The Nuclear Prohibition Treaty: A brief critique

No nuclear states signed, so what happens next?
Published : 28 July 2017

By: Debalina Ghoshal


On July 7, a global treaty banning nuclear weapons was approved at the United Nations headquarters in New York. Some 122 UN member states voted for the treaty while the Netherlands, the only NATO member state that attended the proceedings, voted against it. Singapore abstained from voting.

However, the treaty is only at its initial stages as none of the nuclear weapon states (NWS) - Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States - nor any of the nuclear powers such as India, Pakistan, Israel or North Korea, attended the proceedings or signed the treaty. Japan, which has been the victim of nuclear bombs, also did not sign.

Amid these limitations, is it correct to judge the treaty as a success?

That the treaty has at least been signed, even if only by non-nuclear states, is an achievement in the truest sense. It shows that these countries are not interested in developing nuclear weapons, even if they have the wherewithal in the future to do so. Also, that there is a legal arrangement that delegitimizes nuclear weapons or their use, and would bring states that use or threaten to use them under the scrutiny of international law, whether the country is a signatory of the treaty or not, is undoubtedly a positive move.

For instance, Pakistan has not signed the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a treaty which keeps a check on nuclear proliferation. However, that did not stop the world order from framing Pakistan as a nuclear proliferator, because, irrespective of whether it was a signatory to the NPT, it had defied the provisions laid down by the NPT to acquire nuclear technology.

However, the treaty does have its limitations. It has not attracted even one NWS or nuclear power to at least discuss it, let alone sign it. Second, is the issue of North Korea, which cannot be dealt with in isolation. Countries like Japan, Turkey and South Korea can also develop nuclear weapons easily, and it is a concern that they have not signed the treaty. Even Canada refrained from signing.

As for the US, one of the agendas of President Barack Obama was nuclear disarmament. However, under his leadership, the US also sought to modernization its nuclear forces. Russia is also modernizing, and aims to arm 90 per cent of its nuclear forces with modern weaponry by 2020. China, India and Pakistan are also making efforts to move toward a credible survivable nuclear force.

Naturally, amid these developments, none of these countries would sign the treaty. In the case of Israel, which has yet to declare itself a nuclear power, the question is should it sign the treaty as a nuclear power and agree to destroy its nuclear weapons, or should it sign the treaty as a non-nuclear power and agree to abstain from developing nuclear weapons. That would leave the question of what would be the future of the Israeli nuclear stockpile?

Singapore abstained from voting, which is a serious concern as it is part of the Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone and should have had no difficulty in joining the treaty. Perhaps it is taking note of Chinese military influence in the region.

Another issue is that of nuclear weapons and their proliferation in the hands of non-state actors such as ISIS, al Qaeda and the Taleban. The treaty needs to address these issues. If nuclear weapons are completely banned by state actors, the same state actors would not have a deterrent capability against a non-state actor should it acquire nuclear weapons.

Those countries who have signed the treaty have created history. But they are also the countries that have refrained from developing nuclear weapons, as they do not wish to associate with the international pressure and psychological strain of maintaining robust command and control and the added burden of focusing on nuclear security and safety.

NATO countries refrained from joining the treaty as it would negate the provisions of Article 5 of the Washington Treaty in which an attack on one NATO country is an attack on another, and that the US will provide extended nuclear deterrence to NATO countries should they be attacked by nuclear weapons.

It is clearly understood that if nuclear disarmament is to be encouraged among the NWS and nuclear powers, the United States and Russia will need to set an example and sign the treaty, and only then would the other NWS and nuclear powers follow suit.

Debalina Ghoshal is an Independent Consultant specializing in nuclear, missile and missile defense issues. 

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