On 7 July, most of the world’s countries voted to ban nuclear weapons. None of them, however, actually have The Bomb. Countries that do – or rely on a nuclear weapons for defence – boycotted the vote. Despite this its backers argue that a treaty making nuclear weapons illegal is a long-overdue step towards nuclear disarmament, a process that has withered under existing treaties.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, widely called the nuclear ban treaty, obliges countries “never, under any circumstances, to develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons”, or transfer, use or threaten to use them, or help other countries do so.
But what does it all mean? Treaties and international law is sometimes a complex issue, and we’ve gotten a lot of questions about what the treaty does and how it will work. So we thought we collect the most common questions we get.
What does the treaty prohibit?
The treaty prohibits states from developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, transferring, possessing, stockpiling, using or threatening to use nuclear weapons. It also prohibits them from assisting, encouraging or inducing anyone to engage in any of those activities. In addition, states must not allow nuclear weapons to be stationed or deployed on their territory.
Is the treaty legally binding?
Yep! Once it enters into force, the treaty is legally binding on those states that have signed and ratified it. It is not binding on states that remain outside the treaty though.
When will states sign the treaty?
The treaty will open for signature on 20 September 2017, at the United Nations in New York. It will remain open indefinitely for states to sign. That means that whenever a state is ready to sign, it can do so.
How many states must ratify it before it enters into force?
Fifty states must sign and ratify the treaty before it can enter into legal force. Signing is a relatively simple act performed by the executive branch of a government. Ratifying typically involves a domestic legislative process, such as drafting legislation to bring the prohibition into national law. Once the treaty has entered into force, further states can join it at any stage.
Can a state that possesses nuclear weapons join the treaty?
Yes. 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 and verifiable plan.
Can a state that hosts nuclear weapons on its territory join the treaty?
A state that hosts another state’s nuclear weapons on its territory can join the treaty, so long as it agrees to remove them by a specified deadline.
Is it possible to join this treaty and remain in a military alliance with a nuclear-armed state?
Does the treaty establish verification measures or safeguards to ensure that states do not develop nuclear weapons?
Yes, the treaty requires that states that have safeguards under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) keep these agreements, without prejudice to concluding additional ones in the future. For states that do not have safeguards yet, the treaty requires that states conclude an agreement in line with the NPT requirements within 18 months. The treaty does not undermine any obligations that states have made to safeguards under the NPT.
Will the treaty help victims of the use and testing of nuclear weapons?
Yes. States must provide adequate assistance to all victims of the use and testing of nuclear weapons, including medical care, rehabilitation and psychological support. They must also provide for their social and economic inclusion.
The preamble acknowledges the harm suffered as a result of the use and testing of nuclear weapons, including the disproportionate impact of nuclear weapon activities on indigenous peoples. It also recognizes the disproportionate impacts on women and girls.
All nine states with nuclear weapons boycotted the vote, as did countries living under the “umbrella” of a nuclear-armed state. The only member of NATO to take part was the Netherlands, which cast the sole vote against it.
“While the treaty itself will not immediately eliminate any nuclear weapons, it can, over time, further delegitimise them and strengthen the legal and political norm against their use,” says Daryl Kimball, head of the Arms Control Association, a think tank in Washington DC.
Nuclear states wouldn’t be opposing the treaty so strongly if it was a useless gesture, says Beatrice Fihn, head of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons in Geneva, Switzerland.
“At the very least, it is a stunning rebuke to the nuclear states and their failure to fulfil their disarmament commitments,” says Joe Cirincione, head of nuclear think tank The Ploughshares Fund.
Only one nation voted against the Nuclear Weapons Ban. Nine nations which possess weapons abstained. Now what?
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