The adoption of the historic United Nations pact to ban nuclear weapons underscores a paradigm shift in the discourse on global disarmament. Foremost, the universal goal of total elimination of these weapons of mass destruction has been disentangled from the narrow focus on the maintenance of a deterrent by the nuclear weapons states against threats from one another. Instead, the case for abolition, under the treaty finalised in July, is premised on the potential danger to the very survival of civilisation from another holocaust. Such a position seems incontestable, as modern weapons are designed to inflict a great scale of destruction, without regard to national or geographic boundaries. The imperative, as the architects of the new treaty see it, is an immediate legal prohibition leading to the total elimination of nuclear weapons, given the impossibility of fashioning a humanitarian response to any future offensive. The new treaty, which 122 nations have approved, outlaws the entire range of activity relating to the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons. The ban on the conduct of underground explosions envisaged under Article 1 is a breakthrough. The 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty has not entered into force because many among the 44 designated nuclear-capable states, whose ratification is mandatory under the pact, have not come on board.
Last year, the Marshall Islands suffered a legal setback to secure compensation for the victims of radiation exposure during the U.S. nuclear tests conducted in the 1950s. But the litigation at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has underpinned the need to codify a strong provision on the protection of victims. Assistance for people exposed to extreme radiation and contamination of the environment has been spelt out explicitly under Article 6 of the current treaty. The most central provision is Article 1(d) which categorically prohibits the use of nuclear weapons, or a threat to that effect, under all circumstances. The ICJ’s 1996 advisory opinion was that the use of these deadly arms, or even a threat, was generally illegal. It was, however, indecisive on the question of their legitimacy in the exceptional case of a state’s very survival. Support for the new treaty has steadily grown over the years to cover nearly two-thirds of the UN member states which adopted it last month. It is hence not unreasonable to anticipate that the required 50 instruments of ratification for its entry into force would be submitted swiftly. Moreover, the nuclear weapons treaty marks the completion of a process to enforce an international ban on all categories of weapons of mass destruction following the prohibition of biological and chemical arms. This is another strong incentive for its early ratification, about a century after the deadliest deployment of chlorine gas in Ieper, Belgium during the First World War unleashed an arms race. The world’s nuclear powers, which boycotted the negotiations on the landmark agreement, have remained defiant ever since its adoption. Their continued resistance will no doubt jeopardise its effectiveness. But that does not take away from its sound basis in moral and legal principles.