On 6 August 1945 (Monday) at approximately 8.15 a.m., an American B-29 Super Fortress, dropped a 9,000-pound uranium-325 bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later, another American B-29 Super Fortress dropped a plutonium-239 bomb, weighing approximately 10,000 pounds, on Nagasaki.1
These attacks wreaked unimaginable devastation on Japan, causing a loss of 130,000 to 215,000 civilian lives in both cities, many through slow painful deaths from exposure to radiation. These tragic events led to Japan’s immediate surrender, bringing an end to World War II. The victors justified these atrocities on the ground that it avoided the loss of the lives of one million American soldiers by ending the conflict in the Pacific without an invasion of Japan.
These catastrophic events sparked off two diametrically opposite reactions. One, an outcry to ban the development and use of these deadly weapons and the other, a scramble to own the deadliest weapon known to mankind.
The year 2017 was a watershed year. On 7 July 2017, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (‘TPNW
’) was adopted at the United Nations Conference to Negotiate a Legally Binding Instrument to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons, Leading Towards their Total Elimination.2
In accordance with Article 15, the TPNW will enter into force 90 days after the fiftieth instrument of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession has been deposited with the Secretary General of the United Nations (‘Secretary-General
’) as the depositary of the TPNW (‘depositary
’). This milestone was reached on 24 October 2020 when Honduras deposited its instrument of ratification with the depositary, thereby bringing the TPNW into force 90 days later on 22 January 2021 (‘Effective Date
Salient provisions of the TPNW
The TPNW is the first multilateral treaty to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons. The salient provisions of the TPNW are outlined below.
The TPNW contains comprehensive prohibitions. It prohibits each State Party from:
The TPNW requires the States Parties to designate a competent international authority (‘competent authority
’) to negotiate and verify the irreversible elimination of nuclear weapons or irreversible conversion of related facilities. If such designation has not been made before the TPNW comes into force for a State Party, the Secretary-General shall convene an extraordinary general meeting of States Parties to take any decisions that may be required.
Elimination of nuclear weapons
A State Party that owns, possesses or controls nuclear weapons is required under the TPNW to de-operationalise and destroy the nuclear weapons and eliminate or irreversibly convert related facilities. In furtherance of the foregoing, a State Party is required to cooperate with the competent authority for the purpose of verifying the irreversible elimination of its nuclear-weapon programme.
In addition, a State Party that has nuclear material for peaceful use must enter into a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (‘IAEA
’) to provide credible assurance that such material will not be diverted from peaceful use.
A State Party that has any nuclear weapons in its territory or in a place under its jurisdiction or control that is owned, possessed or controlled by another State is required to ensure that such weapons are promptly removed.
Time frames are provided in the TPNW for the aforesaid actions are to be carried out.
Each State Party is required to adopt all necessary measures to implement its obligations under the TPNW, including taking all appropriate measures to prevent and suppress any activity prohibited to a State Party under the TPNW from being undertaken by persons or on territory under its jurisdiction or control.
Victim assistance and environmental remediation
The TPNW requires each State Party to provide adequate assistance, including medical care, rehabilitation and psychological support, in accordance with applicable international humanitarian and human rights laws, for individuals within its jurisdiction who are affected by the use or testing of nuclear weapons.
Each State Party must also take the necessary and appropriate measures for the environmental remediation of any area under its jurisdiction or control that is contaminated by the testing or use of nuclear weapons.
International cooperation and assistance
Each State Party is required to cooperate with other States Parties to facilitate the implementation of the TPNW and is entitled to seek and receive assistance, where feasible, from other States Parties.
It is obligatory on a State Party that is in a position to do so, to provide technical, material and financial assistance to States Parties affected by the use or testing of nuclear weapons, to further the implementation of the TPNW.
In addition, a State Party that has used or tested nuclear weapons has the further responsibility of providing adequate assistance to affected States Parties for victim assistance and environmental remediation purposes.
Any State Party may propose amendments to the TPNW by submitting the text of its proposed amendment to the Secretary-General, who shall then circulate the same to all States Parties. If a majority of the States Parties confirm to the Secretary-General within 90 days of the circulation of the proposed amendment that they support further consideration of the proposal, the proposal shall be considered at the next meeting of the States Parties or the review conference, as provided in the TPNW.
A proposed amendment is to be adopted by a positive vote of a two-thirds majority of the States Parties. An amendment shall come into force for each State Party that deposits its instrument of ratification or acceptance of the amendment 90 days after the deposit of such instruments of ratification or acceptance by a majority of the States Parties at the time of adoption. Thereafter, it will enter into force for any other State Party 90 days after the deposit by such State Party of its instrument of ratification or acceptance of the amendment.
The provisions of the TPNW are not subject to reservations.
A State Party may withdraw from the TPNW by giving 12 months written notice to the depositary if it determines that extraordinary events related to the subject matter of the TPNW have jeopardised the supreme interests of its country. The withdrawal notice must include a statement of the extraordinary events that it regards as having jeopardised its supreme interests.
Interestingly, if a State Party that has issued a withdrawal notice is involved in an armed conflict at the expiry of the 12-month period of its withdrawal notice, the State Party concerned shall continue to be bound by its obligations under the TPNW until it ceases to be a party to an armed conflict.
The TPNW is not the first treaty of the United Nations on nuclear weapons. It is preceded by the Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water, and the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons which came into force on 10 October 1963 and 5 March 1970 respectively.3
However, the TPNW is far more ambitious in its objectives than the earlier treaties as it seeks to totally prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons.
Idealists have celebrated the coming into force of the TPNW as a game-changer that signals the death knell for nuclear weapons. Sceptics, on the other hand, doubt its effectiveness as the countries that have, or are believed to have, nuclear weapons (namely Britain, China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia and the United States), the 27 members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisations as well as Australia, Japan and South Korea, have declined to be signatories to the TPNW.
Time will tell whether the TPNW will be a resounding victory or a hollow victory for the nuclear “have-nots
Article by Kok Chee Kheong (Partner) of Skrine