While Friday’s meeting between the leaders of the two biggest nuclear powers drew world attention, representatives from 122 other countries did something truly historic that barely registered a blip: They negotiated the first-ever treaty outlawing atomic bombs.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, passed at the United Nations by a vote of 122 to 1, was the culmination of a decadelong effort by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons — and a resounding rebuke to the world’s nuclear weapons states, which were glaringly absent and immediately dismissed the effort.
The vote, which opens the treaty for signature beginning Sept. 20, drew a lengthy standing ovation at UN headquarters in New York — even if it is not expected to have any measurable effect on the atomic arsenals in the hands of the few.
“These states are sending a message. They are expressing their profound frustration that the U.S., Russia, China and other nuclear-armed states have not fulfilled previous political and legal commitments," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based advocacy group, who attended the session.
He noted those countries have failed to live up to the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970, in which they pledged, among other things, to take steps toward complete disarmament. "It’s a reminder that the U.S. and Russia are possessors of the world’s largest arsenals,” Kimball said. “Are they going to lead or are they going to engage in a second Cold War?”
President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who met Friday at the G-20 Summit in Germany, control about 3,000 nuclear weapons between them. They “hold the state of the world in their hands,” Kimball said.
But the nuclear triumvirate of the United States, Britain and France made clear after the vote that they have no interest in the pact.
In a joint statement, their governments said they do not consider the ban legally binding — or a new “development of customary international law" — and that the treaty’s entire premise “disregards the realities of the international security environment.”
“We do not intend to sign, ratify or ever become party to it. Therefore, there will be no change in the legal obligations on our countries with respect to nuclear weapons,” their statement said.
Nonetheless, the treaty — which prohibits the possession and use of nuclear weapons — sends an important signal to nuclear powers that the weapons are not supported by the majority of the world’s nations, advocates say.
The Netherlands was the only “no” vote, and Singapore abstained. The pact is set to go into effect when it has been ratified by 50 nations.
“We hope that today marks the beginning of the end of the nuclear age," said Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. "It is beyond question that nuclear weapons violate the laws of war and pose a clear danger to global security."
"The treaty is a clear indication that the majority of the world’s countries no longer accept nuclear weapons and do not consider them legitimate," added Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, another advocacy group. "It demonstrates that the indiscriminate mass killing of civilians is unacceptable and that it is not possible to use nuclear weapons consistent with the laws of war."
Kimball said it could put more pressure on the U.S. and other nuclear nations to stand by the commitment made in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty more than four decades ago to end the arms race and get rid of their own nuclear weapons.
He said it could also influence whether the U.S. and Russia decide to renew the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty they reached in 2012 to reduce the number of deployed nuclear weapons when it expires in 2021.
Former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry said the ban offers “a vision of a safer world,” and also called on the world’s nuclear nations to extend the New START treaty and bring into force the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty outlawing nuclear tests. (The U.S. Senate voted down the treaty in 1999.)
“My hope is that this treaty will mark a sea change towards global support for the abolition of nuclear weapons," Perry said of the new ban. "This global threat requires unified global action."
Some think the landmark agreement could also have some impact on international law. Bonnie Docherty, an international human rights lawyer at Harvard Law School who was also in attendance, contended that the ban — even without the participation of nuclear weapons states — could “create a norm” that nuclear weapons are immoral and illegal and “set a positive standard that I think will influence disarmament law.”
She said that influence will likely come in the form of additional political pressure that encourages nuclear states to take more aggressive steps to reduce and eventually eliminate their arsenals.
Jon Rainwater, the executive director of Peace Action, another advocate for disarmament, said the push for a non-nuclear world is even more important amid rising tensions with North Korea, which is working to miniaturize a nuclear warhead to fit on intercontinental ballistic missiles.
“Preaching temperance from a bar stool never works,” Rainwater said. “The U.S. cannot lead the push for nuclear nonproliferation on the Korean peninsula while it spends billions to maintain one of the world’s two biggest nuclear arsenals. It’s time for the U.S. to get off of the bar stool and lead by example.”
The Trump administration is currently undertaking a review of nuclear forces, including the multibillion-dollar plan to upgrade nuclear bombers, missiles and submarines. Experts predict the so-called Nuclear Posture Review will recommend more investment in the country’s nuclear deterrent.