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Nuclear Weapons Have Always Been Immoral. Now They’re Illegal.

Just over three years after it opened for signature, the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) reached the 50 national ratifications needed to become international law. The government of Honduras ratified the antinuclear agreement on October 24, which means the TPNW will enter into force 90 days later: January 22, 2021.

This milestone was reached on United Nations Day, which marks the 75th anniversary of the UN Charter. The very first resolution of the UN General Assembly called for the elimination of nuclear weapons, making it particularly serendipitous that UN Day would see the ratification of a global agreement that prohibits these weapons. This year is also the 75th anniversary of the horrific atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States and the beginning of the nuclear arms race.

The TPNW shows us what happens when those committed to multilateralism and transnational activism work together to change the world. Securing these 50 ratifications is a historic moment for nuclear abolition, achieved only by the relentless efforts of generations of activists and diplomats. For the last decade, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) has been working with officials from nonnuclear countries to prohibit these weapons under international law. Despite incredible pressure from several of the nuclear-armed states, the UN General Assembly adopted the TPNW on July 7, 2017, and later that year ICAN went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

As a result of those effort, nuclear weapons will soon be unlawful to possess, develop, deploy, test, use, or even threaten to use for TPNW states parties. These heinous bombs will be on the same legal footing as biological and chemical weapons, as land mines and cluster munitions. The TPNW is the first feminist law on nuclear weapons, recognizing the disproportionate impacts of nuclear weapons on women and girls and on Indigenous peoples, urging more equitable participation of women in disarmament, and mandating victim assistance and environmental remediation in relation to nuclear weapon use and testing.

While much work remains to achieve the elimination of nuclear weapons, their prohibition is a crucial step.

The imperative of the ban

Nuclear weapons are arguably the most extreme expression of the violence of the patriarchal, racist, and capitalist world order. Even without being launched, they are used to project the power and invincibility of their possessor. They are the pinnacle of a state’s monopoly on violence, the ultimate signifier of domination. The myth of nuclear deterrence insists that nuclear weapons maintain global security and keep the peace; the reality is that these weapons have harmed hundreds of thousands of people around the world, particularly Indigenous peoples.

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