Jan 23, 2021 - World

International nuclear weapons ban goes into force

Protesters celebrate the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in New York on Jan. 22.
Protesters celebrate the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in New York on Jan. 22. Photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

A UN treaty outlawing the existence of nuclear weapons went into effect on Friday.

Why it matters: The ban is chiefly symbolic, as neither the U.S. nor any other nuclear powers supported it. But moral statements should have meaning for weapons that, by their sheer indiscriminate power, are arguably immoral.

Driving the news: The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was ratified by Honduras on Oct. 24, the 50th country to do so, triggering a 90-day period that ended with the treaty going into force on Jan. 22.

  • The treaty requires that all ratifying countries “never under any circumstances ... develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices."

The catch: 86 member states have signed onto the treaty and more than 60 have ratified it, but because no states that actually have nuclear arsenals agreed to its terms, it won't immediately lead to any reduction in atomic arsenals.

  • Nuclear powers including the U.S. have argued that gradual multilateral disarmament is a better way to reduce the nuclear threat, while some security analysts worry the new pact could undercut the long-running Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which was meant to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.

Yes, but: Advocates of the nuclear weapons ban point to the gradual erosion of multilateral nuclear arms control deals, including the expiration in 2019 of the Intermediate Nuclear-forces Treaty, which banned dangerous short-range missiles.

  • "The ban treaty rightly establishes abolition as the standard that all nations should be actively working to achieve, rather than an indeterminate future goal," former Defense Secretary William J. Perry wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Situational awareness: The Washington Post has reported that President Biden is seeking a five-year extension of the last remaining nuclear arms control treaty between the U.S. and Russia, which is set to expire in February.

The bottom line: As long as more than 13,000 nuclear warheads remain in existence, they'll be an existential threat to all of us.

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