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The United Nations bans nuclear weapons

Weapons of mass destruction violate human rights

Nuclear weapons were first used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing more than 200,000 people and destroying the two Japanese cities. Now, 75 years later, these weapons of mass destruction have been banned. On January 22, 2021, the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) entered into force, after being ratified by 50 countries — the minimum number required for a treaty to be implemented.

The treaty obliges ratifying states to “never under any circumstance develop, test, produce, manufacture or otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.” It adds that those who possess nuclear weapons should deactivate them and destroy them as soon as possible. And lastly, it forces them to pay reparations to victims and states affected by their use, and to restore damaged ecosystems.

Relevance of the treaty

This treaty is especially relevant because it represents the first legally binding multilateral instrument for nuclear disarmament, that is, the first time that nuclear weapons are officially banned by law.

Earlier, in 1968, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons was approved with the aim of reducing the use of these weapons and the risks and threats they entail. However, the treaty did not impose a general ban on the use or possession of nuclear weapons by all parties. It granted privileges to the five countries that had tested such arms before its approval, to

whom it allowed to continue developing and having these arms: the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia (at that time Soviet Union), France, and China. This explains the large number of nuclear weapons that still exist, which according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), at the beginning of 2020 amounted to 13,400 units distributed among these five powers mentioned above plus India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea.

In this sense, the importance of this new treaty lies in the moral pressure it can put on the world powers that do not ratify or respect it. On a practical level, if a state does not join the treaty, the law can’t apply to it, and it’s unlikely that the mentioned nuclear powers do so – it should be noted that all of them tried to boycott treaty negotiations and NATO has openly spoken against the TPNW on several occasions.

However, for Toni Soler, president of FundiPau, the treaty “is an essential and very important first step to achieve the total elimination of these weapons of mass destruction that threaten the survival of humanity and the planet.” FundiPau is a Catalan organization that is part of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a coalition of non-governmental organizations from 100 countries that promote the adherence and implementation of the UN nuclear weapon ban treaty — which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017.

The Delàs Center for Peace Studies, which is also part of ICAN, sees the treaty as “a milestone in the fight for peace and disarmament” that will serve to “put more pressure and stigmatize those who use these weapons of mass destruction as a way of doing politics and projecting power ”. For Verity Coyle, Amnesty International’s Senior Advisor on Military, Security and Policing, the treaty “plugs a huge gap in international law” and calls for political will to make it effective: “Ending the threat of nuclear weapons is the responsibility of all governments in accordance with their obligation to ensure respect for international humanitarian and human rights law.”

What do nuclear weapons have to do with human rights?

“The explosion of a single nuclear weapon would cause a humanitarian emergency of incalculable scope, causing the death of hundreds of thousands of people and leaving thousands more wounded and neglected, as well as the destruction of the environment with effects that would last decades,” explains Soler. In other words, nuclear weapons are incompatible with one of the most basic human rights: the right to life.

This was expressed by the UN Human Rights Committee in 2018, which concluded that threat or use of nuclear weapons is incompatible with the Right to Life and may amount to a crime under international law.

The key role of civil society

Civil society’s work, organized around the International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons, has been decisive in achieving this treaty, described by many as a historic milestone. Founded in 2007, its founders and members have since worked to build a global groundswell of public support for the abolition of nuclear weapons; reshaping the debate on nuclear weapons and generating momentum towards their elimination.

In Spain, this campaign has been (and continues to be) promoted, among others, by the Network of Mayors for Peace, FundiPau, the Delàs Center for Studies for Peace and the World without Wars and without Violence ( MSG).

FundiPau sees the entry into force of the treaty as “another example of the capacity and tenacity of civil society to transform the world.” And they convey a clear message to the political class: “We must now work to get as many countries as possible to support the treaty, including Spain.” A demand to the Spanish Government shared by the Delàs Center, who sees the ratification of the treaty as “the only politically and morally acceptable position regarding a kind of armament capable of causing an unprecedented humanitarian and climate catastrophe.”

What does Spain say?

Spain, like other member countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), has neither ratified nor supported the treaty. NATO has repeatedly spoken out against TPNW, claiming that it “ignores” threats to the security of the planet. According to Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of Nato, “giving up our deterrent without any guarantees that others will do the same is a dangerous option.”

The treaty must be ratified by states, but there are many municipalities that are also playing an important role in advocating for peace and nuclear disarmament, at least symbolically and to put pressure on state governments.

Mayors for Peace, an international organization made up of mayors working for peace and disarmament, brings together more than 8,000 cities in 165 countries around the world, including more than 200 Catalan municipalities. In 2014, the Network of Mayors for Peace of Catalonia (Xarxa d’Alcaldes i Alcaldesses per la Pau de Catalunya) was created to efficiently coordinate all the activities of the international network in the region.

And the city of Barcelona?

Barcelona City Council has carried out various actions in support of the International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons. The latest was an institutional city-wide declaration, in February 2020, which required the states of the world to commit themselves to nuclear disarmament in a clear and precise manner, as well as urging the Spanish Government to sign and ratify the UN-approved treaty.

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