A step closer to a world without nuclear weapons
Last year, the world commemorated the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, events so catastrophic that they burnt themselves into our collective memory, and have continued to define our geopolitical landscapes to this day.
While the year 2020 was arguably unkind, with many social upheavals and changes brought about by the pandemic, ever increasing political tension and economic uncertainty, still, the remembrance was essential; it was an opportunity to reflect on our past, a testament to our progress, and a reminder of the fearsome power mankind can harness and, indeed, unleash.
It is this remembrance, then, that also leads us to one achievement that shone as a bright spot of hope in that tumultuous year; on Oct 24, 2020, Honduras became the 50th nation to ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). This momentous achievement means, from Friday, Jan 22 onwards, it will be completely illegal for the 51 nations that are parties to TPNW, Thailand included, to create, use, or even possess nuclear weapons. The message behind this development is clear: nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction, in the same vein as chemical and biological weapons, which cannot be tolerated and must be prohibited.
The treaty itself is a milestone; the result of three-quarters of a century worth of multilateral negotiations. It represents the collective will of nations who, having witnessed and reflected upon the horrors of nuclear detonations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the sufferings that followed, decide to never let such horrific events repeat themselves again. The treaty strengthens the taboo against nuclear weapons by making it illegal for the states that have ratified it to use, threaten to use, develop, test, produce, manufacture, acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons. It also prohibits these countries from assisting, encouraging or inducing others to engage in any prohibited activity. It is also the first international law to specifically require states to help mitigate the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of using and testing nuclear weapons, by helping victims of nuclear testing and use, and clearing contaminated areas.
The TPNW establishes a concrete common understanding among states and societies that the utilisation of nuclear weapons, regardless of rationale, whether preemptively or even as a response to a nuclear attack itself, is unacceptable. This condemnation of nuclear weapons unequivocally demonstrates how far our social and cultural paradigms have shifted over the past seven decades.
Likewise, the international legal perspectives have developed, from the terrible humanitarian consequences at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) and Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in the 1960s and 1970s, the shadow of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) scenarios during the heights of the Cold War, to the landmark Advisory Opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1996. These cumulative events led to the recognition and condemnation of the terrible and indiscriminate effects of nuclear weapons and serves as the loudest form of protest against these fearsome and dehumanising instruments of destruction -- the TPNW: an international, legally-binding instrument that calls for their total and irreversible disarmament.
Even though none of the countries that possess nuclear weapons have signed the treaty, its effects cannot be denied. The TPNW sends a strong message, explicitly prohibiting the use and possession of nuclear weapons, not only on humanitarian, but also moral grounds. Moreover, it is highly doubtful that the use of nuclear weapons could ever be justified under international humanitarian law (IHL) and international criminal law (ICL). At the very least, the act of using nuclear weapons would be met with widespread international condemnation and sanctions. Thus, the stigmatisation of nuclear weapons would generate pressure on nuclear-armed nations to reduce and, potentially, irreversibly eliminate their stockpiles of nuclear weapons.
The entry into force of the TPNW means that the treaty's provisions will be legally binding for the states that have ratified or acceded to it. They must either have destroyed their nuclear weapons or commit to destroy them. As a first step, states joining the TPNW have 30 days within the treaty's entry to formally declare whether they possess nuclear weapons or not. If they do, they must destroy them on the basis of a "legally binding, time-bound plan" that will eliminate their nuclear weapon programme in a verifiable and irreversible way.
While the notion of a state surrendering its nuclear weapon may sound impossible, this cannot be further from the truth. Kazakhstan, a former nuclear-armed nation, willingly gave up its nuclear arsenal in April 1995, and was the 26th nation to ratify the TPNW. Iran, another country embroiled in the disputes regarding nuclear armament, also voted in favour of the treaty at the negotiation at the United Nations in New York in 2017.
Thailand, as the champion against nuclear weapons in Southeast Asia, held the distinction of being one of the first nations to sign and ratify the TPNW upon its official launch on Sept 20, 2017, along with Guyana and the Holy See.
This anti-nuclear weapons stance has always been consistently and firmly upheld by Thailand, which also spearheaded the establishment of the Southeast Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone (SEANWFZ) through the adoption of the Bangkok Treaty in 1997. As a matter of fact, Laos, Malaysia and Vietnam have also joined Thailand in ratifying the TPNW.
While it has been 75 years since the last use of nuclear weapons, the scar of their detonations remains in our psyche. The horrific scale of destruction and unimaginable suffering that followed serve as the reasons why nuclear weapons haven't been used since the end of the Second World War.
TPNW, with its unequivocal outlawing of nuclear weapons, is merely the first step towards a world without nuclear weapons.
The road ahead is long, and we should take courage not only from our collective achievement, but also the better future that can be brought about through cooperation and a respect for peace and humanity.
Sippakorn Chongchuwanich, legal advisor at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).