By Rebecca Davis Gibbons and Stephen Herzog
As diplomats, activists, and researchers converged on Vienna in June for the first meeting of states-parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), recent tragic world events highlighted how critical it was to convene this multilateral forum on nuclear disarmament.
Since February, Russia’s war against Ukraine has epitomized the grave dangers of a world where nine states possess approximately 12,700 nuclear weapons.1 That Russia could invade a sovereign state and indiscriminately target its civilian population, while using nuclear threats to deter NATO from intervening, has stunned the world. It offers a stark reminder that possessing nuclear arms can enable abhorrent violations of international law.2
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression and nuclear threats are the most egregious recent activities by a nuclear weapons possessor, but they are hardly the only transgressions. Nuclear-armed states continue to emphasize these weapons in their national security doctrines by pursuing new capabilities and modernization programs and by increasing their numbers of warheads. In other words, the five countries designated as nuclear-weapon states under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) do not appear to be taking effective measures toward fulfilling their NPT Article VI disarmament commitments. Disappointment over a lack of progress in this area led diplomats and activists to pursue creation and ratification of the TPNW in the first place.3
The TPNW, which entered into force in January 2021 and is popularly known as the nuclear ban treaty, prohibits all nuclear weapons activities, including building, testing, possessing, transferring, helping others develop, and threatening the use of nuclear arms.4 The first meeting of states-parties originally was scheduled for January 2022, but was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, as were most other nuclear-related multilateral gatherings. By the time the meeting convened at the UN office in Vienna on June 21–23, the TPNW boasted 66 states-parties. Thirty-four other interested countries attended as observers.
Despite successful consolidation of the TPNW’s entry into force and progress toward developing policies for treaty implementation at the meeting, major challenges loom for this new fixture of the global nuclear order. Treaty proponents face the twin tasks of building effective treaty infrastructure and convincing additional states to join. These tasks may prove difficult in the short term. To be sure, policymakers and publics alike are waking up to nuclear risks due to media coverage of Russian threats and aggressive behavior. For some countries, this means increased interest about acquiring nuclear security guarantees for protection. Yet, if the unacceptable risks and consequences of nuclear deterrence become the dominant long-term narrative, a groundswell of support for the TPNW and nuclear disarmament could eventually emerge.
Implementing a Global Nuclear Weapons Ban
Before the meeting of states-parties, Austria hosted the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons, which featured testimonials of nuclear explosion survivors alongside panel discussions and presentations on new scientific research about the devastating effects of nuclear weapons use. This event on June 20 marked the fourth such conference, following three others in 2013 and 2014, in Oslo; Nayarit, Mexico; and Vienna. They paved the way for the TPNW by educating diplomats on the impacts of nuclear weapons use on humans, their communities, and the environment.
The formal meeting of states-parties followed, with Austrian diplomat Alexander Kmentt, president of the proceedings, arguing that the TPNW is needed now more than ever and represents the world’s only nuclear trend moving in the right direction. UN Secretary-General António Guterres offered support by video, stating that “we must stop knocking on doomsday’s door” and “let’s eliminate these weapons before they eliminate us.” Statements from several political leaders came next, as well as from Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross; Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN); and Karipbek Kuyukov, a survivor affected by Soviet nuclear testing in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan.
Because there were only three days of proceedings, the participants had negotiated in advance much of the language released in the meeting’s final declaration and action plan.5 Nevertheless, delegations debated numerous topics related to treaty implementation that would form the 50-point action plan, including how to persuade more countries to join the treaty, set timelines for eliminating nuclear arsenals after nuclear-armed states join the TPNW, establish the disarmament verification body, and put into practice the accord’s positive obligations.
Much discussion centered on Article 12, which calls for states-parties to “encourage” all other states to join the treaty “with the goal of universal adherence.” Member-states Austria and Costa Rica, alongside observer Indonesia, submitted a working paper with suggestions for implementation.6 During debate, several states expressed the need to go beyond seeking additional state ratifications and advocated for global, public educational efforts on the treaty and the effects of nuclear weapons use. The action plan calls on states-parties to establish national coordinators for Article 12 universalization efforts within 60 days and lays out the means to promote the treaty and its norms. These tools include démarches, outreach meetings, international conferences and workshops, UN General Assembly resolutions, and high-level official statements. The action plan notes that states-parties should emphasize dialogue and the humanitarian argument behind the treaty when engaging with states “that for the moment remain committed to nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence.”
Another important issue concerned Article 4, stipulating the conditions for eliminating nuclear weapons. Before the Vienna meeting, this language did not specify a timeline by which nuclear-armed states that join the TPNW must do so. South Africa, the only state that has given up an indigenously developed nuclear arsenal, took the lead by holding consultations before the meeting and presenting a working paper.7 Subsequently, states-parties agreed to a 10-year window for nuclear weapons dismantlement, but allowed for possible extensions. They also decided that states that host forward-deployed nuclear weapons must remove them within 90 days after their accession to the TPNW.8
Article 4 also calls for members to “designate a competent international authority or authorities to negotiate and verify the irreversible elimination of nuclear-weapons programmes.” Mexico, with support from observer state Brazil, suggested that each country send a representative to an intersessional committee to examine the possibility further, and this was incorporated into the action plan.
Kazakhstan and Kiribati, as states deeply affected by the horrific legacy of nuclear testing, led consultations on Articles 6 and 7 of the treaty.9 These articles address two key positive treaty obligations: assistance for victims of nuclear use and testing and environmental remediation for areas affected by nuclear weapons use.10 The consultations resulted in several actions, including consideration of the feasibility of an international trust fund to support those harmed by nuclear weapons use.
On the final day of the conference, the parties made plans to establish expert consultative bodies. They created a scientific advisory group of up to 15 individuals to provide technical advice for treaty implementation and agreed to appoint an informal facilitator to focus on the TPNW’s complementarity with other nuclear treaties. The treaty members asked Ireland and Thailand to lead these activities following the countries’ working paper on the topic.11
To conduct treaty implementation work in the two years prior to the next meeting, states-parties established a coordination committee. It will meet at least quarterly and involve Kmentt, the next president-designate, chairs of informal committees on universalization and victim assistance and environmental remediation, and competent international authorities. ICAN and Red Cross representatives will observe. This intersessional process will ensure treaty implementation tasks continue between meetings of states-parties.
In addition to the action plan, states-parties consented to the Vienna declaration. This four-page document stresses the moral and humanitarian motivations underlying the treaty and voices significant concern about the nuclear weapons possessed by the five NPT-recognized nuclear-weapon states and four other nuclear-armed states outside the NPT: India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan. The declaration is unequivocal in its critique of nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence; it expresses support for the goals of the TPNW and its full implementation.
The Vienna declaration also condemns nuclear threats in strong terms without naming specific states while hinting at recent Russian actions. It reads, “We are alarmed and dismayed by threats to use nuclear weapons and increasingly strident nuclear rhetoric. We stress that any use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is a violation of international law, including the Charter of the United Nations. We condemn unequivocally any and all nuclear threats, whether they be explicit or implicit and irrespective of the circumstances.”
The declaration further criticizes nuclear-armed states that have tried to pressure non-nuclear-weapon states not to join the treaty, an implicit reference to the NATO nuclear powers France, the UK, and the United States.
Unlike the nuclear-armed states and those under their protection, the declaration rejects nuclear deterrence and “the fallacy of nuclear deterrence doctrines.” It asserts that the goal of states-parties is to stigmatize and delegitimize these weapons and to “harness the public conscience in support of our goal of universal adherence to the Treaty and its full implementation.”
Finally, the declaration recognizes the global importance of the NPT, “[deploring] threats or actions that risk undermining it.”
States-Parties, Observers, and Nonparticipants
The 66 parties to the TPNW represent a broad cross-section of the international community, including states from Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, North and South America, and Oceania. Their geographic diversity showcases the global appeal of nuclear disarmament and dissatisfaction with stalled progress fulfilling NPT Article VI. There was also a large international civil society presence in Vienna because nuclear weapons use would affect all people and the presence of nongovernmental organizations was mandated specifically by the TPNW.
The 34 nonmember states that observed the Vienna proceedings included those intending to ratify the treaty, those not planning to join, and those still undecided. Among the observers were Brazil, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia, Libya, the Marshall Islands, Morocco, Nepal, and Switzerland, each of which had varied perspectives on salient issues. For example, Brazil stressed the compatibility of the TPNW and the NPT while Switzerland noted that relations between the treaties were not yet clear. Also observing were a handful of U.S. allies under the nuclear umbrella: Australia, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and Norway and soon-to-be-NATO-allies Finland and Sweden. Norway, host of a previous humanitarian conference, even stated that attending the meeting of states-parties should not be viewed as a step toward ratification of the TPNW because the new treaty “would be incompatible with our NATO obligations.”12 Regardless, observers agreed with the goal of nuclear disarmament in their statements and commended the humanitarian initiative. Germany also welcomed the positive treaty obligation regarding victim assistance.13
It is also important to take stock of who was not in Vienna, namely the five NPT-recognized nuclear-weapon states, as well as India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan, who have not joined the treaty and did not participate as observers. Many of their allies did not send delegations either. This behavior is broadly consistent with statements by numerous countries that rely on nuclear weapons or extended deterrence indicating their refusal to join because the TPNW will undermine the NPT and not contribute to disarmament.14
Japan’s official absence was particularly notable. Despite vigorous efforts by activists to persuade the Japanese government to observe the Vienna meeting, it decided instead to focus on the NPT review conference in August. This decision effectively dashed near-term hopes that Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who represents Hiroshima, would part ways with his predecessor Shinzō Abe’s opposition to the treaty. Nevertheless, several hibakusha, the survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the mayors of these two cities; and other activists were present. Both mayors spoke at the conference and received significant attention from scores of Japanese reporters who were present.
The meeting seemed as much about implementing the treaty as it was about rebutting oft-repeated criticism of the accord; the states-parties frequently engaged with the arguments of observers and nuclear-armed states. These debates primarily dealt with three issues: whether or how the TPNW and NPT complement or conflict with each other, the extent to which some states prioritize deterrence over disarmament, and condemnation of Russia’s nuclear threats during the war in Ukraine.
On the first point, almost every state-party reiterated in its national statement the complementarity of the TPNW with existing nonproliferation regime infrastructure. This includes the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the nuclear-weapon-free zones, and especially the NPT. Such compatibility was a key message because the states-parties sought to counter the claims by nuclear-armed states that the new treaty would undermine the NPT, long the bedrock of arms control and disarmament efforts, and sow division among its members. Many delegates said the TPNW would encourage intensified efforts to meet unfulfilled NPT Article VI disarmament commitments.
On the second point, several delegations criticized states that rely on nuclear weapons for their national security. These statements drew attention to disagreements between those states that perceive nuclear weapons as a source of security and those that see them as creating insecurity. As the Jamaican delegate explained, “[F]ar from ensuring security, nuclear weapons threaten our survival.”15 The Irish delegate similarly stated, “It is our fundamental belief that nuclear weapons offer no security.”16 Another rhetorical theme was the use of the terms “realism” and “reality.” In the past, representatives of the nuclear-armed states have chastised the TPNW with phrases such as, “We have to be realistic.”17 Some treaty proponents used similar language to underline nuclear weapons effects and advocate for the global ban.
Finally, many European observer states wanted the states-parties to strongly condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, especially Putin’s nuclear threats. TPNW member state Ireland, among others, vociferously agreed, stating, “We cannot shy away from calling out those who threaten the use of nuclear weapons.” Controversially, the majority of states-parties did not even mention Russian aggression against Ukraine in their remarks. Fierce debate occurred behind the scenes about whether to shame Russia by name in the final document, but in the end, the members’ condemnation of “any and all nuclear threats” did not single out Russia. Many states-parties viewed Russian nuclear threats during the war in Ukraine as continuing a long history of misbehavior by the nuclear-armed states. To these delegations, Russian actions were further evidence of a lack of seriousness about disarmament by the nuclear powers rather than a standalone transgression requiring separate condemnation.
Competing Narratives and Nuclear Futures
The success of the first meeting of the TPNW states-parties is difficult to deny in terms of organization and policy. For one thing, the nuclear weapons have-nots succeeded in solidifying entry into force of an international treaty banning the world’s most powerful weapons, weapons that could imperil the future of humanity. Resulting policy developments include concrete efforts to expand the treaty to more states, increase public outreach, implement future nuclear dismantlement after nuclear-armed states join the treaty, and address collateral consequences of nuclear weapons. The strong enthusiasm of the delegations and nongovernmental observers was noticeably atypical for diplomatic proceedings, highlighting their passion for the new treaty and dedication to its objectives.
Euphoria among many TPNW proponents notwithstanding, many challenges lie ahead. Russia’s war in Ukraine has underscored and exacerbated long-standing nuclear divisions among states. Two possible lessons have emerged. On the one hand, Ukraine, a state lacking a nuclear-armed patron, was invaded after having given up its inherited Soviet nuclear arsenal, which has increased some states’ interest in nuclear deterrence and extended deterrence.18 There is now wider discussion of South Korea acquiring its own nuclear weapons.19 Meanwhile, Finland and Sweden have moved swiftly to join NATO and be covered by the U.S. nuclear umbrella.20 On the other hand, Putin’s nuclear threats appear to have further convinced many states and activists of the dangers of possessing these deadly weapons of mass destruction.
Finding common ground between these camps will not be easy, but there is power in narrative. Now that the TPNW is here to stay, the best advocacy strategy for proponents of the treaty appears to be pointing to the world’s nuclear realities. Putin is reminding the public continuously of disturbing nuclear facts that have received only limited popular attention since the Cold War ended. All major cities in nuclear-armed states, as well as NATO states in Europe, are mere minutes from destruction by nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. This mutual nuclear targeting has been the case for many decades, but it has had low visibility in the public sphere.
The devastating consequences of any nuclear weapons use on societies, the environment, and politics would affect everyone on the planet. Governments are not the only actors that matter. ICAN Executive Director Beatrice Fihn has stressed that one objective of the ban movement must be to stigmatize the bomb from the bottom up in states relying on nuclear deterrence.21 Put simply, public opinion and public discourse are critical. Research has shown, for example, that a majority of U.S. and Japanese citizens support nuclear disarmament even though their leaders continue to push narratives of security through deterrence.22 Other polls indicate, however, that public opinion cannot be taken for granted. Many Americans can be persuaded to oppose the TPNW by U.S. government arguments against the treaty, 52 percent of Germans support maintaining once unpopular U.S. tactical nuclear weapons on their soil given Russia’s aggressive behavior, and a majority of Dutch support TPNW accession “only if nuclear-weapon states or other NATO allies also joined.”23
The next meetings of TPNW states-parties will take place at the UN in New York in 2023 and 2026, with Mexico and Kazakhstan, respectively, presiding over the discussions. Meanwhile, treaty advocates can feel proud of what they accomplished in Vienna, while remaining clear-eyed about the difficult work ahead. Implementing the nuclear ban treaty and attracting new members, particularly those that rely on nuclear weapons for security, undoubtedly will be difficult. Prospects for nuclear disarmament, whether through NPT Article VI or the TPNW, appear bleak in the short term as the world’s nuclear-armed states become increasingly divided.24 The disturbing stream of world events suggests, however, that the Vienna action plan’s emphasis on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons use is the nuclear narrative that most closely mirrors reality.
1. Federation of American Scientists, “Status of World Nuclear Forces,” n.d., https://fas.org/issues/nuclear-weapons/status-world-nuclear-forces/ (accessed August 12, 2022).
3. Rebecca Davis Gibbons, “The Humanitarian Turn in Nuclear Disarmament and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” The Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 25, Nos. 1-2 (February/March 2018): 11–36.
4. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, July 7, 2017, https://treaties.un.org/doc/Treaties/2017/07/20170707%2003-42%20PM/Ch_XXVI_9.pdf.
5. First Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, “Draft Vienna Declaration of the 1st Meeting of States Parties of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons: ‘Our Commitment to a World Free of Nuclear Weapons,’” TPNW/MSP/2022/CRP.8, June 23, 2022; First Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, “Draft Vienna Action Plan,” TPNW/MSP/2022/CRP.7, June 22, 2022.
6. First Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, “Implementing Article 12 of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons: Universalization; Working Paper Submitted by the Co-facilitators, Austria, Costa Rica and Indonesia,” TPNW/MSP/2022/WP.7, June 17, 2022.
7. First Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, “Deadlines for the Removal From Operational Status and Destruction of Nuclear Weapons and Other Nuclear Explosive Devices, and Their Removal From National Territories (Article 4): Working Paper Submitted by the Facilitator, South Africa,” TPNW/MSP/2022/WP.9, June 22, 2022. For a discussion of why states may give up nuclear weapons, see Kjølv Egeland, “A Theory of Nuclear Disarmament: Cases, Analogies, and the Role of the Nonproliferation Regime,” Contemporary Security Policy, Vol. 43, No. 1 (January 2022): 106–133.
8. This time frame was influenced by research examining historical cases of weapons removal. See Moritz Kütt and Zia Mian, “Setting the Deadline for Nuclear Weapon Removal From Host States Under the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, Vol. 5, No. 1 (June 2022): 148–161.
9. For more on these legacies, see Togzhan Kassenova, Atomic Steppe: How Kazakhstan Gave Up the Bomb (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2022); Becky Alexis-Martin et al., “Addressing the Humanitarian and Environmental Consequences of Atmospheric Nuclear Weapon Tests,” Global Policy, Vol. 12, No. 1 (February 2021): 106–121.
10. For further background, see Bonnie Docherty, “From Obligation to Action: Advancing Victim Assistance and Environmental Remediation at the First Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, Vol. 3, No. 2 (November 2020): 253–264; Nidhi Singh, “Victim Assistance Under the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons: An Analysis,” Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, Vol. 3, No. 2 (November 2020): 265–282.
11. First Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, “Complementarity With the Existing Disarmament and Non-proliferation Regime: Working Paper Submitted by the Co-facilitators, Ireland and Thailand,” TPNW/MSP/2022/WP.3, June 8, 2022.
12. Jørn Osmundsen, Statement to the first meeting of states-parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, June 21, 2022, https://documents.unoda.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Norway.pdf.
13. Rüdiger Bohn, Statement to the first meeting of states-parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, Vienna, June 21–23, 2022, https://documents.unoda.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Germany.pdf.
14. See, for example, Paul Schulte, “The UK, France and the Nuclear Ban Treaty,” in Breakthrough or Breakpoint? Global Perspectives on the Nuclear Ban Treaty, ed. Shatabhisha Shetty and Denitsa Raynova, December 2017, p. 21, https://www.europeanleadershipnetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/ELN-Global-Perspectives-on-the-Nuclear-Ban-Treaty-December-2017-1.pdf.
15. Government of Jamaica, Statement to the first meeting of states-parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, Vienna, June 21-23, 2022, https://documents.unoda.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Jamaica.pdf.
16. Government of Ireland, Statement to the first meeting of states-parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, n.d., https://documents.unoda.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Ireland.pdf.
18. Lauren Sukin and Alexander Lanoszka, “Poll: Russia’s Nuclear Saber-rattling Is Rattling Neighbors’ Nerves,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 15, 2022, https://thebulletin.org/2022/04/poll-russias-nuclear-saber-rattling-israttling-neighbors-nerves/. For a discussion of Ukraine’s disarmament, see Mariana Budjeryn, Inheriting the Bomb: The Collapse of the USSR and the Nuclear Disarmament of Ukraine (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022).
22. Ondrej Rosendorf, Michal Smetana, and Marek Vranka, “Disarming Arguments: Public Opinion and Nuclear Abolition,” Survival, Vol. 63, No. 6 (December 2021/January 2022): 183-200; Jonathan Baron, Rebecca Davis Gibbons, and Stephen Herzog, “Japanese Public Opinion, Political Persuasion, and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, Vol. 3, No. 2 (November 2020): 299–309.
23. Stephen Herzog, Jonathon Baron, and Rebecca Davis Gibbons, “Antinormative Messaging, Group Cues, and the Nuclear Ban Treaty,” Journal of Politics, Vol. 84, No. 1 (January 2022): 591–596; Robert Bongen, Hans-Jakob Rausch, and Jonas Schreijäg, “Umfrage: Erstmals Mehrheit für Atomwaffen in Deutschland” [Poll: Majority in favor of nuclear weapons in Germany for the first time], Tagesschau, June 2, 2022, https://www.tagesschau.de/investigativ/panorama/umfrage-atomwaffen-deutschland-101.html; Michal Onderco et al., “When Do the Dutch Want to Join the Nuclear Ban Treaty? Findings of a Public Opinion Survey in the Netherlands,” The Nonproliferation Review, October 27, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1080/10736700.2021.1978156.
Rebecca Davis Gibbons is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Southern Maine. Stephen Herzog is a senior researcher in nuclear arms control at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich. They are co-chairs of the Beyond Nuclear Deterrence Working Group at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Project on Managing the Atom.