By Tarja Cronberg

On July 7th, 2017 122 nations agreed to prohibit nuclear weapons. It took 72 years after their first- and only- use. In her deeply moving closing statement, Setsuko Thurlow, an atomic bomb survivor, said: ‘This is the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons’

To agree on the treaty had taken three international conferences on the catastrophic consequenses of nuclear weapons, a humanitarian pledge signed by over 100 states and a UN Open-ended Working Group to agree to start negotiations on a prohibition treaty. The treaty is above all a humanitarian achievement recognizing the indiscriminate nature and uniquely destructive power of nuclear weapons. It will have to be ratified by 50 states to enter into force,

Last October there was a UN vote preceding these negotiations. The vote reflects not only the current crisis of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) but also the detoriation of the global security situation. The five nuclear weapon states, to whom the NPT gives the right to nuclear weapons although under a demand for complete dismantlement, all voted against the negotiations. So did the states protected by nuclear weapons of others, with the exception of the Netherlands, which abstained.

Of the nuclear armed states outside the NPT Israel voted against the negotiations and India and Pakistan abstained. North Korea voted for. 123 states without nuclear weapons voted for. An expression of the divisive nature of the vote was that the Nordic States, as a rule supportive of a humanitarian agenda and disarmament, voted along the whole spectrum. Sweden voted for and participated in the negotiations. Finland abstained and did not participate. Norway and Iceland, as NATO states were pressured by the US to vote against. Denmark not only voted against but the Danish ambassador to the UN was standing by the US ambassador Nikki Haley during the protest she organized outside the UN negotiating room in March.

None of the nine nuclear weapon states participated in the “ban” negotiations. Neither does anyone expect these states to abolish their weapons or the related modernization plans as a result of the treaty. Setsuko Thurlow may have to wait for a long time for the “beginning of the end”. But the treaty has forced the nuclear weapon states to react. Not only did the US ambassador to the UN stage a protest. The nuclear weapon states claim that the new treaty will undermine the NPT and that it has polarized the nuclear field.

The polarization is a fact not only between the states with nuclear weapons and those without. It is also a fact inside the non-nuclear weapon states. In the negotiations a number of the non-nuclear states saw the new treaty as a complement to the NPT. It would strenghten the NPT and enforce its article VI on nuclear disarmament. Opposite to this, the more NPT-frustrated majority see the new treaty as one in its own right. In their view the NPT´s “grand bargain” between disarmament and non-proliferation has become distorted. The NPT treaty is increasingly only a treaty to prevent non-proliferation. Now there is also a disarmament treaty.

The divides are reflected in the verification debate. Like the NPT the new treaty defines the comprehensive safeguards agreement as the minimum level of verification. The Additional Protocol is not mentioned. The nuclear weapon states fear “forum-shopping”,  where the non- nuclear states might try to hide their interest in nuclear weapons by choosing between the NPT and the ban treaty. The group of states that see the new treaty as a complement to the NPT would have liked to see the Additional Protocol as a minimum standard. The states that see the new treaty as one in its own right, were satisfied with the safeguards as a minimum. A number of them have not ratified the Additional Protocol themselves.

Although the nuclear weapon states will continue to defend their nuclear weapons, many things in the nuclear non- proliferation regime will change. No country will longer have the legal right to nuclear weapons. When the new treaty is ratified, these weapons will not only be delegitimized but also stigmatized. The civil society will have a new instrument at its disposal.  Furthermore, nuclear conferences for years to come will debate the relation between the NPT and the “ban” treaty. Finally, the states who play down the problems with the NPT traditionally defend it by saying ” this is the only treaty we have”. This argument no longer holds.