Skip to content
Commentary | 11 July 2017

The Nuclear Ban treaty: a Qualified success

Image of Carlo Trezza

Carlo Trezza |Former Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, Former Chairman of the Missile Technology Control Regime

Arms Control Nuclear Arms Control Nuclear Disarmament United Nations Global Security

Whether one likes it or not, the successful conclusion in New York on July 7, 2017 of negotiation on a “Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons” will be a meaningful step on the difficult path towards the establishment of a global norm regarding nuclear weapons. The adoption of the new treaty was defined as “historic” by Izumi Nakamitsu, the recently appointed UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs. This Treaty, she added, “is a product of the strong desire on the part of majority of UN member states to make progress in nuclear disarmament”.

If one considers that the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament, supposedly the “single multilateral disarmament negotiating forum of the international community”, has been incapable to even agree on a program of work in spite of meeting non-stop for the past 21 years, it might indeed sound astonishing that in only three weeks of negotiation it was possible to finalize a full text for a total ban of the most dangerous weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, this new prohibition includes: development, production, manufacture, acquisition, possession, stockpiling, transfer and use of nuclear weapons. It also reiterates the prohibition of nuclear testing which is already included in the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), thus making legally binding the core provision of this Treaty which has not yet entered into force. The new text also includes the prohibition of “stationing, installation or deployment” of nuclear weapons, adopting a concept which, until now, was not explicitly contemplated nor forbidden by the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

In spite of these impressive results, it is premature to uncork the Prosecco. The adoption of the majority vote, instead of the rule of consensus in force at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, is one of the principal reasons for this rapid success. The result in New York was also facilitated by the fact that most of the countries which had difficulties with this Treaty did not participate at all in this Conference. Thus its provisions are basically redundant because all the expected signatories are NPT non-nuclear weapons states which have already renounced nuclear weapons. All nuclear weapon states, be they the five (China, France, Russian Federation, United Kingdom and United States) which are entitled by the NPT to possess nuclear weapons (N5) or the four (India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea) which have also acquired such weapons, will not be bound by the convention. The same goes for the so called “umbrella states” i.e. those countries whose final security is guaranteed by the US nuclear deterrent. These include all NATO counties (only the Netherlands participated in the Conference, but voted against the adoption of the text) and countries of the Asia Pacific area like Japan, Republic of Korea and Australia. The countries already possessing nuclear weapons are either modernizing or even expanding their nuclear arsenals, deploying more sophisticated weapons and, in some cases, questioning whether to continue abiding by existing nuclear disarmament agreements. There is no sign whatsoever that the result in New York will mitigate the bellicose nuclear and missile programs of the DPRK or tone down its aggressive rhetoric.

There is also no reason to believe that the result reached in New York will reduce the present level of tension in Europe and that the challenge caused by the deployment in the heart of Europe of new Russian missiles and of US Missile Defence systems will decrease. The very precarious situation in Europe is eloquently pictured in the very recent Open Letter by four ELN leaders inviting presidents Putin and Trump to work together to reduce nuclear and other military risks on the occasion of their first bilateral meeting in Hamburg at the sidelines of the G20 conference. Indeed the priority in Europe presently remains to avoid incidents and miscalculations involuntarily leading to a confrontation.

The jury is still out on whether the countries which opted out of this negotiation made the right choice. Voices were raised in Europe, especially in France and Italy, advocating the participation of their countries in the New York Conference and recalling that negotiating “the early cessation of the nuclear arms race and nuclear disarmament…” is a legally binding commitment undertaken by all states party under article 6 of the NPT. This obligation was confirmed by an advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice in 1996. In most cases, the decision not to participate was taken without serious internal debate and without considering that the absence from the negotiating table could have been counterproductive to the very interests the absent countries wish to defend.

By participating, these countries could, for example, have objected to the inclusion in the text of the Treaty of the specific prohibition of stationing, a provision that would be redundant in the nuclear free environment pursued by the new convention. The stationing prohibition now acquires an embarrassing status for NATO countries. If present, they could have also specified that a total nuclear prohibition in Europe could only have been conceived if all the countries of the continent, including Russia, had adopted such a ban. The memory is still very vivid in Europe of the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 which assured the territorial integrity of Ukraine in exchange for Kiev’s renunciation to nuclear weapons, blatantly violated by Russia in 2014.

The provisions of the new Treaty will obviously not be applicable to the European countries which have not participated in the negotiations. But the same would have happened had they participated in crafting the text and finally decided not to sign or ratify the Treaty, as the Netherlands did. One wonders how, from now on, the EU will be able to maintain its traditional role as an advocate of the universalization of all disarmament and non-proliferation treaties.

One of the main features of the new Treaty is the abolishment of one of the pillars of NPT, namely the distinction between nuclear weapons states, entitled to possess such weapons, and non-nuclear weapons states. This is a blow to the nuclear weapons states, an indication that they are no longer omnipotent in this domain. Countries that have shunned the negotiation must now explain to their constituencies and to the world, as did Japan, the reasons why they took such a decision rather than follow the Netherland’s example. They must now be proactive in pursuing other ways to reduce the growing nuclear risk and refrain from preventing the Convention’s inevitable entry into force. The new treaty cannot be the final word for nuclear disarmament. For the foreseeable future, it will produce no tangible reductions of nuclear weapons nor of nuclear fissile material and of their delivery means. This Convention will however stand as a milestone on the tormented path towards a nuclear free world and a building block of that process.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.