Paving the way for a safer future

James Kon

It was a historic day on January 22 when the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was enforced as the first instrument of international humanitarian law to mitigate the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of using and testing nuclear weapons.

The treaty was adopted by the conference (by a vote of 122 states in favour, with one vote against and one abstention) at the United Nations on July 7, 2017, and opened for signature by the Secretary-General of the United Nations on September 20, 2017. Following the deposit with the Secretary-General of the 50th instrument of ratification or accession of the Treaty on October 24, 2020, it entered into force on January 22, 2021 in accordance with its article 15 (1).

The TNPW contains a comprehensive set of prohibitions on participating in any nuclear weapon activities.

These include undertakings not to develop, test, produce, acquire, possess, stockpile, use or threaten to use nuclear weapons.

Brunei Darussalam was part of the unprecedented international efforts banning nuclear weapons when it signed the TPNW on September 26, 2018. This demonstrated Brunei Darussalam’s long-standing policies that prohibit the development, acquisition or proliferation of any weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons.

The Bulletin recently interviewed Legal Adviser Aisya Abdul Rahman of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Regional Delegation in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia via email on the significance of the TPNW for all humanity.

The ruin of Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall now commonly called Atomic Bomb Dome or A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, Japan

She said, “The simple reality is that the international community could never hope to deal with the consequences of a nuclear confrontation. No nation is prepared to deal with the humanitarian catastrophe generated by a nuclear detonation. The effects of a nuclear weapon detonation, notably the radioactive fallout carried downwind, cannot be contained within national borders.”

She said no international body could address, in an appropriate manner, the immediate humanitarian emergency nor the long-term consequences of a nuclear weapon detonation, in particular for detonations in or near a populated area, nor provide appropriate assistance to those affected.

“Owing to the massive suffering and destruction caused by a nuclear detonation, it would probably not be possible to establish such capacities, even if attempted,” she said.

TPNW is a victory for humanity: as it holds the State Parties accountable for helping victims of nuclear testing and use, and for clearing contaminated areas. Specifically, it requires states, individually and collaboratively, to provide medical care, rehabilitation and psychological support, and other assistance to victims on their territory without adverse discrimination. It also requires states to clean up areas contaminated by nuclear use or testing.

“It sends a powerful signal that nuclear weapons are not only morally unacceptable, but also illegal under international law, by providing a long-awaited legal instrument to prevent any future use or testing of nuclear weapons.”

Aisya said the ICRC believes there are more than 13,000 nuclear weapons existing today, and they are more powerful than the ones which exploded in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

She said a survey on more than 16,000 millennials from 16 peaceful and conflict-affected countries worldwide found that 54 per cent respondents believe that a nuclear attack is likely to happen sometime within the next decade.

“80 per cent of millennials surveyed believe the existence of nuclear weapons is a threat to humanity while 84 per cent of millennials believe the use of nuclear weapons is never acceptable,” she said. “In addition, 54 per cent believe their country should ban nuclear weapons and 64 per cent said that states with nuclear weapons should eliminate them.”

“TPNW in this sense is important and its entry into force is timely because the TPNW provides the framework to eliminate this threat. Unlike other nuclear disarmament treaties, the TPNW also ensures that people and environment harmed and impacted by nuclear weapons are cared for.”

“ICRC urges nuclear states to urgently take interim steps to reduce the immediate risks of use of nuclear weapons, notably by taking nuclear weapons off ‘high alert’ status and reducing the role of nuclear weapons in their security policies and military doctrines.”

She said that as the guardian of the international humanitarian law (IHL), since 1945, the ICRC is of the view that nuclear weapons could never comply with IHL, and have been calling for their banning and elimination due to its devastating humanitarian impacts.

“The ICRC therefore celebrates the adoption and entry into force of the TPNW. The TPNW not only comprehensively prohibits nuclear weapons, but further provides clear pathways for their total elimination and addresses the humanitarian impacts of any future violation of such prohibition. The TPNW is the essence of the new international norm in nuclear disarmament. It is the fast-track to a world free of nuclear-weapons if more states are part of it.

“In the coming months and years, we must ensure that its provisions are faithfully implemented and continue and scale up our efforts to encourage as many states as possible to sign and ratify this Treaty.”

She urged citizens to put the issue of nuclear weapons on the agendas of civic, religious, social and other organisations they’re part of, spreading the word by sharing relevant ICRC content on social media platforms, and writing letters to local media to share these concerns.

“Any use of nuclear weapons is unacceptable in humanitarian, moral and now legal terms,” added Aisya. “We cannot prepare for the catastrophic consequences of a nuclear detonation. And what we cannot prepare for, we must prevent.”