Last week, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to a campaign group seeking a global ban on nuclear arms. The award to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) surprised many observers, particularly in a year when the architects of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran had been seen as favourites. The chair of the Norwegian Nobel committee, Berit Reiss-Andersen, said the award had been made in recognition of ICAN’s work “to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its groundbreaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons.”
The Nobel Committee is right to argue that today the risk of nuclear weapons being used is higher than it has been for a long time. The award comes in the context of growing tension — and risk of nuclear conflict — between the US and North Korea, as well as the increasing vulnerability of the Iran nuclear deal because of President Trump.
But the road from ICAN’s “groundbreaking efforts” to achieve a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons to actual nuclear disarmament remains long and uncertain. The UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), adopted by 122 nations this July and opened for signatures a few weeks ago, is laudable in its aim to rid the world of nukes. The treaty prohibits a full range of nuclear-weapon-related activities, such as undertaking to develop, test, produce, manufacture, acquire, possess, or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, as well as the use or threat of use of these weapons. If it were to be universally supported and systematically implemented, the treaty would indeed enhance global stability.
The problem is that, contrary to ICAN’s claim, the TPNW does not establish “a clear pathway to the total elimination” of the “worst weapons of mass destruction.” To begin with, none of the countries known or believed to possess nuclear weapons — the United States, Russia, Britain, China, France, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel — are on board. When negotiations concluded on 7 July, 122 states voted for the TPNW. But the Netherlands, the only NATO country to participate, voted against it. The treaty will go into effect once 50 nations ratify it, which could take years.
Most voting for the TPNW lack the capacity, or significant interest, in acquiring nuclear weapons. Furthermore, the language of the treaty is unhelpfully vague. Consider, for instance, the ambiguous mention that weapon-owning states shall co-operate with a “competent international authority or authorities to negotiate and verify the irreversible elimination of nuclear weapons programs.” A “State Party that owns, possesses or controls nuclear weapons … shall immediately remove them from operational status” and later “submit to the Secretary-General of the United Nations a declaration that it has fulfilled its obligations.”
The treaty uses the language of verification and invokes the IAEA, but the specific procedures by which nuclear possessor states would eliminate their weapons remain unclear. At present, the agreement lacks a reliable verification system and enforceable penalties for noncompliance, so it is hard to see how the world’s nuclear powers would agree to join it. This is particularly the case in today’s world, when some hydrogen bombs — to take just one example — are small enough to hide in an ordinary house or even apartment. Consequently, verification of their destruction, in the absence of a powerful, intrusive international system, would be impossible.
Following the adoption of the UN treaty, the delegations of the United States, United Kingdom, and France issued a joint press statement, stressing that they “have not taken part in the negotiation of the treaty… and do not intend to sign, ratify, or ever become party to it.” For its part, Russia reaffirmed its view that nuclear parity is central to international stability. And even if the established nuclear powers were persuaded to abandon their longstanding policy of nuclear deterrence and join TPNW — unlikely in the foreseeable future — the treaty would not eliminate the nuclear threat posed by a country like North Korea. Pyongyang is bent on accelerating its nuclear weapons program, and is also notorious for its long history of failing to fulfil commitments made to the international community. Even if it were to sign and ratify this treaty, there is no reason to believe that it would actually comply with its provisions.
To further complicate matters, the UN treaty does not address another type of nuclear peril: the danger of nuclear material “leaking” into the hands of non-state actors. In recent years, nuclear experts have expressed growing fear that extremist non-state actors may succeed in obtaining and potentially using nuclear devices in terrorist attacks — which would have catastrophic consequences.
In short, however admirable ICAN’s efforts to promote support for TPNW might be, they will not lead to a nuclear-free world anytime soon. Nuclear disarmament remains a noble long-term aspiration, but in the immediate future there are concrete steps that the international community can and should take to make our nuclear world less dangerous. These would include a stronger commitment by nuclear powers (particularly the US and Russia) to work together to decrease the numbers of deployed nuclear warheads and nuclear-capable vehicles.
It is also worth recalling that too many of the world’s nuclear weapons are currently on high alert, ready for use on short notice. Concerted action by the nuclear powers to decrease their level of alertness would help reduce the danger of a disastrous nuclear accident. In addition, closer co-operation between the US and China will be needed to stabilize the situation on the Korean peninsula. Also helpful would be stronger international collaboration to better secure all sensitive nuclear materials, reducing the risk that it might fall into the wrong hands — including those of violent non-state actors.
If the choice of the Nobel committee leads to renewed focus on nuclear issues and progress in reducing the danger of nuclear accidents and conflicts, it will have achieved something worth celebrating.