A treaty aimed at destroying all nuclear weapons and forever prohibiting their use has hit an important benchmark, with Honduras becoming the 50th country to ratify the accord — the minimum needed for it to enter into force as international law.
The United Nations announced late Saturday that the ratification threshold had been achieved, a little more than three years after the treaty was completed in negotiations at the organization’s New York headquarters. Secretary General António Guterres said the 50th ratification was “the culmination of a worldwide movement to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons.”
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is not binding on those nations that refuse to sign on to it. The United States and the world’s eight other nuclear-armed countries — Russia, China, Britain, France, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel — boycotted the negotiations that created the treaty and have shown no inclination to accept it.
American officials have called the accord a dangerous and naïve diplomatic endeavor that could even increase the possibility that nuclear weapons will be used.
Nonetheless, the nuclear-armed countries have been unable to reverse the growing acceptance of the treaty, which takes effect 90 days from the 50th ratification: next Jan. 22. Advocates of the accord have called it the most far-reaching effort undertaken to permanently avert the possibility of nuclear war, a shadow hanging over the world since the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan 75 years ago, in the final days of World War II.
“This is the proof that we are in a completely different era,” Elayne Whyte Gómez, the Costa Rican diplomat who led the 2017 negotiations for the treaty, said Sunday. “This is a strong message.”
So far, the governments of 84 countries have signed the treaty, and the legislatures of 50 of those have ratified it. Advocates expected the remainder of the signatories to ratify it in coming weeks and months.
“This treaty changes the legal status of nuclear weapons in international law, and marks a historic milestone for a decades-long, intergenerational movement to abolish nuclear weapons,” said Physicians for Social Responsibility, a Washington-based group.
The accord outlaws nuclear weapons use, threat of use, testing, development, production, possession, transfer and stationing in a different country. For any nuclear-armed countries that choose to join, the treaty outlines procedures for destroying stockpiles and enforcing their pledge to remain free of nuclear weapons.
Asked for comment on the 50th ratification, the State Department spokeswoman, Morgan Ortagus, reiterated the American opposition to the treaty.
“The TPNW will not result in the elimination of a single nuclear weapon, enhance the security of any state or contribute in any tangible way to peace and security in the geopolitical reality of the 21st century,” she said in a statement.
The 50th ratification was reached just days after the Trump administration sent a letter to other governments that have signed or ratified the treaty, exhorting them to reverse their decision.
“Although we recognize your sovereign right to ratify or accede to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), we believe that you have made a strategic error,” read the letter, a copy of which was seen by The New York Times.
The letter, reported last week by The Associated Press, contended that Russia and China were intent on increasing their nuclear weapons, would never voluntarily relinquish them and would only benefit strategically from the treaty by making other countries more vulnerable.
“Join with us in publicly calling on Russia and the PRC to engage in trilateral arms control negotiations with the United States and reduce nuclear risks rather than heighten them,” the letter stated. “Doing so will do more for advancing the cause of nuclear disarmament than the TPNW ever will.”
That appeal came as the Trump administration has been negotiating with Russia on extending the START Treaty, the main arms control accord limiting the size of the American and Russian nuclear arsenals, which is scheduled to expire in February. China has long rejected the American contention that it, too, sign any successor to the START treaty.
Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, a group that won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for its work, said Sunday that the Trump administration’s appeal betrayed American government nervousness about the impact of the treaty banning them.
She cited the impact of other treaties that have outlawed weapons such as chemical and biological munitions, land mines and cluster bombs. Even if not universally accepted at first, these treaties have shamed other countries into joining them or at least curbing the use of the abhorrent weapons.
“They know that even if it doesn’t bind them legally, it has an impact,” Ms. Fihn said. “Nobody’s immune to peer pressure from other governments.”