A treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons has been adopted at the United Nations with the support of 122 countries. It will be formally signed at the General Assembly session in September and take effect 90 days after it has been ratified by at least 50 nations. The treaty may not produce immediate concrete results. But its significance as an antithesis to the idea of nuclear deterrence, which serves as the basis of development and possession of nuclear weapons by some countries, should not be dismissed.

There are no signs that nuclear weapons powers and countries under the United States’ nuclear umbrella, including NATO members, South Korea and Australia, will join the treaty. The U.S., Britain and France issued a joint statement criticizing the treaty as ignoring the reality of the international security environment and declaring that they will not sign it. Japan — the only country in history to suffer nuclear attacks in warfare but is now under the U.S. nuclear umbrella — made it clear that it will not sign the treaty, either. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said the treaty is “not consistent with Japan’s basic ways of thinking” on the issue and that Tokyo will instead pursue a framework that engages both nuclear weapons powers and non-nuclear weapons states.

Opponents of the treaty say that since there is no prospect of nations with nuclear arms joining the treaty, it will have no practical effects and will not lead to the reduction or abolition of nuclear arsenals even if it goes into force. But if they believe the treaty is a meaningless document, they are wrong.

The treaty’s philosophical and ethical aspects should not be dismissed. In the preamble, the treaty highlights “the risks posed by the continued existence of nuclear weapons, including from any nuclear weapon detonation by accident, miscalculation or design” and emphasizes that “these risks concern the security of all humanity.” It declares that “all states share the responsibility to prevent any use of nuclear weapons” and acknowledges “the ethical imperatives for nuclear disarmament and the urgency of achieving and maintaining a nuclear weapon-free world.” The treaty says that such a world is “a global public good of the highest order, serving both national and collective security interests.”

The treaty represents a paradigm shift that looks at “the security of all humanity” from a wider perspective, departing from a conventional approach of national security mainly through reliance on military activities. It was born out of concerns “about the catastrophic humanitarian consequences that would result from any use of nuclear weapons.” The preamble says that “the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons … pose grave implications for human survival, the environment, socio-economic development, the global economy, food security and the health of current and future generations,” and refers to victims of the 1945 U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as victims of nuclear tests by mentioning “the unacceptable suffering of and harm caused to the victims of the use of nuclear weapons (hibakusha), as well as of those affected by the testing of nuclear weapons.”

There have been treaties to ban biological and chemical weapons, which are characterized as weapons of mass destruction (WMD), but not to prohibit nuclear weapons, another form of WMD. The newly adopted Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons fills this gap. It prohibits the development, testing, production, acquisition, transferring, receiving, possessing and stockpiling of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices. Significantly, it also prohibits the use or threat to use nuclear weapons — the latter part representing a clear challenge to the idea of nuclear deterrence, or attempts by nuclear weapons states to seek to prevent a nuclear attacks against them and their allies by indicating their readiness to use their nuclear arsenals in retaliation. Most significantly, the treaty brands nuclear weapons as illegal, inhumane weapons of absolute evil. It should have the effect of leading people who live in nuclear weapons states and countries under the U.S. nuclear umbrella to reconsider nuclear weapons from an ethical viewpoint — a factor that will help push forward global efforts to reduce and abolish nuclear arms.

The treaty has its weaknesses. It does not offer a practical approach on how to prod nuclear weapons states to join it. It contains no mechanism to verify the reduction and abolition of nuclear weapons. Nor does it provide a solution to the risk of nuclear weapons being used by accident or miscalculation, or by terrorists. The adoption of the treaty underlines the need for much greater efforts to find effective ways to achieve nuclear disarmament.

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