The Platform

Vitaly V. Kuzmin

Russia, China, and the United States stand opposed to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. This treaty, which came into force on January 22, aims to consolidate the position of the illegality of the use of nuclear weapons in international law. They believe that the nuclear ban treaty could potentially undermine the Non-Proliferation Treaty or the NPT by giving states the option to “forum shop” or choose between the two treaties.

The NPT aims to prevent the dissemination of nuclear weapons around the world, promote peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and most importantly, create conditions conducive to nuclear disarmament. While the object and purpose of both the nuclear ban treaty and the NPT lie in nuclear disarmament, the former plays a more active role and calls upon nuclear-armed states to eliminate any nuclear weapons programs of their own rather than merely undertaking negotiations in good faith towards nuclear disarmament as laid down in the NPT.

A joint statement released by the permanent members of the UN Security Council stated that the only way to achieve the goal of nuclear disarmament is through a gradual process taking into consideration the international security environment. According to these states, the nuclear ban treaty ignores regional security challenges and does little to improve trust and transparency. They believe that the nuclear ban treaty fails to meet the highest standards of nuclear non-proliferation and shall not result in the elimination of a single nuclear weapon.

Further, they also cautioned against the possibility of deeper divisions within the international community on the issue of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament thereby making the goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world harder to achieve. In this context, the permanent members of the UN Security Council refused to support, sign, or ratify the nuclear ban treaty and reaffirm their commitment to the NPT. They also refused to accept any claim that the provisions of the nuclear ban treaty contribute to the development of customary international law and shall be binding on them in this manner.

Russia did not participate in the negotiation of the nuclear ban treaty at the United Nations and did not vote on its adoption in 2017. Thereafter, Russia consistently voted against the UN General Assembly resolution inviting states to adopt the nuclear ban treaty since 2018. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, opposed the nuclear ban treaty by stating that the goal of total nuclear disarmament cannot be achieved by the “unilateral and arrogant methods employed by the [nuclear ban treaty].” He also stated that the time has not come to coerce nuclear-armed states to abandon their nuclear weapons without any regard to strategic realities.

An inert Titan II missile at a museum.

While Russia acknowledged the motivations behind states acceding to the nuclear ban treaty, the Russian foreign ministry noted that the nuclear disarmament process must be gradual and based on the principle of “equal and indivisible security” for all. According to Russia, the provisions of the nuclear ban treaty do not conform to this principle and do not take into account the various factors that influence strategic stability. Despite supporting the goal of a nuclear-free world, Russia believes that the nuclear ban treaty is not the right instrument for achieving this goal and may conversely have a destabilizing effect on the nuclear non-proliferation regime.

As for the United States, strong opposition to the immediate prohibition of nuclear weapons is non-negotiable. The primary reason for this seems to be a trust deficit amongst nuclear-armed states. The entry of North Korea as a nuclear power in 2006, the situation in Iran with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action hanging by a thread and the U.S.-Russia New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty aimed at limiting nuclear arsenal size that was extended for another 5 years in February are some of the reasons that the United States is unwilling to consider joining the nuclear ban treaty.

Through a letter addressed to the signatories to the nuclear ban treaty, the United States contended that Russia and China were keen on increasing their nuclear weapons and would never voluntarily relinquish them. Instead, the United States believed that Russia and China would be intent on benefitting strategically from the nuclear ban treaty by making other states more vulnerable. In light of this, the United States urged signatories to the nuclear ban treaty to withdraw their support for the treaty. Further, through this letter, the United States conveyed its belief that the states joining the treaty had made a strategic error and thus, called upon state parties to withdraw their instruments of accession or ratification.

Due to this strong opposition by the United States, countries falling under the U.S. nuclear umbrella such as Japan voted against the nuclear ban treaty and refused to ratify it even though it is the only country to have been subjected to wartime use of nuclear weapons. Additionally, NATO member-states such as the Netherlands that participated in the negotiations for the nuclear ban treaty had to vote against the treaty due to its nuclear sharing agreement with the United States for hosting U.S. nuclear weapons.

In 2016, China abstained from voting on the UN General Assembly resolution that established the formal mandate for states to commence negotiations on the nuclear ban treaty. In 2017, China did not participate in the negotiations of the treaty at the United Nations and thus, did not vote on its adoption. Additionally, since 2018, China has consistently voted against an annual UN General Assembly resolution calling upon states to sign, ratify or accede to the nuclear ban treaty. As compared to Russia and the United States, China has been more responsive to the nuclear ban treaty as it was the only nuclear-armed state that did not vote against the UN General Assembly resolution for initiating negotiations on the treaty in 2016 but yet, remains unwilling to commit to it.

Hua Chunying, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, stated that the Chinese goal of a final comprehensive ban and destruction of nuclear weapons was fundamentally in line with the purpose of the nuclear ban treaty. In a working paper submitted by China to the 2020 Review Conference of Parties to the NPT, China called for the conclusion of a convention on the prohibition of nuclear weapons as a long-term goal to achieve complete nuclear disarmament under effective international supervision at the appropriate juncture. Despite this, China opposed the treaty as it possesses and stockpiles nuclear weapons and has a “no first use” policy wherein China can retaliate with nuclear weapons only after a nuclear attack by an adversary due to which it cannot adhere to the core prohibitions of the treaty.

As is evident from the opposition to the nuclear ban treaty by nuclear powers such as Russia, the United States, and China, nuclear deterrence is considered paramount for addressing regional security concerns as well as maintaining international peace and security. Thus, we circle back to the age-old question that remains to be answered by the international community: whether to prioritize regional security through nuclear deterrence or pay heed to the humanitarian consequences of nuclearization.

Ankita Amarnath Kamath is a final year student at National Law University Odisha, Cuttack with a keen interest in human rights laws, international law and foreign policy.