Home > 2021 > The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) will come into (...)

Mainstream, VOL LIX No 5, New Delhi, January 16, 2021

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) will come into force in January 2021 | Siby K. Joseph

Friday 15 January 2021

by Siby K. Joseph

It is an irony of history that a person who invented dynamite in 1867 and other terribly dangerous explosives later became a champion for promoting peace. It is the story of the Swedish scientist, Alfred Nobel, a scientist turned arms dealer who owned more than 90 factories manufacturing explosives and ammunition, when he passed away in 1896 in San Remo, Italy. [1] If he had not instituted in his will the idea of Nobel Prize and decided to use his dynamite fortune for the cause of peace, his label in history would be different. It remains as a fact that he had kept a long distance from the ideas of peace maintained by international peace activists. It is evident from the letter he wrote to Bertha von Suttner, authoress of the famous anti-war novel Lay down Your Arms in 1891 “Perhaps my factories will put an end to war sooner than your congresses: on the day that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilised nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops." [2] Further, he said “Let the sword of Damocles hang over every head, gentlemen, and you will witness a miracle—all war will stop short instantly if the weapon is bacteriology.” [3] From these statements, it is clear that he held the view that weapons and explosives have a deterring effect on war or it could be called as the Balance of Terror theory. Thus it gives us an impression that he was not a pacifist or a humanitarian to create an endowment for the prestigious Nobel prizes.

Then what prompted Alfred Nobel to change his earlier will and include the well-known prize formulation in his last will signed on November 27, 1895? It clearly states “to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses." One of the reasons may be his association with Bertha von Suttner. Another one is an incident in which Alfred Nobel himself had the opportunity to read his own obituary by mistake in a newspaper. In 1888, his brother Ludvig passed away. A French journalist mistakenly believed that it was Alfred who passed away and wrote the headline: “Le marchand de la mort est mort”—The merchant of death is dead. This incident deeply affected him and he began to reflect on his contribution towards humanity. In his revised final will and testament, he had dedicated his vast amount of wealth for the creation of a new prize to reward persons who made remarkable contributions that would greatly benefit mankind. As a result the five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee was established on 5 August 1897, after the Parliament of Norway accepted the duty to award the Nobel Peace Prize as stated in the will of Alfred Nobel.

The Nobel Peace Prize for the year 2017 was awarded to International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) "for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons". [4] The Norwegian Nobel Committee in its press release dated 6 October 2017 announcing the decision to award to ICAN wrote:

“We live in a world where the risk of nuclear weapons being used is greater than it has been for a long time. Some states are modernizing their nuclear arsenals, and there is a real danger that more countries will try to procure nuclear weapons, as exemplified by North Korea. Nuclear weapons pose a constant threat to humanity and all life on earth. Through binding international agreements, the international community has previously adopted prohibitions against land mines, cluster munitions and biological and chemical weapons. Nuclear weapons are even more destructive, but have not yet been made the object of a similar international legal prohibition. ....

The Norwegian Nobel Committee is aware that an international legal prohibition will not in itself eliminate a single nuclear weapon, and that so far neither the states that already have nuclear weapons nor their closest allies support the nuclear weapon ban treaty. The Committee wishes to emphasize that the next steps towards attaining a world free of nuclear weapons must involve the nuclear-armed states. This year’s Peace Prize is therefore also a call upon these states to initiate serious negotiations with a view to the gradual, balanced and carefully monitored elimination of the almost 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world. Five of the states that currently have nuclear weapons — the USA, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and China — have already committed to this objective through their accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons of 1970. The Non-Proliferation Treaty will remain the primary international legal instrument for promoting nuclear disarmament and preventing the further spread of such weapons.

It is now 71 years since the UN General Assembly, in its very first resolution, advocated the importance of nuclear disarmament and a nuclear weapon-free world. With this year’s award, the Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to pay tribute to ICAN for giving new momentum to the efforts to achieve this goal.” [5]

Further it states that ICAN fulfills all the three criteria mentioned in the Alfred Nobel’s will. The Norwegian Nobel Committee by conferring ICAN the Nobel Peace Prize for the year 2017 gave a big boost to the signing of the historic Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. It was on 20th September 2017 more than 50 countries signed the landmark Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in New York on the eve of annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly. In the high-level ceremony at the United Nations headquarters, the document was first signed by President of Brazil, Michel Temer. The ceremony was attended by several heads of state and dozens of foreign ministers, including Austria, Ireland and Cuba.

ICAN played an important role in the whole process. The conferring the prize to ICAN gave clear messages to those countries possessing nuclear weapons that world peace and nuclear cannot go hand in hand. We can think about peace only in a world without nuclear weapons. It was the end result of a long process of different resolutions and negotiations within the UN system. The resolutions of General Assembly 67/56 of 3 December 2012, 68/46 of 5 December 2013, 69/41 of 2 December 2014 70/33 of 7 December 2015 and 71/258 23 December 2016 on taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations for the achievement and maintenance of a world without nuclear weapons are the landmarks in the whole process.

It is significant that this historic treaty was signed 72 years after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings during the Second World War. The bomb dropped at the Hiroshima was nicknamed ’little boy’. According to one estimate, it killed 1, 30,000 people. On the 9th August the US dropped a second one called Fat man on Nagasaki killing 70,000 people. It is reported that 200,000 still suffer due to the ill effects of radiation.
On 6th August 2017 more than 50,000 people, including survivors of the atomic bomb attack, their descendants, peace activists and representatives from about 80 countries, assembled at the Peace Memorial Park in the city of Hiroshima to commemorate 72nd anniversary of the atomic bombing in 1945 during the Second World War. On the Hiroshima day, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons urged all nations to commit to signing the Nuclear weapons Ban Treaty.

It is pertinent to note that nuclear weapons were the only weapons of mass destruction without a prohibition treaty. Biological weapons were banned in 1972, chemical weapons in 1993, Land mines in 1997, and cluster bombs in 2008. With the adoption of this treaty, nuclear weapons also join the club of biological and chemical weapons as weapons of mass destruction that have been declared illegal under international law.

On 7 July 2017, 122 nations, comprising almost two-thirds of the total UN membership voted to adopt the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. It was a landmark agreement that outlaws the weapons of mass destruction and establishes a pathway to their elimination. The Netherlands was the only country voted against its adoption. It claimed that US nuclear weapons were essential for its security. It is not surprising because Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Turkey are the nations hosting US nuclear weapons. Iran was also among countries voting in favour of it. Albania, Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Czech, Denmark, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain (plus the five host nations) are the nations in nuclear alliance. The five nuclear powers viz. United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France and China and four other countries possessing nuclear weapons — India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel — boycotted the negotiations and the vote on the treaty, along with many of their nuclear allies and supporters.

Beatrice Fihn, the Executive Director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was the moving spirit who pushed agenda of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) forward. She led ICAN since 2013 and incessantly worked to mobilize civil society and key stakeholders, such as governments, the United Nations and other international organizations to make it a reality. She along with Setsuko Thurlow, the hibakusha (the Japanese word for the bomb survivor) from Japan, accepted the Nobel Peace Prize and delivered their Nobel Lecture in Oslo on behalf of the campaign in 2017. Hopes were created even in 2017 the treaty will become a reality in the near future. However, it took more than three years to reach the goal. Honduras was 50th country who ratified the treaty on the UN day of this year, that is, October 24, 2020. It coincided with the 75th anniversary of the ratification of the U.N. Charter which officially established the United Nations and is celebrated as U.N. Day.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) includes a comprehensive set of prohibitions on participating in any kind of nuclear weapon activities. “These include undertakings not to develop, test, produce, acquire, possess, stockpile, use or threaten to use nuclear weapons. The Treaty also prohibits the deployment of nuclear weapons on national territory and the provision of assistance to any State in the conduct of prohibited activities. States parties will be obliged to prevent and suppress any activity prohibited under the TPNW undertaken by persons or on territory under its jurisdiction or control. The Treaty also obliges States parties to provide adequate assistance to individuals affected by the use or testing of nuclear weapons, as well as to take necessary and appropriate measure of environmental remediation in areas under its jurisdiction or control contaminated as a result of activities related to the testing or use of nuclear weapons.” [6] One of the clauses of the treaty is that it will enter into force 90 days after the fiftieth instrument of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession has been deposited.

The ratification by the 50th State party paved the way for its entry into force in 90 days, that is, 22 January 2021. Peace lovers and activists all over the world started the 90 days countdown for that day. As on October 24, 2020, governments of 84 countries had signed the treaty, and the legislatures of 50 of those countries ratified it. The process was not slow down when we reached 50 ratifications of the Treaty on the Prohibitions of Nuclear Weapons. On 4th December, Zimbabwe signed the Treaty and subsequently on 9th December, Niger signed the Treaty. On 11 December 2020, Benin which signed the treaty on September 26, 2018, ratified it. This means that we have now 86 signatures and 51 ratifications of the TPNW. It is expected that the remainder of the signatories also ratify it in the coming days.

This move has been opposed by nuclear powers from the very beginning. The US made it clear that it never intends to join the treaty. In a joint statement issued immediately after the adoption of the treaty, the U.S., France and the U.K. expressed their strong opposition to the treaty. According to them nuclear deterrence is essential for maintaining the peace. It is interesting to note that the US President Donald Trump stated that he would like to "de-nuke the world". Speaking from his holiday at his golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey, Trump said on 11 August 2017. "I would like to de-nuke the world. I know that President Obama said global warming is the biggest threat. I totally disagree. I say that - it’s a simple one - nuclear is our greatest threat worldwide, not even a question. Not even close. "So I’d like to de-nuke the world. I would like Russia and the United States and China and Pakistan and many other countries that have nuclear weapons get rid of them.” His concluding words give the real motive of such a plea. "But until such time as they do we will be the most powerful nuclear nation on earth by far." [7]

What is the scenario after three years? According to the data provided by SIPRI Year Book, 2020 and Federation of American Scientists 13,400 Nuclear Arsenals are possessed by nine countries. It is as follows: Russia 6375, United States 5800, China 320 France 290, United Kingdom 215, Pakistan160, India 150, Israel 90 and North Korea 30-40 warheads respectively. In 2017, North Korea had less than ten warheads now it increased to 40. India has also increased its nuclear capacity in the course of these three years. In the year 2019, it is estimated that $1 billion and $ 2.3 billion respectively were spent by Pakistan and India to build and maintain their nuclear weapons. [8] Also both the countries failed to participate in the negotiation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and voted against a UN General Assembly resolution in 2019 that welcomed the adoption of the treaty and called upon “all states that have not yet done so to sign, ratify, accept, approve, or accede to the treaty at the earliest possible date”. Among our neighbours, Bangladesh is the only country that has signed and ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Nepal has signed the treaty way back in 2017; it is yet to ratify it.

 When America realized that the treaty will become a reality it tried to sabotage the whole process. It urged the countries that have ratified a U.N. treaty to ban nuclear weapons to withdraw their support. The U.S. letter to signatories, says the five original nuclear powers — the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France — and America’s NATO allies "stand unified in our opposition to the potential repercussions" of the treaty. It says the treaty "turns back the clock on verification and disarmament and is dangerous" to the half-century-old Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty which is considered the cornerstone of global nonproliferation efforts. "Although we recognize your sovereign right to ratify or accede to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), we believe that you have made a strategic error and should withdraw your instrument of ratification or accession," the letter says. But it failed to produce any effect on the State parties and signatories.

On the other hand the peace lovers and activists all over the globe welcomed the treaty. ICAN’s Executive Director Beatrice Fihn welcomed the historic moment and wrote: “This is a new chapter for nuclear disarmament. Decades of activism have achieved what many said was impossible: nuclear weapons are banned," she said. Setsuko Thurlow, survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, said “I have committed my life to the abolition of nuclear weapons. I have nothing but gratitude for all who have worked for the success of our treaty.” “This is the first time in international law that we have been so recognized. We share this recognition with other hibakusha across the world, those who have suffered radioactive harm from nuclear testing, from uranium mining, from secret experimentation.”

This is just the beginning of a long journey. When the treaty comes into force, all states parties will need to implement all of their positive obligations under the treaty and abide by its prohibitions. Further nations can join it at any stage. It is to be noted that even if a nation that possesses nuclear weapons, it can join the treaty, so long as it agrees to remove them from operational status immediately and destroy them in accordance with a legally binding, time-bound plan. In addition, it is also required to eliminate its entire nuclear weapon programme, which includes nuclear materials, delivery systems and related facilities. It is true that the treaty is not binding for those states that are not part of this process. But when nuclear weapons become illegal by the UN treaty, the nuclear powers can no longer ignore the general will of the people against nuclear weapons. When more and more countries sign and ratify the treaty, the nuclear powers will be under pressure to act upon it. It is hoped that this treaty will permanently avert the possibility of nuclear war, a sword of Damocles which was hanging for more than seven decades. Is it not criminal act when hundreds of millions of people across the globe are starving the nuclear-armed nations are spending US$300 million a day on their nuclear forces? The answer is big Yes. We have to stop this madness and move towards a world without nuclear weapons for the sake of humanity.

(The author is Dean of Studies and Research, Institute of Gandhian Studies, Wardha, Maharashtra. He has written a number of books on Gandhian and Peace Studies and closely linked with activists and peace movements all over the globe. E-mail: skjigs[at] )

[2Jay Nordlinger Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and controversial prize in the world (New York: Encounter Books, 2012 pp.18-19

[3Ibid. p.19.

[5  The press release was issued on 6 October 2017. The number of states having adopted the Humanitarian Pledge was edited on 19 October 2017

[6Treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons

[8Enough is Enough: Global Nuclear Weapons Spending 2019

Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.