Article 36 Podcast episode 9: Nuclear threats and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons
By Elizabeth Minor & Uldduz Sohrabi
In this episode, policy advisor at Article 36 Elizabeth Minor talks nuclear weapons, focusing on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and the expectations ahead of the first meeting of states parties is taking place in Vienna in June 2022.
[00:00:00] Elizabeth Minor: The only conclusion you can come to really is that nuclear weapons need to be prohibited and eliminated.
[00:00:09] Uldduz Sohrabi: In today’s podcast. We are talking about nuclear weapons specifically. We are going to be talking about the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Whose first meeting of state parties is taking place in Vienna in June. We’ll also be discussing what impact the current political climate will have on the meeting.
[00:00:31] I’m Uldduz Sohrabi and this is the Article 36 podcast where we raise a critical voice on weapons.
With me in today’s episode is my colleague here at Article 36 Elizabeth Minor whose work focuses extensively on nuclear weapons. Article 36 is part of the steering committee of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, better known as ICAN, which played a key role in the work towards achieving the TPNW
So, here’s the current status: Today, there are 13,000 nuclear weapons possessed by nine states in the world, which continues to post risks of use, accidental use miscalculations and mishaps posing risk to the entire world.
[00:00:52] There is a very strong recognition that the humanitarian or environmental impacts of any detonation of nuclear weapons would be catastrophic. And it’s out of this recognition that the work for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was put on the international agenda about a decade ago, which later came into force in January, 2021. More recently with the war on Ukraine, president Vladimir Putin has threatened to use nuclear weapons, stressing the importance of gathering, more support for the prohibitions on participating in any nuclear weapon activities through the TPNW.
Elizabeth, can you tell us a bit more about this treaty and the initiative behind it.
[00:01:41] Elizabeth Minor: So the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons, I think really came about from a recognition that something really needed to be done about nuclear weapons and nuclear disarmament.
[00:01:50] These risks aren’t just to those nuclear arms states because the effects of nuclear weapons can cross borders and affect the whole. Disarmament is really an urgent thing, but nuclear disarmament had been in gridlock for decades. There hadn’t been much progress in this area, and I think one of the causes of this is that states with nuclear weapons or those that depended on other states’ nuclear weapons in the defense doctrines still think these weapons are useful and legitimate and have a role in international relations. So, I guess the question then is what can be done about that now? So about a decade ago a number of, countries and also partners in civil society and international organizations decided it would be a helpful thing to do to set out to change the discourse on nuclear weapons– to challenge this to their legitimacy basically by focusing on what nuclear weapons are and so what they do if they’re ever used and also what they’ve done in the past from use and also from testing.
[00:02:50] So this came to be known as the humanitarian initiative, which involved a number of conferences that states run and also a wider examination of the latest evidence [00:03:00] of what are the risks posed by nuclear weapons now and what would happen if one was used again. The knowledge of survivors of nuclear use and testing was important here to really understand in depth what nuclear weapons, what their effects are. And I think that knowledge previously also wasn’t really centered in international discussions about nuclear weapons.
[00:03:21] So, looking at all this evidence, I think, the only conclusion you can come to really is that nuclear weapons need to be prohibited and eliminated. During this time of looking at the evidence of the character and risks of nuclear weapons, the idea of negotiating a treaty banning nuclear weapons with, or without the participation initially of the nuclear arm states was being developed and put forward.
[00:03:45] And the idea with this was that we can draw this legal line and shift international norms on nuclear weapons, erode their legitimacy and create space towards their elimination by doing this– even if the states that actually possessed the weapons don’t initially participate. So Article 36 had a role in developing the argumentation here.
[00:04:05] ICAN — the international campaign to abolish nuclear weapons, which we’re part of played a big role in promoting this idea and advocacy for it and was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 2017 for its work to raise attention on the humanitarian consequences and advocate for this treaty, which states were developing the idea of and negotiating.
[00:04:27] So ICAN campaign there for this treaty, it’s really about– what can we do together now? Like what power do we have? Obviously we can’t take away the nuclear weapons of the nuclear arms states ourselves. But what we can do is take away the legitimacy of possessing those by steps like this treaty and by this work that we do to look at the humanitarian consequences.
[00:04:47] So the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons was negotiated in 2017. It has a categorical prohibition in it on having nuclear weapons, hosting them, using or threatening to use them or assisting any state with nuclear weapons activities.
[00:05:04] It has in it a recognition of the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons and including the disproportionate impacts on certain groups like women and also recognizing that indigenous peoples have suffered disproportionately from nuclear weapons activities which is quite unprecedented as well in a nuclear treaty.
[00:05:24] And it also has obligations in it to take steps towards addressing some of the harm that’s been caused in the past by nuclear weapons, which I think we’re going to look at in our next podcast.
[00:05:35] So, basically the treaty is aiming to stigmatize, prohibit and eliminate eventually nuclear weapons as a humanitarian response to nuclear weapons, to their terrible consequences and the real risks of their use and the fact that they shouldn’t be seen as a legitimate or desirable tool in states arsenals. And we need to shape international norms to change that. It entered into force at the beginning of last year, and as you said, we’ve got the first meeting of states parties coming up which is a real milestone.
[00:06:05] Uldduz Sohrabi: You mentioned that the TPNW was based on concern about the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. Can you tell us a bit more about what that means? What do nuclear weapons actually do?
[00:06:19] Elizabeth Minor: So nuclear weapons they’re the most destructive type of weapon that’s ever been developed. They release a lot of intense light and heat. They have a massive blast wave and also because of their nature release ionizing radiation, which brings extra effects and all this over extremely wide area. So they have both short and long-term consequences that are really devastating. So nuclear weapons have been used in war twice in Japan at the end of the second world war.
[00:06:47] Once in Hiroshima, when a 15 kiloton bomb was dropped and once in Nagasaki where a 22 kiloton bomb was drops and I’ll come back to the significance of those numbers in a bit. But what happens when a nuclear weapon detonates– matter is vaporized, including people and buildings, blast effects pull apart buildings and of all the effects of that, that we know from other weapons, but with the huge force of the blast wave, there’s intense heat of thousands of degrees which burns obviously sets the landscape ablaze as well as killing people.
[00:07:20] And this radiation and radioactive fallout that’s released also causes radiation sickness and the kind of days and weeks to come to people who are exposed to it and also has long-term effects. So humanitarian agencies like the international committee of the red cross have said that there can’t be any meaningful humanitarian response mounted to the detonation of a nuclear weapon in a city. So as was, experienced by the red cross in Japan at the time of these nuclear bombings, healthcare capacity gets more or less destroyed both from the physical destruction of hospitals and the death of healthcare workers and health services become overwhelmed.
[00:08:00] The massive, horrific destruction at the time causes this. So in Hiroshima around 140,000 people died from the bomb by the end of 1945 and 70,000 people in Nagasaki. So as well as those that died in the blast or shortly after from their injuries, many more died from radiation sickness and burns in the weeks and months ahead.
[00:08:27] Beyond the sort of immediate horrific impacts. We also know there’s long-term and intergenerational effects from this radiation, that nuclear weapons release. So in the survivors of the atomic bombings of Japan, there’s a higher rates of cancers, for example. There’s effects on fetuses that pregnant women were carrying and much, much more.
[00:08:47] And radiation can also contaminate the environment, making places, uninhabitable, and land unfit for for use as well. So, we know that even the use of like a single nuclear weapon in a city would cause yeah, hundreds of thousands of casualties and a massive sort of social and economic destruction and disruption as well.
[00:09:08] Recent research has showed that the use of multiple nuclear weapons could have much longer term consequences even on a global level. So for example, the search that’s generated from the firestorms, I was talking after a nuclear weapon is detonated, could cause climate disruption and affect food production worldwide causing famines.
[00:09:30] And we’d see that’d be a horrific health catastrophe and huge loss of life with appalling consequences for victims, even from one nuclear weapon, we know this from the experiences in Japan and to come back to those figures about kilotons, most of the nuclear weapons in states arsenals today are far larger than those that were used in Japan in 1945.
[00:09:51] You might hear in their kind of conversations at the moment in the media about tactical nuclear weapons, which are smaller and [00:10:00] in some states doctrines, I suppose, positioned as possibly more possible to use. These are kind of have a similar or larger yield than those that we use in Japan.
[00:10:10] So from around 10 to a hundred kilotons, for example, in some states are small. So these are huge massively destructive weapons with horrific effects basically.
[00:10:19] Uldduz Sohrabi: I have to address the big elephant in the room as you and I speak about the TPNW. The Russia -Ukraine war that has already seen horrific humanitarian consequences has also seen president Vladimir Putin threatening to use nuclear weapons, as well as testing nuclear capable missiles.
What sort of dynamic does this create coming up to the first meeting of state parties and what will this mean for state parties working at the meeting?
[00:10:50] Elizabeth Minor: I mean, I think it’s well, very important thing to talk about and like you say, in the context of a war that’s already been catastrophic, it’s taken and [00:11:00] ruined many lives and caused so much destruction.
[00:11:03] I guess in that context, the suggestion of the use of nuclear weapons either in Ukraine or against other states that might be kind of militarily, intervening is really a horrific one . So what we’ve seen in months now is that nuclear risks seem greater than they have been for decades, right?
[00:11:20] There’s always been a risk of states miscalculating or having accidents with nuclear detonations, but directly hinting at this possible use of nuclear weapons and putting forces on different states of alerts or say saying that this direct suggestion is horrific.
[00:11:37] And the current situation, I guess, is also really highlighting the extra dangers than volatility that nuclear weapons can bring to wars and conflict situations. I suppose the rest of rec around them is that they create stability and peace between states in situations like these they just bring more danger, really.
[00:11:55] So for the Treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons, I think, that it can’t be a short-term solution to the tensions that we’re seeing today. Right. But the importance of it is that you know, it’s about shaping the long-term international landscape around nuclear weapons, towards elimination, so that we can avoid these dangerous situations in the future.
[00:12:17] And I think the current context really shows the importance of this work and making serious efforts around it and that is urgent to build that long-term effort to stigmatize and eliminate nuclear weapons. So the treaty really stands for the value that nukes are unacceptable because of their humanitarian consequences and they shouldn’t have a place in international relations. Like I was saying, I think in the face of these kinds of risks and threats, we need to build a stronger international community to challenge nuclear weapons and to take a stand with this position against them. And that’s the role of the treaty at the moment and of the meeting of states parties, I think to bring an urgency to this work and build this strong international normative legal architecture towards elimination and based on centring the effects of these weapons on people and the environment and prioritizing that as what we should be concentrating on rather than I suppose, in my opinion, states ideas about what they want to achieve strategically or in geopolitics or these like fantasies of power.
[00:13:23] What we need to focus on is really addressing these existential threats for people and for the world that we live in. So the meeting of states parties, I think is an opportunity to put serious attention on this, on the nuclear risks on to reject nuclear threats and the threat posed by possession and build towards this safer future through our collective responses.
[00:13:42] And I think it’s important to note in this as well that the problem with nuclear weapons isn’t with particular leaders or situations as much as we’re seeing a higher risk, at the moment, but with any possession of nuclear weapons like we’ve obviously seen instability in political leadership in a lot of nuclear armed countries recently, which has also raised the risks or had put nuclear weapons to the forefront of our minds a bit more. And I don’t think that any nuclear arms states or people living in those should be presumptuous about our leader’s ability to make good decisions in relation to using nuclear weapons, in my opinion, because there aren’t any, right. So fundamentally the threats posed by nuclear weapons and the harms that they would cause I think it’s really, it’s too great for our political institutions to adequately control in some way. Right. It’s not something that should be in the hands of anyone.
[00:14:37] Uldduz Sohrabi: Could you give us an idea of the engagement around the, and w how many states are engaged with it right now? And how has that seen a progression. And I guess interesting to know is -will any of the nuclear states be present at the first meeting of state parties?
[00:14:54] Elizabeth Minor: Good question. So when the treaty was negotiated, we had around 130 states. So the majority of the world’s countries who turned up to the negotiations. I think it was 122 that voted in favor of the adoption of the treaty and since then, 60 states have ratified the treaty. So, the treaty entered into force when there were 50 states parties. Now we have 60, as well as a number of other signatories.
[00:15:18] So I think that we can say that the majority of the world’s countries rejects the possession of nuclear weapons. That the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons itself is I suppose, early in its life as a treaty and we’ll be developing further. We know that some states have said they will come to observe the first meeting of states parties, none of the nuclear armed states. They obviously, well, as you might imagine, have taken a strong position against this treaty rejecting it. Some saying, this is something that we’ll never join. And this is an initiative that we don’t agree with. I suppose from our side, this is a treaty which, challenges their possession of nuclear weapons and of the equation of nuclear weapons with their power.
[00:16:02] So obviously it was going to be something that was controversial. And as we build the stigma, and look to change the international environment, the aim is that eventually more states will come around to joining this treaty. In terms of observers of the first meeting of states parties, there are a few European states who are either in a NATO or more allied with some nuclear armed states that are going to turn up, which I think is a useful and constructive step for them to take.
[00:16:31] And in nuclear armed countries and they’re nuclear dependent allies over the past five years as well, been other steps and changes pushed by civil society and campaigners to put the pressure on these countries’ positions on nuclear weapons. So, ICAN for example, has a city’s appeal, where cities and/ or local authorities can declare their support for the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons, which now has a lot of endorsements around the world.
[00:16:59] And there’s also been campaigning and success around divestment from nuclear weapons producing companies. So an increasing number of companies as well, have rejected investment in nuclear weapons producers and have specifically also cited the TPNW.
[00:17:14] So it’s having that effects that we can see in that way.
[00:17:18] Uldduz Sohrabi: Finally, what is it that we want to see coming out of the MSP?
[00:17:23] Elizabeth Minor: I guess, in the current context, as we’ve discussed, rejecting nuclear threats as unacceptable and highlighting the catastrophic consequences is something that’s really important if we’re going to build towards this long-term environment of rejecting nuclear weapons and shaping the landscape. So, I think this is something that’s a responsibility for states parties and that they can take at the first meeting and really put a focus on that. And I think that’s, that’s what we’re, we’re going to see as well.
[00:17:51] More kind of generally, I suppose we want to see the treaty just to get off to a positive start. This is its first meeting. It’s a chance to come together and reaffirm the goals of it and agree how states will collectively continue their work towards its implementation- reaffirming this collective effort of states that are concerned about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and the steps they’re going to take to address that.
[00:18:14] So it’s important for the first meeting, just to be building a constructive collective community there to be doing this serious thinking about humanitarian consequences and to really being positioning the treaty as the proper response to these consequences, right. To prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons.
[00:18:32] And like I said before, the treaty, it’s about what we can do together now to build towards this safer future. So that’s what we’d like to see. And I think states will be focusing on.
[00:18:43] Uldduz Sohrabi: To get a bit more clarity of what this milestone entails besides reaffirming the TPNW as I understand you’re saying here, Elizabeth, what are some more practical decisions that should be made coming up to the meeting or at this meeting itself?
[00:19:03] Elizabeth Minor: I think at this first meeting, so there’s obligations in the treaty that bear upon states parties, for example, they have to make a declaration about whether they’ve ever possessed nuclear weapons within a certain number of days of joining the treaty.
[00:19:16] I think all the states parties have already done that. I think coming into the meeting, there’s a few decisions that states will have to make, which a couple of which were left over from the negotiations to be decided later. So there’s a decision to be made about the timeline for destruction that would be required of nuclear weapons when a nuclear arms state joins the treaty.
[00:19:37] I think other things that states are going to discuss would be their work on universalization. So that’s an obligation in the treaty to encourage others, to engage with it and to join as states parties and there’ll be a discussion about what action points states can take there.
[00:19:53] There will be discussion as well about the obligations on victim assistance and environmental remediation, which we’re going to discuss in the next podcast but in terms of reporting now, I think there’s not so much initial things that states have to bring in terms of there aren’t reporting requirements in the treaty, but they’ll definitely be discussions over efforts that have already been made on universalization and towards the implementation of some of these other obligations. So, there’ll be content to discuss them.
[00:20:22] Uldduz Sohrabi: Thank you for the insight, Elizabeth. And that’s all from us here at article 36. For this specific episode, if you are new to our work and you would like to get to know us more, please visit our website at ARTICLE36.ORG. Until then- bye for now.