More countries sign nuclear weapons prohibition treaty, call for more to commit

July 5, 2022
Nuclear weapons test
A nuclear weapons test at Bikini Atoll in 1954. Photo: ICAN/Flickr CC BY NC 2.0

A United Nations nuclear weapons ban meeting in Vienna, which concluded at the end of June  mapped out a plan for participating states to “free the world” of nuclear weapons.

The “Vienna Action Plan” was signed from this first Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). It requires participating states to “encourage” those who are not yet party to it to come on board.

The first treaty to ban nuclear weapons was established five years ago by 122 countries. The TPNW entered into force on January 22 last year and, by the end of the year, 12 more states had joined, or signed on: Central African Republic, Comoros, Cook Islands, Dominica, Libya, Maldives, Nauru, Nicaragua, Niger, Niue, Tuvalu and Zambia.

The trend is for smaller countries to sign on. The concern, however, is that nine nuclear weapons states — the United States, Russia, China, Britain, Israel, France, India, North Korea and Pakistan — have not.

The TPNW includes prohibitions on countries participating in any nuclear weapon activities, including undertaking “not to develop, test, produce, acquire, possess, stockpile, use or threaten to use nuclear weapons”. It also prohibits countries from deploying nuclear weapons on national territory and from providing assistance to any state to do any of these prohibited activities.

The Donald Trump administration urged countries to withdraw from the TPNW before it could be ratified, a process triggered by 50 countries signing up.

While Australia is not a signatory, the federal government sent MP Susan Templeman to observe and provide “insights”.

Templeman supports Australia signing, telling parliament last year that “The ambition for a world free of nuclear weapons is one that Labor shares”.

Labor’s national conference in 2018 agreed to sign and ratify the TPNW and that position was reaffirmed last year.

“Australia can and should lead international efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons, and we can do that by calling on all states that possess nuclear weapons to take measures to lower the chance of a nuclear war. That’s something we can be doing,” Templeman told parliament last year.

Polls show overwhelming opposition to nuclear weapons: an Ipsos poll in March found 86% strongly agree “it is unacceptable for nations to threaten each other with nuclear weapons” and 76% “strongly agreed/somewhat agreed” that Australia should sign and ratify the TPNW treaty.

Other observer nations to the Vienna meeting included NATO members Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium and new members Sweden and Finland.

Against the backdrop of Russia’s war on Ukraine and NATO’s military expansion and threats, the Vienna declaration underlined some timely imperatives.

It said “the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons” are “incompatible with respect for the right to life”.

It said that, far from preserving peace and security, “nuclear weapons are used as instruments of policy, linked to coercion, intimidation and heightening of tensions”. It said the “fallacy of nuclear deterrence doctrines”, based on the threat of the actual use of nuclear weapons “risks the destruction of countless lives, of societies, of nations, and of inflicting global catastrophic consequences”.

Further, it expressed concern that “nine countries still possess between them approximately 13,000 nuclear weapons” and that “many of these weapons are on high alert and ready to be launched within minutes”.

The United States has about 1644 active nuclear warheads and Russia about 1588.

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