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Today, January 22, 2021, the Treaty on Nuclear Weapons Prohibition (AVV) comes into force. It was adopted by 122 United Nations countries in 2017 and has so far been signed by 86 states, 51 have already ratified the agreement. But is the contract also effective? Viewpoint of Marc Finaud, disarmament expert at the Geneva Center for Security PolicyExternal link.

This content was published on January 22, 2021 - 4:00 p.m.
Marc Finaud, Geneva Center for Security Policy

This civil society initiative, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017, was supported by an overwhelming majority of countries. Except for those who have nuclear weapons and their allies.

Critics point out that the new treaty will have no impact on nuclear disarmament. In any case, it must be examined whether and how the ban on nuclear weapons can contribute to their abolition.

The adoption of the AVV Externer Link was welcomed by most of them with joy and relief in 2017. The nuclear weapon states, on the other hand, responded with deafening silence or expressed their dismay.

The treaty is the result of international conferences on the humanitarian consequences of a possible nuclear explosion and weeks of discussions in Geneva. Most nuclear-armed states boycotted these meetings and refused to negotiate in New York.

The resistance of the nuclear powers

The main point of contention was the interpretation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, also known as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT): The five nuclear powers China, France, Russia, Great Britain and the USA argued that in the NPT their legitimate right to possession of nuclear weapons without time limit is anchored.

Most non-nuclear-weapon states, on the other hand, believed that the nuclear powers had given up these weapons in exchange for a commitment to nuclear disarmament half a century ago.

"The most likely thing is that in the states that have signed up to the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty, banks, corporations, universities or individuals will not be allowed to contribute to the development of nuclear weapons."

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Nuclear powers that are not parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, such as India and Pakistan, regretted the loss of the right of veto granted by the Disarmament Conference when the treaty was negotiated.

It is true that the two most important nuclear powers, the United States and the USSR / Russia, have reduced their nuclear arsenals from their highest level of around 70,000 in the Cold War to 12,000 today. In addition, there are another 1,200 nuclear weapons from other countries including North Korea, India, Israel and Pakistan.

However, these arsenals are still enough to destroy humanity and the planet. Even a limited nuclear war between India and Pakistan, because of its impact on the world's climate, could lead to global famine that could kill up to two billion people.

As the International Court of Justice External Link found in 1996, no use of nuclear weapons can be reconciled with an obligation to distinguish between civil and military objectives or to refrain from "unnecessary harm or suffering". It is this humanitarian approach that has won the support of the vast majority of states.

What the treaty changes

The nuclear-weapon states and their allies affirm that the Non-Proliferation Treaty does not impose any obligations on them, even under possible customary law.

Can nuclear weapons therefore be considered illegal at all? For the states that are united in the GCU, they will undoubtedly be illegal. Should some allied states join, the provisions of the treaty on the non-stationing or non-transfer of nuclear weapons would of course also affect the owners of nuclear weapons.

Most likely, the states that have acceded to the Nuclear Weapons Treaty will not allow banks, corporations, universities or individuals to contribute to the development of nuclear weapons. You are also not allowed to do this in states that do not belong to the prohibition treaty.

The national courts of the contracting states will also be able to accept claims for damages based on nuclear tests or weapons development and to demand compensation from nuclear-armed states.

Even within nuclear-armed states, the debate should be encouraged that the astronomical resources diverted to nuclear deterrence should be used for public health or social needs.

These indirect effects will further stigmatize and de-legitimize nuclear weapons. If the nuclear powers and their allies seriously pursue their stated goal of long-term nuclear disarmament, they will have many opportunities to get to work outside of the prohibition treaty.

The international security architecture (New Start, INF, Iran Agreement, Open Skies, etc.) must be restored after the attacks by the Trump administration. However, continuing to claim that nuclear weapons are vital to the safety of their owners but unacceptable to the rest of the world will only encourage their proliferation, as the case of North Korea has shown.

Switzerland's wait-and-see attitude

Switzerland itself, whose two chambers of the Federal Parliament voted to sign the TIAN, cannot remain outside history and its role as guardian of international humanitarian law for long. It cannot hide behind pressure from NATO or the rejection of the treaty by the nuclear powers in order to evade its responsibility.

Let us remember that on the initiative of Switzerland in 2010 all the contracting states of the Non-Proliferation Treaty declared themselves "deeply concerned about the continuing danger to mankind from the possible use of nuclear weapons and the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of such use".

The article reflects the author's opinion, which does not necessarily have to correspond to the opinion of the editors of swissinfo.ch.