In 2017, the United Nations General Assembly convened a conference to consider a treaty on a complete ban on nuclear weapons — including their manufacture, possession, use, transfer, and testing. On July 7, 2017, 122 countries voted to adopt the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, with one abstention and one vote against. The treaty required 50 countries to ratify it to enter into force. That target was reached on October 24, 2020, when Honduras ratified the treaty; it was just a single day after Jamaica and Nauru had done so.
On January 22, 2021 — 90 days after the fiftieth ratification — the nuclear ban treaty will enter into force. From that day onwards, all aspects of nuclear weapons will be illegal under international law. Nuclear weapons will join the other infamous weapons of mass destruction — chemical and biological weapons — as being illegal. One of the most salient aspects of the nuclear weapons ban treaty is that its motivating factors included not only “the catastrophic humanitarian consequences that would result from any use of nuclear weapons,” but also the vast and lasting damage to human health and the environment caused by nuclear weapons production and testing, with disproportionate impacts on women and children.
Nuclear weapons, the treaty says “…pose grave implications for human survival, the environment, socioeconomic development, the global economy, food security and the health of current and future generations, and have a disproportionate impact on women and girls, including as a result of ionizing radiation.” It also notes the devastating impact that nuclear weapons testing has had on indigenous peoples.
I am happy to report that IEER’s work had a role in some aspects of the treaty, notably regarding the humanitarian aspects of their production and testing. Our partnership with the 1985 Nobel-Prize winner International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) in the late 1980s and the 1990s resulted in three detailed books on the health and environmental impacts of nuclear weapons production and testing. Two of them, Radioactive Heaven and Earth (1991), on testing and Plutonium: Deadly Gold of the Nuclear Age (1992) can be downloaded free. The third, Nuclear Wastelands: A Global Guide to Nuclear Weapons Production and Its Health and Environmental Effects (1995) was published by MIT Press. IPPNW was the organization that initiated the International Campaign to Ban Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) in 2006, which led to the treaty and a Nobel Peace Prize for ICAN.
IEER was also present at the official December 2014 conference in Vienna, Austria, on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons production and testing, where I made a presentation “Assessing the Harm from Nuclear Weapons Production and Testing”; I also made a presentation at the 2017 conference when 122 countries voted for the final treaty text.
IEER has also played a leading role in calling attention to the disproportionate impact of ionizing radiation on children, with greater impact on female children, and on women. Our 2006 report, Science for the Vulnerable, was the first to explore in these impacts detail, in part based on the scientific findings to that effect of the U.S. National Academies and the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Our work in this area continues.
Not a single nuclear weapon state signed the treaty in 2017. That remains the case to this day. Yet, there is a proverbial silver lining to that dark cloud. The treaty text was determined essentially by countries who do not have nuclear weapons and don’t want them. That has given us a clean treaty text; it bans all aspects of nuclear weapons, period. Had there been a treaty done by the nuclear weapon states it would likely be weak, or full of loopholes, or both. The 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which has been ratified by the first five nuclear weapon states, contains a commitment, in Article VI, to negotiate nuclear disarmament in “good faith” — a commodity that has been in especially short supply. It was largely on the expectation that nuclear weapon states would disarm that the other parties agreed not to acquire nuclear weapons. The failure of nuclear weapon states, the five who have ratified the NPT and the four who have not, to chart a clear path to complete nuclear weapons elimination was one of motivating forces for the creation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
On January 22, 2021, nuclear weapons will be illegal under international law. There will remain the large task of charting a path to give practical effect to that law. In my view, it will be the same path that will also produce a more peaceful, equitable, and democratic world on a much broader front. Nuclear weapons are, after all, the most violent and inequitable expression of much broader violence, inequity, and ecological destruction in the world. IEER spelled out some elements of that in 1998 in articles on achieving enduring elimination of nuclear weapons in a special issue of our newsletter , Science for Democratic Action. It is noteworthy then, that many of the countries that have ratified the treaty and have led the way to making nuclear weapons illegal are also among the ones most threatened by the devastation of climate disruption due to human activities.