assembly First Committee meets to discuss the historic 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

In October 2016, the United Nations General Assembly voted to begin negotiations on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. This critically important treaty calls for a complete ban of the use, production, possession, testing, and transfer of nuclear weapons. The legally binding treaty received overwhelming support when 122 countries approved it in July 2017. As we head into September, the General Assembly will once again convene, but this time to sign the treaty. Once the treaty is signed by participating countries on September 20th, 50 states must ratify the treaty into national law. After ratification, the treaty will then enter into force and the world will become one step closer to the complete eradication of nuclear weapons. 

World map showing in blue countries that approved the nuclear ban treaty, and in gray the countries that did not vote.

The blue states on this map represent the 122 countries who approved this treaty while the gray states represent those who did not vote. (Image from NordNordWest)

While the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is a significant stride in the right direction, there are important countries that have chosen to abstain from this treaty. Some of these countries include the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, India, North Korea, Israel, and Pakistan. These nine countries also happen to have existing nuclear arms capabilities.

Despite the fact that these powerful countries are not yet committed to a nuclear-weapons ban, their decision does not take away from the treaty’s significance. Nearly two-thirds of the General Assembly came together in approval when discussing disarmament and non-proliferation. That is a rare occurrence and shows tremendous progress towards a complete ban on nuclear weapons.

Because this treaty is so monumental, there are many questions surrounding it. Below are just a few.

Q: Why does this treaty matter so much?

A: The 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons matters because it is the first treaty of its kind to call for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. While there have been many other multilateral treaties regarding disarmament and non-proliferation, the UN states that those treaties only sought “to reduce or eliminate certain categories of nuclear weapons [and] prevent the proliferation of such weapons and their delivery vehicles.” This particular treaty commits participating countries to a safer world. The process was also far more inclusive than typical UN treaty negotiations have been.

Q: Will a ban on nuclear weapons work if existing nuclear world powers won’t commit to it?

A: While nuclear-weapon-holding world powers may not immediately commit to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, it still gives them an option to join. The New York Times reports that “for nuclear-armed nations that choose to join, the treaty outlines a process for destroying stockpiles and enforcing the countries’ promise to remain free of nuclear weapons.” With overwhelming approval from the General Assembly for this treaty, supporters will also use the number of committed countries as a pressure point against world powers to progress toward total nuclear elimination.

Mushroom cloud seen after a nuclear test was carried out by France in 1970 on the island of Fangataufa

Nuclear test carried out by France on the French Polynesian island of Fangataufa in 1970. (Source: Planet Deadly)

Q: What makes this treaty different from past disarmament and non-proliferation treaties?

A: Besides the fact that this is the first treaty calling for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons, this treaty focuses more on humanitarian consequences as a result of the use and testing of nuclear weapons. Past treaties such as the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) focused more on strategic and military issues. Under article 6 of the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, it is stated that each signatory state shall comply with human rights law and provide any necessary assistance to victims such as medical care, psychological support, and social and economic inclusion. This treaty is also one of the first in history to discuss how women, girls, and indigenous people are disproportionately affected by nuclear weapon use and testing.

Q: How does this treaty relate to North Korea and the rising fear of a nuclear-weapon catastrophe?

A: When forming this treaty, members of the international community hoped, but did not expect North Korea, or any other nuclear-weapon-holding state to surrender its weapons. However, as mentioned above, the treaty does give nuclear-weapon-holding states an option to join participating member states in the future. With continued pressure, a nuclear-free world can be in our future. What is critically important right now is that countries, specifically the United States, continue to work towards a diplomatic approach to further deescalate tensions with North Korea, with both sides coming from a standpoint of cooperation.  In a statement from the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, Guy Quinlan suggests that “the international agreement with Iran could offer a useful model.”

Protesters outside the United Nations urging the General Assembly members to vote to "Ban the Bomb"

Protesters outside the United Nations urging General Assembly members to vote to ban the bomb.

Q: Will implementing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons prevent other states who have not signed the treaty from acquiring nuclear weapons?

A: With 122 countries participating in the ban on nuclear weapons, it will be much harder for non-signatory states to acquire or develop them. While there is a possibility of acquiring weapons from any nuclear-weapon-holding state such as Pakistan, Israel, or China, the 2017 treaty will certainly hinder and discourage such efforts while resulting in an overall rejection of nuclear weapons by many countries around the world. With the majority of the world implementing this treaty, it will strengthen overall disarmament and non-proliferation efforts for years to come.

In the future, there will surely be many more questions, and hopefully answers to come regarding this treaty. But for now, we look forward in anticipation as 122 countries come together to sign, and hopefully ratify the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

About the Author

Samantha Hussey

Samantha Hussey is an intern with the NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace, and Security (NGOCDPS) and is working closely with the Unitarian Universalist Association’s United Nations Office. She is also a student at the SUNY (State University of New York) Global Center studying Global &...


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