One of the main problems with talking about nuclear weapons is that it often becomes abstract and hypothetical. Most people barely know which countries have nuclear weapons and do not know to what extent other actors are involved in maintaining and upholding nuclear weapons.
When the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) enters into force on 22 January 2021, that will need to change.
Here are five examples of the kind of activities that will be prohibited under the TPNW and who is currently doing this today. While the treaty will only be legally binding in the countries that have ratified the treaty, it will still create a powerful norm and should lead to increased protests and outrage in countries that haven’t joined the treaty that are behaving in contradiction of this new instrument of international law.
What the treaty prohibits
Article 1 of the treaty prohibits states parties from developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, transferring, possessing, stockpiling, using or threatening to use nuclear weapons, or allowing nuclear weapons to be stationed on their territory. It also prohibits them from assisting, encouraging or inducing anyone to engage in any of these activities.
#1: The treaty bans the development of new nuclear weapons systems
Right now, all nuclear armed states are quantitatively or qualitatively advancing their nuclear arsenals, to the tune of nearly $73 billion in 2019 alone. Developing nuclear weapons is banned for states parties in Article 1(a) of the treaty. So activities like India’s Agni-V intercontinental ballistic missile? Banned under international law. Pakistan’s Babur-3 submarine-launched ballistic missile? Banned under international law. North Korea’s’ growing nuclear warhead arsenal? Banned under international law. Nuclear-armed states may not be legally obligated to comply with a treaty they haven’t joined. But their behavior contradicts this new instrument of international law and the growing norm it represents.
#2: The treaty bans assisting with developing nuclear weapons
Dozens of U.S. universities are involved in the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, including through direct management and research partnerships with the laboratories that design and can produce nuclear weapons components. The University of California, Texas A&M University, Johns Hopkins University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Rochester receive billions in contracts to directly manage laboratories that work on nuclear weapons. The University of California and Texas A&M University are both operators of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which provides design and engineering for several nuclear warhead types, conducts simulated experiments to evaluate warheads, and has the capacity to produce plutonium pits, the core material for nuclear warheads. An average-sized U.S. nuclear weapon, that could be designed and developed at Los Alamos overseen by the University of California and Texas A&M University, detonated over the center of Paris would immediately kill over 500,000 civilians, and injure more than one million, causing third-degree burns all the way out to the suburbs.
From 22 January 2021, these universities, and others that are participating in the development and production of nuclear weapons, are carrying out activities that are banned under international law. Students should demand their universities focus on research to save lives, not end them.
#3: The treaty bans the hosting of nuclear weapons
Article 1(g) of the TPNW explicitly prohibits allowing the stationing, installation or deployment of nuclear weapons.
There are five countries in the world that are currently engaged in this soon to be banned behaviour: Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, and Turkey.These five countries currently host collectively about 150 U.S. nuclear weapons at bases on their territory. The fact is, there are likely more nuclear weapons in Italy than in North Korea.
Not only does the continued hosting of U.S. nuclear weapons run contrary to international law, it also flies in the face of public opinion. Less than one-third of the public in most nuclear hosting states support the continued existence of weapons of mass destruction on their soil. A recent poll in Belgium shows that 77% of Belgians want their government to join the TPNW.
#4: The treaty bans the manufacturing of nuclear weapons
Even outside of nuclear-armed states companies contribute to the development and production of nuclear weapons. Belarus’ Minsk Automotive Factory manufactures mobile launchers for a Russian intercontinental ballistic missile. The multinational Airbus Group, headquartered in the Netherlands, contributes through a German-headquarted subdivision to the development and production of the French submarine-launched ballistic missiles. These companies are engaging in activities outlawed under international law.
There is a growing trend for financial institutions to divest from companies producing weapons banned under international law. If these companies do not choose to adhere to the new norm on nuclear weapons, they may pay the price.
#5: The treaty bans encouraging the use of nuclear weapons
Nuclear-armed states are always ready to use nuclear weapons. They regularly prepare to use nuclear weapons through joint exercises, where many states contribute to nuclear attack exercises. One example is the annual NATO Steadfast Noon nuclear exercise. Non-nuclear-armed states that participate in these mass murder trial runs would be acting contrary to Article 1(e), the prohibition against encouraging prohibited behaviour. This year, countries like the Czech Republic and Poland contributed conventional aircraft to the Steadfast Noon nuclear strike exercise – something that will be illegal under international law when the TPNW enters into force.
The entry into force of the TPNW is the perfect opportunity for all countries, companies, universities and other entities to re-evaluate their relationship to this new international legal standard. Countries producing or hosting nuclear weapons or participating in nuclear strike exercises, as well as the companies manufacturing them and universities helping to design them are acting against international law. All entities should end these illegal activities and join the international community in renouncing nuclear weapons entirely.