In July 2017, an overwhelming majority of the UN General Assembly adopted a landmark global agreement to ban nuclear weapons, known as the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Ratification by the fiftieth country took place this year, on the day the United Nations celebrated its 75th anniversary. The treaty will now enter into force in 90 days’ time. Those countries that have ratified the treaty include Austria, Ireland, and Malta – three member states of the European Union – and it is to be hoped that others in Europe will soon follow.
Finland did not participate in the negotiations leading up to the treaty, and it did not vote for it. Public opinion is, however, in favour of the treaty, with one poll showing that 84 per cent of Finns would support signing up. Three parties in Finland’s coalition government also want the country to join. Foreign ministry officials have argued in hearings of the Finnish parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee that joining would weaken the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – a faulty reasoning that the Committee unanimously rejected.
It is worth quoting at length the statement published on 21 September this year by 56 former leaders and foreign or defence ministers of NATO and US ally countries, including two former NATO secretaries-general:
“The prohibition treaty is an important reinforcement to the half-century-old Non-Proliferation Treaty, which, though remarkably successful in curbing the spread of nuclear weapons to more countries, has failed to establish a universal taboo against the possession of nuclear weapons. The five nuclear-armed nations that had nuclear weapons at the time of the NPT’s negotiation — the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China — apparently view it as a licence to retain their nuclear forces in perpetuity. Instead of disarming, they are investing heavily in upgrades to their arsenals, with plans to retain them for many decades to come. This is patently unacceptable.”
It is precisely the frustration at the lack of progress with nuclear disarmament – to which the nuclear weapons states committed themselves in the grand bargain to get the non-nuclear countries to accept the NPT treaty signed in 1968 – that gave decisive impetus to the prohibition treaty. Obviously, without the participation of the nuclear weapons states, not one nuclear weapon will be dismantled. But without pressure from the non-nuclear weapons states in the form of this treaty, neither will they engage in serious efforts at disarmament. Nuclear weapons states will instead continue the present trend of modernising existing and developing new nuclear weapons systems.
Support in NATO countries for doing away with all weapons of mass destruction is growing, as evidenced by the signatories to the statement above. This is important because one argument made in Finland and Sweden, although it is rarely made in public, for opposing joining the prohibition treaty is the displeasure the US would show at such a step, which could hinder the deepening of these countries’ partnership relations with NATO. Given the growing demand in non-nuclear NATO countries to sign the treaty this is just as spurious as the NPT argument against joining.
The time has come for all states in the world to bring an end to the misguided, illegitimate, and immoral reliance on nuclear weapons. An all-out nuclear war is a threat to human life as a whole and would immediately bring about all the disasters we are trying to avoid with our efforts to curtail climate change and implement the Sustainable Development Goals of Agenda 2030.
No responsible leader disputes this. Yet we continue to conduct exercises in preparation for a nuclear war. The risk of accidental or miscalculated nuclear weapon use may today be even greater than at the height of the cold war. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is, as the statement quoted says, “a beacon of hope in a time of darkness”.
There is one nuclear weapons state in the EU (formerly two) and 21 EU member states in NATO, but nuclear weapons and related issues have never formed part of the EU’s agenda. This is a fundamentally European issue, given the likelihood that Europe would face the greatest level of destruction in the event of a conflict and because of the European preference for achieving change through rules-based processes. All EU member states should address it and join the treaty banning all nuclear weapons. Three member states in the EU have already done so; others should follow them.
Erkki Tuomioja is ECFR member and former Minister for Foreign Affairs in Finland.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.