UNHRC Panel Discussion

Nuclear Weapons Are Illegal Under International Law

A Landmark Victory for the United Nations

Viewpoint by Somar Wijayadasa*

NEW YORK (IDN) – The United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) reached on October 24 the required 50 signatories for its entry into force on January 22, 2021. It will eventually make nuclear weapons — the most dangerous weapons of mass destruction — illegal under international law.

Unquestionably, it is a landmark victory for the United Nations that continually for 75 years had on its agenda the issues relating to disarmament and abolition of nuclear weapons. It is remarkable that it coincided with the UN’s 75th anniversary, and also the infamous use of atomic bombs in August 1945.

To fully understand the Treaty’s significance, we must take a glimpse of the historical steps taken by the United Nations since its inception to accomplish the noble goal to ban the nuclear bomb.

Historical disappointments and accomplishments

The United Nations was founded in 1945 following two World Wars and loss of millions of lives, and after the world witnessed the destruction caused by two atomic bombs dropped by the United States on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that killed between 129,000 and 226,000 people, respectively.

Despite the UN’s lofty goal “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” and the countless mechanisms enshrined in the UN Charter to resolve conflicts by peaceful means, many countries waged hundreds of wars in which multi-millions of people have been killed, tens of millions made homeless, and countless millions injured and bereaved.

In 2014, David Swanson wrote in the American Journal of Public Health that, “Since the end of World War II, there were 248 armed conflicts in 153 locations around the world. The United States launched 201 overseas military operations between the end of World War II and 2001, and since then, others, including Afghanistan and Iraq”.

As we know, the policy of containment of communism in the Far East led to the devastation of Vietnam, North Korea and Laos, and the 45-year Cold War Policy ended the East European bloc and dismantled the Soviet Union, and the policies of pre-emptive strikes and of regime change destroyed the lives of millions of people in the Middle East.

The Arab spring in the Middle East caused thousands of deaths and regime changes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. The civil war in Syria killed over 220,000 people. These wars rendered over 50 million people homeless.

According to Tom Mayer, a peace activist, “US military intervention has been a calamity in the Middle East. They have destroyed Iraq, destabilized Libya, fostered dictatorship in Egypt, accelerated civil war in Syria, and the destruction of Yemen, and helped squelch a pro-democracy movement in Bahrain”. 

These confrontations and others like the 1962 Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.

Dag Hammarskjold, UN Secretary-General, from 1953-1961, said that the “UN was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell”.

The UN has indeed saved the world from hell.

Regardless of tragic disappointments, the UN never gave up its supreme goal of eliminating the nuclear weapon — the most inhumane and dangerous weapon on earth which can annihilate whole cities, potentially killing millions, and destroying the natural environment and lives of future generations through its long-term catastrophic effects.

At its first General Assembly on January 24, 1946, the United Nations adopted its very first resolution on the “elimination of atomic weapons and all other major weapons of mass destruction”.

In 1945, the United States was the only nation in the world to own and drop nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Since then, several other countries Russia (Ex-Soviet Union 1949), United Kingdom (1952), France (1960), China (1964), India (1974), Pakistan (1998), North Korea (2006), and Israel (undeclared) acquired the nuclear bomb.

The United States and Russia possess almost 14,000 (92 per cent of all nuclear weapons) enough to scourge our planet umpteen times.

Over the years, the UN adopted several treaties and mechanisms such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1968), the Biological and Toxin Weapons convention (1972), the Chemical Weapons Convention (1993), the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (1996), and the Arms Trade Treaty (2014) — to ban weapons of mass destruction, including the nuclear weapon.

There are nuclear-weapons-free zones in the regions of Latin America, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Central Asia — encompassing 115 states that account for 60 per cent of all UN Member States.

These are significant accomplishments that, in 2017, paved the way for the United Nations to adopt the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) that seeks to “prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination”.

The treaty emphasizes the catastrophic humanitarian consequences that would result from any use of nuclear weapons. It forbids participating states to develop, test, use, threaten to use, produce, possess, acquire, transfer, test or deploy nuclear weapons.

Accolades and subterfuges

In September, New York Times reported that “fifty-six former prime ministers, presidents, foreign ministers and defence ministers from 20 NATO countries, etc., released an open letter” imploring their current leaders to join the TPNW Treaty.

According to NYT, the letter was signed by former prime ministers of Canada, Japan, Italy and Poland; former presidents of Albania, Poland and Slovenia; more than two dozen former foreign ministers; more than a dozen former defence ministers; former secretaries-general of NATO: Javier Solana of Spain and Willy Claes of Belgium; and also the former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

It is striking as some of these are “nuclear umbrella” states seeking protection from the US nuclear arsenal, and also hold 180 nuclear warheads in six bases in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, and Turkey.

Despite the impressive endorsement of the Treaty, recently, CBS reported that the United States has sent a letter to all countries that have ratified the UN treaty to ban nuclear weapons to withdraw their support, alleging that the “five original nuclear powers — the US, Russia, China, Britain and France — and America’s NATO allies stand unified in our opposition to the potential repercussions of the treaty”.

According to CBS, the letter states “Although we recognize your sovereign right to ratify or accede to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), we believe that you have made a strategic error and should withdraw your instrument of ratification or accession”.

That is not only an insult to the UN that strived for 75 years to nail the coffin of the nuclear bomb but also an egregiously belligerent attempt by the superpowers to subvert the will of the majority of people around the world to live in peace without the threat of nuclear holocaust hanging over their heads.

I wish to emphasize that even though the countries that possess nuclear weapons may not sign the TPNW Treaty, all countries will be morally obliged to adhere to it as nuclear weapons will be banned under international law —as in the case of other weapons of mass destruction that are now outlawed.

In the past, some nuclear-powered countries threatened to use the nuclear weapon to intimidate and subjugate other countries — with pompous comments such as “my nuclear button is much bigger and more powerful than yours”. When the nuclear weapon is outlawed that era of braggadocio will become history.

As President Vladimir Putin said: “Our Western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right”.

Just as the US recently demanded North Korea for “the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization” almost all countries now implore the nuclear-powered States to reciprocate by eliminating all their nuclear weapons.

Since the eradication of nuclear weapons under the TPNW is now inexorable, all world leaders should collaborate with the United Nations to establish a world order that ensures peace, justice, security and prosperity for all.

President Truman said, “The responsibility of the great states is to serve and not dominate the peoples of the world”. [IDN-InDepthNews – 07 November 2020]

* Somar Wijayadasa, an International lawyer was a Faculty Member of the University of Sri Lanka (1967-1973), worked in UN organizations (IAEA & FAO from 1973-1985), Delegate of UNESCO to the UN General Assembly from 1985-1995, and Representative of UNAIDS at the United Nations from 1995-2000.

Photo: Trump’s new apparently low-yield nuclear warhead entered production in 2019. Credit: Ronald Gutridge/U.S. Navy.

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This article was produced as a part of the joint media project between The Non-profit International Press Syndicate Group and Soka Gakkai International in Consultative Status with ECOSOC on 07 November 2020.

This article is published under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence. You are free to share, remix, tweak and build upon it non-commercially. Please give due credit.

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