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On 7 July 2017, a group of 113 countries will meet in New York, where they will in all probability approve the final draft of a binding multilateral treaty banning nuclear weapons. The first disclosed version of that treaty highlights eleven times the word disarmament and pushes all countries to a complete and unrestricted renouncement of all atomic weapons and “other […] nuclear explosive devices” (Article 1, a). To its supporters, it represents the ultimate achievement of the global movement against nuclear weapons and a self-evident manifestation of an ever-more multipolar international order. Even though it will most probably not bring immediate effects in fostering disarmament, in the long run, it will surely be a powerful normative instrument.

Those against the treaty argue that no multilateral agreement has thus far led to a single nuclear warhead being dismantled. There is no reason to believe that with the Ban Treaty things will go differently, their argument continues. This perception is not just accurate but  is also recognised as such by many negotiators in New York. Nobody truly expects, for instance, that countries such as North Korea — the only nuclear power not to boycott the negotiations — to suddenly give up its arsenals. Their eyes are not looking to the present, but both to the future and the past.

When looking towards the future, negotiators expect that the treaty will form the basis for an emerging legal framework that constrains the use and the acquisition of nuclear weapons. This frame is composed not only by Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which forces all members to pursue disarmament measures, but also by emerging international customary law. This means that atomic weapons face consistent delegitimisation within the international community.

The near-total repudiation of nuclear weapons is a fact. Some would even say that the use of nuclear weaponry has become a taboo. Uncountable social movements, NGOs and political parties worldwide regard nuclear weapons as barbaric. Even in countries that are boycotting the negotiations, public opinion tends to support banning nuclear weapons — in Germany, for instance, 93% of the population supports prohibiting nukes. The ban treaty would therefore just put in black and white what would be the general emerging norm. It would therefore create proper conditions for a future abolishment of those arms.

Negotiators believe that this disarmament strategy is feasible and that its success is a given in the long run. When looking towards the past, they attempt to mirror prior achievements — such as outlawing chemical weapons. In this regard, the path that led to the 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention was paved by the work and the normative statements produced by the 1968 18-Nation Disarmament Committee. Since then, it took 24 years for chemical weapons to be all but banned from the battlefield — much less then the 50 years since the signature of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The idea is not to eliminate atomic weapons immediately, nor to substitute the NPT, as feared by some. It is to create a legal framework that would reinforce the most fragile pillar of nuclear nonproliferation — disarmament. It aims at bringing to current law the final objective of article VI of that treaty, which is a nuclear weapons-free world. In this regard, it is important to remember that from the very beginning, disarmament was not the main objective of the Cold War superpowers. It was no more than part of a double bargain to bring non-nuclear states to the negotiations: the other part would be ensuring unrestricted access to all peaceful uses of nuclear energy. In this sense, it is pretty much expected that it would a hard part to follow up.

The Ban Treaty may represent much more than a future expectation for change. It represents a structural change in the power structures between states. Whereas in the apex of the Cold War any global treaty on security issues would be unimaginable without the blessing of the two heavily armed superpowers, today, emerging powers believe they can push an agenda that is not only opposed to the interests of the main military powers in the world but also something that condemns them. The move of the 53 countries (including Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia, Egypt, Nigeria) that co-sponsored the UN Resolution to begin negotiations in 2017 brings to light three characteristics of the current world order. First, it shows an increase in emergent powers’ and global south countries’ self-esteem; second, it is a statement of their capacity to shape world affairs — in this case, without the endorsement of great military powers; and third, it is an attempt to give preeminence to moral and juridical responsibilities over military concerns.

The configuration of the boycott led by nuclear-weapons-countries also speaks to some broad conclusions drawn by the current world order. Almost all the 40 countries taking part in the boycott are either possessors of nuclear weapons or somehow part of a nuclear umbrella under the US — either in NATO or in other schemes, such as Australia, Micronesia, Japan and South Korea. There are three exceptions. The first one being North Korea, whose commitment to nonproliferation is hard to take seriously. The second one is the Netherlands, which is taking an active part in the negotiations, but is part of NATO. And the third one is Ukraine, which is wracked by civil war after losing the Crimea to Russia in 2015.

It is important to bear in mind that security issues are still a strong driver of many countries’ foreign policies and the power of the US to twist the arms of its  closest allies is still considerable. Hence the remark that the treaty is not expected to bring an immediate change regarding disarmament efforts — it will not. Even though the probability of firing a nuclear warhead might be negligible, states still believe it is important to show their strength. On the other hand, the lack of support for the ban outside the obvious contenders points out that today’s biggest military powers, the US included, are not capable of convincing countries outside their traditional constellation of allies.

Like it or not, it is very probable that the Nuclear Ban Treaty will be approved in the following days by its drafters and, then, by the UN General Assembly. Though we should not expect that it leads immediately to disarmament efforts — or even that it has any immediate impact at all on nuclear weapons owners, it may further the ethical constraints that stigmatise nuclear weapons. It is not yet possible to say whether it will have any long-term effects, but the truth is that it will become part of the international legal framework. Maybe in twenty years, nuclear weapons countries will be morally obliged to join efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons altogether — or maybe it will forever remain only as a minor reminder of an emerging multipolar global order. It is too early to say.

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About the author

LEONARDO BANDARRA is a Research Fellow at the Geman Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA), in Hamburg, a Fellow of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and Doctoral candidate at the University of Goettingen. His current research focuses on international relations, non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, Latin American Foreign Policy, international institutions and norms.