The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

Giampiero Bordino
Professor in Contemporary History and Political Analyst. President of the Einstein Center for International Studies

According to data from the SIPRI Yearbook 2020, the most authoritative international source of data on nuclear weapons and military spending, nine states (United States, Russia, China, France, Great Britain, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Israel) now hold such weapons, for a total of 13,400 nuclear warheads, of which more than 3700 are deployed and operational. More specifically, the top three countries are Russia with 6375 nuclear warheads, the US with 5800 and China with 320. In any case, a quantity of weapons capable of destroying the world several times over, far beyond the necessity of deterrence, that is often invoked to justify their procurement. All of this is part of a steady growth, despite the recurring economic and social crises, in military spending worldwide, which has reached 1917 billion dollars (2.2% of global GDP). The United States is in the lead, with an expenditure of 732 billion dollars. The US and China alone cover more than half of global military spending. India, one of the countries with the highest levels of poverty and social inequality, has become the third country in the world in military spending.

In this context, the problem of the control and, more radically, the prohibition of nuclear weapons has emerged to the fore in recent years. The public debate on these issues has developed both within national public opinions and at the international level. In September 2017, the United Nations General Assembly, after a laborious negotiation phase with the participation of 129 States (66 out of 195 potential participants refused to participate) and many other bodies of different nature (international organizations, the European Union, NGOs, etc.), approved, with 122 votes in favor, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, a non-binding agreement which prohibits the development, testing, possession, deployment, transfer, and of course the use of nuclear weapons. Since then, 84 UN member countries have signed it, but among them, as can be easily understood, there is none of the nine countries that actually own such weapons. Many other countries, although not holders, have also refused to sign, like Italy, because agreeing to the treaty would force it to break its alliance with NATO and the United States should it ask for the removal of the atomic weapons currently stored on its territory.

To become effective, a treaty, according to international rules, must be ratified by at least 50 countries, and this threshold was reached in October 2020. Ninety days after the deposit of the fiftieth instrument of ratification, on January 22, 2021, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has come into effect.

As we said, this is a non-binding treaty, to which none of the countries that actually possess nuclear weapons have given their approval. In essence, it is only the beginning of a possible process, completely unpredictable in its timing and in its conditions of implementation, for controlling these weapons of mass destruction. A symbolic event, a signal of a general direction, a reminder of individual and collective responsibility in the face of the risks of a catastrophe for the entire human species. In other words, a significant reference point, even if completely insufficient, for the public debate and for the individual and collective actors who fight to denounce and prevent those risks.

The fundamental problems, decisive for promoting the process of the regulation, control and in perspective elimination of nuclear weapons, go beyond the good will of the actors and their possible agreements (the Treaty on prohibition in this case), and concern the political and institutional system that currently presides over the world order. This system, of which the United Nations is the most important and best known organization, is wholly inadequate to the challenges of various kinds, military, nuclear, environmental, economic and social, etc., which humanity is facing today.

As Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein and other great scientists wrote in their famous Manifesto in 1955, “We must learn to think in a new way. We must learn not to ask ourselves what measures to take so that the group we prefer can achieve a military victory, since such measures can no longer be contemplated. The question we must ask ourselves is: What measures must be taken to prevent an armed conflict whose outcome would be catastrophic for everyone? “.

In this direction, it is a question of devising and building a system that goes beyond the model of the League of Nations, born in 1919 following the First World War, and beyond the model, similar to the previous one, of the United Nations, created in 1945 after the Second. In other words, it is a question of trying to build an effective statehood, not powerless but capable of enforcing rules shared by all the states and other global players, even at the world level, starting from the embryos of supranational statehood, such as the European Union, which already exist.

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