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A Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

Published Tuesday, October 9, 2018

A Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was adopted in the UN on 7 July 2017. It is the first multilateral, legally-binding, instrument for nuclear disarmament to have been negotiated in 20 years. However, none of the nuclear weapon states participated in those discussions and have declared their intention not to sign and ratify the new treaty. The lack of engagement by the nuclear weapon states raises the question of what this treaty can then realistically achieve?

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In February 2017 UN-mandated negotiations began on a treaty prohibiting the development, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons. The first round of discussions, in March 2017, was a general exchange of views among participants, which included more than a hundred non-nuclear weapon states and a number of non-governmental organisations. Several countries, including all of the nuclear weapon states, declared their intention to boycott the talks.

The second, and final, round of talks began on 15 June and concluded on 7 July 2017. Those talks eventually culminated in the adoption of a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which prohibits States Parties from developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, acquiring, possessing, stockpiling, transferring, or receiving control over nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices. It also prohibits them from using, or threatening to use such weapons. States Parties are also required to prohibit and prevent the stationing, installation, or deployment of nuclear weapons on their territory or any other place under its jurisdiction or control. This latter provision has implications for those countries which have US nuclear weapons based on their territories: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey.

122 countries voted in favour of the treaty; while The Netherlands, as a member of the NATO alliance, voted against and Singapore abstained.

The treaty opened for signatures from any UN member state, regardless of their participation in the conference, on 20 September 2017. The treaty will come into force 90 days after 50 countries have ratified it. To date, the treaty has 69 signatories, including 19 States Parties, three of which signed and ratified the treaty on the first day.

Many critics have questioned what such a treaty will achieve, however, if the nine nuclear states do not participate. Without signing and ratifying any potential treaty the nuclear states would not be legally bound by its provisions.

Along with the other nuclear powers, the British Government did not participate in the UN talks and has indicated its refusal to sign and ratify the new treaty. It believes that the "best way to achieve the goal of global nuclear disarmament is through gradual multilateral disarmament, negotiated using a step-by-step approach and within existing international frameworks", specifically the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Commons Briefing papers CBP-7986

Author: Claire Mills

Topics: Arms control, Defence policy, International law

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