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The people's treaty

By Daryl Le Cornu - posted Friday, 6 November 2020

On 24 October 2020, Honduras became the fiftieth country to ratify the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. This ratification triggers the treaty's 'entry into force' in international law in 90 days, which is 22 January 2021.

Seventy-five years ago, the Charter of the United Nations entered into force in international law after ratification by 29 nations. The Charter was created by 47 nations a few months earlier on 26 June. This new international treaty stated that: 'We the peoples of the United Nations' aimed to prevent the 'scourge of war' that had impacted the world twice already in the first half of the 20th century.

However, for the last seventy-five years the United Nations has not been able to guarantee that the 'peoples of the United Nations' would be free from the worst kind of war - a nuclear war. Instead the small number of nations that possess nuclear weapons (USA, Russia, China, Britain, France, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea), have been able to ignore the will of the majority of people and nations on the planet.


Over the following three quarters of a century, a range of treaties were created, though most were bilateral, negotiated outside the United Nations, and generally serving the interests of the nuclear weapons possessing nations. However, one of these treaties stood out. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968 was multi-lateral and today has 191 states parties.

This treaty essentially involved a bargain between the few countries that possessed nuclear weapons and the overwhelming number that didn't.

All the non-nuclear weapons possessing nations promised not to get nuclear weapons if the countries that possessed them, promised (in Article 6) to 'pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.' All the other countries that have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, except North Korea, have kept their part of the bargain, but the nations in possession of nuclear weapons have not.

After years of broken promises by the nuclear weapons states to eliminate their nuclear arsenals, concerted action by civil society, represented by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, the Red Cross, and a few committed nation states, took action in the form of the Humanitarian Initiative.

Three significant international conferences over the course of 2013 and 2014, in Norway, Mexico and Austria, examined all the evidence regarding the humanitarian and environmental impact of nuclear weapons. The conclusions reached were stark - that any use of a nuclear weapon would be catastrophic, and secondly, that there could be no humanitarian response to a nuclear catastrophe.

The Austrian Pledge at the end of the third of these conferences in December 2014, was agreed to by a majority of the 158 nations participating. Renamed the Humanitarian Pledge for the 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Review conference, it stated that: all relevant stakeholders pledged to: 'stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons in light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences and associated risks.'


The Humanitarian Pledge was taken up by a Working Group at the United Nations over the course of 2016. Early in 2017, the text of a draft nuclear ban treaty was agreed on. On 7 July 2017, at the United Nations, in a room charged with high emotion, 122 nation states agreed to the creation of the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

The dreams of all those who had struggled for nuclear disarmament over the preceding three quarters of a century were finally realised. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2017 for its effective 10-year campaign to make this dream a reality.

The opening line of the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons states that counties that become state parties of the treaty are: 'Determined to contribute to the realization of the purposes of the Charter of the United Nations.' The main aim of the United Nations expressed in the Charter was to prevent the 'scourge of war.'

At last, the 'peoples of the United Nations' had a treaty that expresses the conviction of the majority on the planet that, in Ronald Reagan's words, 'a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.'

With the upcoming entry into force of the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons 'the people of the United Nations' will now have their own legal mechanism to eliminate these horrific weapons.

Hopefully, over time, as more countries sign and ratify the treaty, world public opinion will pressure the nine Nuclear weapons states to re-evaluate their nuclear postures, and 'the people of the United Nations' will finally achieve what they have desired for the last seventy-five years, a world free from the threat of nuclear catastrophe.

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About the Author

Daryl Le Cornu is a history curriculum educator and is a member of the board of ICAN Australia.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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