Nuclear weapons are now illegal

Image: A Mark 7 Nuclear Bomb at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

“It is my firm belief that the infinite and uncontrollable fury of nuclear weapons should never be held in the hands of any mere mortal ever again, for any reason.” – Mikhail Gorbachev

“A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought…would it not be better to do away with them entirely?” – Ronald Reagan

Most of the world agrees with these two former national leaders on opposite sides of the Cold War. On January 22, 2021, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons became international law. Nuclear weapons are now illegal. Nations who possess, threaten to use, or use these weapons of mass destruction will be outlaws. This is a big step toward abolishing them altogether.

Prior to the treaty’s adoption, nuclear weapons were the only weapons of mass destruction not banned despite their catastrophic humanitarian risk. Nuclear weapons are now in the same category as land mines, cluster bombs, chemical, and biological weapons. The treaty outlaws the development, manufacture, testing, possession, transfer, acquisition, stockpiling, use, threat of use, control or receipt, stationing or deployment of nuclear weapons. It also prohibits a nation from providing assistance in these activities.

As of January 1, 2021, 86 countries have signed the treaty. None of the nine countries who actually have nuclear weapons have signed the treaty (U.S., Russia, England, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea). None of the “umbrella states” have signed the treaty. These are countries like the non-nuclear NATO members, Japan, Australia and South Korea who are under the U.S. nuclear “umbrella.”

The United States opposes the treaty. The U.S. and the eight other nuclear nations boycotted negotiations and the vote on the treaty. The U.S. is pressuring its allies to prevent more countries from ratifying the treaty. According to the Associated Press, the U.S. urged the five major nuclear powers and its other allies to “stand unified in our opposition to the potential repercussions” of the treaty.

For our government, reducing the threat of worldwide nuclear holocaust is an unacceptable “potential repercussion.” The leadership of our country is still mired in the old Cold War mentality. They still believe nuclear weapons are necessary for national defense. They have not learned from the mistakes of 76 years nuclear brinkmanship, close calls, accidents, and  excessively militarized foreign policy.

The United States created these awful weapons of mass destruction. We are the only nation to ever use them against civilian targets. We should take responsibility for them and be leading the world to abolish them. We could have easily done that in 1945 when we were the only nation to have them. Instead, we fueled the arms race during the Cold War creating many thousands of these horrific weapons. Today we are busy re-igniting a new arms race in nuclear weapons with a $1 trillion dollar “modernization” plan.

The treaty is not a panacea. Only countries that ratify the treaty are bound by its requirements. Without the support of the nuclear nations, especially the United States, it will only be a dream for a future with no nuclear weapons. But the treaty does create a path to that future and it stigmatizes nations that stand in the way of progress. Like other arms control treaties – banning land mines and cluster bombs (which we also refuse to sign) – it establishes norms of civilized behavior for all nations to work toward.

The good news is many national and international organizations are working to organize and help citizens advocate for ratification. In the U.S., advocacy groups are also pushing five other nuclear weapons policy changes in addition to the nuclear ban treaty. These more achievable changes can reduce the danger of nuclear weapons being used or accidents happening. “Back From the Brink” is one such advocacy organization.

Here are the five short term goals:

Renounce First Use. We have never renounced the right to use nuclear weapons first. This increases the chance that a conflict could escalate to nuclear war. The No First Use Act was introduced in January 2020 and would establish in law that it is the policy of the United States not to use nuclear weapons first.

End the Sole, Unchecked Authority of Any U.S. President to Launch a Nuclear Attack. Currently the president has sole authority to order the use of nuclear weapons. No one has the authority to countermand a legal launch order. The Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2021, introduced in January, prohibits a president from launching a nuclear first strike absent a declaration of war by Congress.

Take U.S. Nuclear Weapons Off Hair-Trigger Alert. Having nuclear missiles on high alert  increases the chances of an accidental war or other nuclear accidents. There have been numerous close calls and false alarms over the years due to human and technical error.

Cancel the Plan to Replace the Entire U.S. Nuclear Arsenal With Enhanced Weapons. The U.S. plan to spend $1.7 trillion dollars to replace its entire nuclear arsenal is fueling a new arms race and increasing the threat of nuclear weapons being used.

Negotiate Arms Control Agreements. The U.S. needs to re-instate and initiate new negotiations with the other nuclear powers to reduce and eliminate nuclear weapons. We are obligated to do this under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (which the U.S has signed). In the past, we were working to reduce nuclear weapons. Presidents Clinton and Obama signed new agreements. But the Trump administration withdrew from three arms control agreements. Now we must reverse these mistakes and return to negotiating reductions in nuclear arsenals.

The bottom line is that citizens of the nuclear nations will have to generate enormous political pressure to get their respective nations to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Overcoming the power and money of the military industrial complex will be a huge up hill struggle.

You can help move all this forward by signing the online petition Global Appeal to Nine Nuclear Governments.