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Sorting Out Important Nuclear Arms Treaties
Sorting Out Important Nuclear Arms Treaties

While there are a range of disarmament treaties that merit discussion, these are some recent ones mentioned in the news, explained here more fully for our readers’ clarification.

Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons

July 1st of this year marked the 50th anniversary of the 1968 opening for signature of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (the NPT). While there were five states possessing nuclear weapons at that time, the arms control negotiators had invested 10 years of work in developing this landmark international treaty whose objective is “to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, to promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament and general and complete disarmament.” Experts in the 1960s, observing the tensions which arose from the Cuban Missile Crisis, had warned the world that there could be 20 to 30 nations developing this weapon of mass destruction by the 1980s.

The NPT entered into force on March 5, 1970, with 43 States Parties, including three of the five nuclear-weapon States recognized by the NPT: the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States (China and France acceded to the treaty in 1992). Under Article III of the Treaty, non-nuclear-weapon states pledge to accept IAEA safeguards to verify (inspect) that their nuclear activities serve only peaceful purposes.

Map showing participation in the Non-Proliferation Treaty showing members in green or blue and countries that have not ratified in red.

Participation in the Non-Proliferation Treaty

Blue indicates nuclear-weapons states that have ratified or acceded to the NPT; Green indicates non-nuclear weapons states that have ratified or acceded to the NPT; Red & Orange indicate states that have not ratified (Red) or have withdrawn from (Orange) the Treaty.

The fact that 2018 has nine nations in the nuclear club points to the success of restricting such expansion - U.S. President John F. Kennedy predicted in 1963 that there would be between 15-25 nuclear weapons states within the next decade - and the reality that no nuclear weapon has been used since 1945, cements the NPT as the cornerstone of the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime.

From 43 States Parties in 1970, NPT membership has grown to 191 States Parties, making it the most widely adhered to arms control Treaty. Four states—India, Israel, Pakistan, and South Sudan—have never signed the treaty. India and Pakistan have publicly disclosed their nuclear weapon programs, and Israel has a long-standing policy of deliberate ambiguity with regards to its nuclear program. North Korea ratified the treaty on December 12, 1985, but gave notice of withdrawal from the treaty on January 10, 2003. At the time of this writing, it has not rejoined the treaty. 

A five-yearly review cycle consisting of three preparatory committee sessions and a review conference are held to discuss issues relating to the treaty and its implementation. At the most recent preparatory committee meeting held in May 2018, there was considerable discussion by non-nuclear weapon States over non-compliance by nuclear-weapon States with Article VI, which calls for efforts to be made toward eliminating their nuclear arsenals. See the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons below.

New START Treaty

While a range of international treaties on the issues of weapons of mass destruction (e.g. the Chemical Weapons Convention discussed in an earlier blog) have been created, there have been a range of bilateral agreements between Russia and the United States. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) entered into force in 1991, prompted by the end of the Cold War. In 2010, the United States and Russian Federation agreed to the most recent arms reduction treaty, the Treaty on Measures for Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms, the so-called “New START” treaty. Since 2010 this treaty successfully reduced the strategic nuclear forces of both countries. Mutual inspections under the treaty conducted by the countries themselves have promoted stability and reduced the danger of nuclear war between these countries. Limits were created by mutual agreement: 700 deployed intercontinental missiles (ICBMs), deployed submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and deployed heavy bombers; 1550 nuclear warheads on deployed ICBMs, and SLBMs; and 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers, and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments. To date, there have been 7 U.S. and 8 Russian total inspections conducted; 18 allowed by each and 11 (US) and 10 (Russian Federation) inspections remaining in this 8th year of the Treaty.

It is due to expire in 2021 unless extended. The Russian government has several times suggested starting negotiations for an extension, but the White House has yet to respond. As some of these prior bilateral agreements have had difficulty, it is hoped that efforts to extend this treaty will soon be made.

Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

This treaty was adopted on July 7, 2017 by 122 non-nuclear weapon States of the General Assembly of the United Nations to prohibit the developing, testing, use, threat of use, and possession of nuclear weapons (whether of their own making or of an ally), or assisting others to do the same, setting out a process by which states with such weapons can join and eliminate their arsenals. All nuclear-armed countries and their allies opposed this treaty at that time. This was apparent in the most recent meeting of the 2018 nuclear Non-Proliferation (NPT) Preparatory Committee (Prep Comm) in May mentioned earlier. Non-nuclear states were urging the nuclear states to show stronger enforcement of Article VI. 50 countries must ratify the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) for it to enter into force.

59 have signed the treaty. Each country must follow its own process for ratifying a treaty; the first step is to sign on to it. 48 countries have already done that. They include: Algeria, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Brazil, Cabo Verde, Central African Republic, Chile, Comoros, Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Dominican Republic, DRC Congo, Ecuador, El Salvador, Fiji, Gambia, Ghana, Guatemala, Honduras, Indonesia, Ireland, Jamaica, Kazakhstan, Kiribati, Laos, Libya, Liechtenstein, Madagascar, Malawi, Malaysia, Namibia, Nepal, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, San Marino, Sao Tome and Principe, South Africa, Togo, Tuvalu, Uruguay, and Vanuatu.

11 countries have ratified the Treaty: some on the first day to do so: The Holy See (see prior blog on their involvement), and Guyana. Others followed: Austria, Costa Rica, Cuba, Mexico, Palau, Palestine, Thailand, Venezuela, and Vietnam.

According to the June 2018 Reaching Critical Will E- News, updating the information above, the Parliament of Vanuatu voted unanimously to ratify the TPNW on June 3rd; Switzerland’s National Council, their lower house of parliament, called on the government to sign the treaty and submit it to parliament for ratification (to happen in the fall); the Dominican Republic signed the treaty on June 7th; and Uruguay’s lower house of parliament also approved ratification recently and the step that remains is executive approval. In celebrating the Treaty’s one-year anniversary this month, one can applaud the progress made on moving along to the date of entry into force.

Sculpture depicting St. George slaying the dragon. The dragon is created from fragments of Soviet SS-20 and United States Pershing nuclear missiles.

Sculpture depicting St. George slaying the dragon. The dragon is created from fragments of Soviet SS-20 and United States Pershing nuclear missiles.

About the Author

  • Joanne Dufour is a Volunteer for the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office completing a circle of connection with the office since 1968. She was introduced to it in her second year of teaching back then, maintained connections over the course of her career in education,...

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