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SPOTLIGHT – Entry into force of treaty banning nuclear weapons shows progress is possible

Hiroshima nuclear arms bomb

Hiroshima after the impact of a nuclear bomb

The first multilateral nuclear disarmament treaty in more than two decades entered into force on 22 January, 90 days after the fiftieth State, Honduras, deposited its instrument of ratification with the UN Secretary-General. 

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) filled a major void. Nuclear arms were the only mass destruction weapons that had not yet been banned internationally.  

With this new instrument, each State Party commits “never, under any circumstances... to develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices”. 

Austria is one of the few Western States to have ratified TPNW. Robert Müller, Austria’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva and Head of the Austrian delegation to the Conference on Disarmament, explains why this agreement is important. 

Tell us more about the process that led to the adoption of this Treaty and your country's role in the negotiations? 

Robert Müller: The entry into force of the TPNW on 22 January 2021 was a historic moment. After decades of stalemate on nuclear disarmament, the most devastating weapons of mass destruction are finally prohibited under international law. To better understand the process that led to the Treaty, we must go back in time. 

In 2007, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was launched in Australia and Austria. In the outcome document of the 2010 Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), all nations expressed their deep concern about the "catastrophic humanitarian consequences" of any use of nuclear weapons. 

As a result, three conferences were organized in 2013 and 2014 on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear explosions. Vienna hosted the third of these conferences, where the "Austrian commitment" was launched. The "Humanitarian Pledge", as it was called, helped generate momentum and garner support for the convening of negotiations. 

In 2016, a United Nations General Assembly resolution established the official mandate for States to begin negotiations. These negotiations began in March 2017 at the United Nations. Together with Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, Nigeria and South Africa, Austria formed a group of highly committed States which played an important role in the conduct of negotiations and their eventual success. 

Eventually, negotiations led to the adoption of the treaty in July 2017 and its entry into force. Austria signed the treaty on the first possible day, 20 September 2017 [the Treaty was as of that day open for signature at UN Headquarters in New York]. 

The UN Secretary-General pointed out last August in his speech commemorating the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki that the Treaty was "important". How so? Can you elaborate on what is at stake? 

The TPNW complements the NPT by providing for a total ban on nuclear weapons, a concept that has been applied in the past to other categories of mass destruction weapons, namely chemical and biological weapons. The Treaty therefore fills the legal void that had previously allowed nuclear weapons to be treated differently from other weapons of mass destruction. With this unequivocal legal basis for a ban, we have taken a major step towards total elimination. 

But our common goal of a world without nuclear weapons will not be achieved in a day, a week or a year — it will be a marathon. The universalization obligation for all States Parties enshrined in the Treaty is therefore vitally important. We must encourage other states to join the Treaty. The catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons are unacceptable. Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Chernobyl and Fukushima have given the general public an idea of the devastation and long-term consequences caused by radiation. 

The survival of humanity is under the constant threat of nuclear weapons. We cannot allow the survival of humanity to rest on chance. 

How do you respond to those who say that, without the support of the five nuclear-weapon states recognized in the NPT, the TPNW is doomed in terms of its contribution to the cause of disarmament? 

There were lots of international discussions throughout the process that led to the TPNW. In addition to strong support, objections to the process and its outcome were voiced. 

Those against the TPNW argue that this Treaty does not eliminate any nuclear heads. This criticism concerns the nuclear-weapon States: no treaty or non-nuclear-weapon State can destroy the nuclear weapons stocked by nuclear-weapon States. Until they destroy those weapons themselves, a risk for humanity will persist. 

The TPNW is a targeted, prohibition treaty that leaves the detailed destruction and verification procedures to future regulation with nuclear-weapon States once they join the Treaty. As the negotiating mandate has already stated, the NPT is designed to lead to the total elimination of nuclear weapons. The TPNW creates an essential basis on which new legal measures and practices can be implemented. 

Should we expect an evolution in international negotiations on disarmament following the adoption of this Treaty? 

The TPNW is part of the nuclear disarmament plan; it complements and reinforces it. Advocates of this Treaty have consistently stressed the importance of making progress on all aspects of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, as set out in the 2010 NPT Action Plan [adopted at the 2010 NPT Review Conference]. 

Some of these matters, such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty [CTBT, not yet in force], are explicitly mentioned in the preamble to the TPNW. The new Treaty does not divert attention from these other issues, but it creates a new momentum in nuclear disarmament efforts — a momentum that can and should be used to promote progress on these issues as well. 

ICAN, which you mentioned, received the Nobel Peace Prize for its groundbreaking efforts to achieve a ban on nuclear weapons in the year when the TPNW was adopted. Everyone remembers that the Ottawa Convention on anti-personnel mines was already a victory for civil society. Do you feel there is a growing involvement of civil society in global disarmament affairs? 

The TPNW is not only an encouraging push for multilateralism; it also demonstrates that when all actors work together, in a "public-private partnership", for a cause that is of high interest for all, we can make progress. 

A multi-stakeholder approach has already been adopted for cyber and environmental issues, and it is now a proven approach to anti-personnel mines and cluster munitions. With the TPNW, this approach has reached the field of nuclear disarmament. 

Security issues are no longer just for the military and diplomats. Civil society has played a decisive role in establishing the TPNW. Scientists have been part of the negotiations. NGOs and the International Committee of the Red Cross made important contributions throughout the process, and this was recognized by the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to ICAN in 2017. 

"Spotlight" is a new feature of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva that aims to highlight various aspects of the UN's action through interviews with actors part of international Geneva or articles providing insight on specific issues.