Nuclear weapons – always inhumane and unacceptable, now illegal

Tilman Ruff

On Saturday 24 October, the number of nations ratifying the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) reached the milestone of 50. This means that 90 days later, on 22 January 2021, the treaty will enter into legal force, becoming international law and binding on the states that have ratified it, and all those which ratify in future. The treaty will however stigmatise nuclear weapons for all states.

It is fitting that 24 October also marked the 75th anniversary of the founding of the UN, “determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”. The very first resolution of the UN General Assembly, on 24 Jan 1946, called for the elimination of atomic weapons.

This is a historic achievement and an enormous win for planetary health. Outlawing nuclear weapons is an essential step towards eliminating them, which is the only reliable way to prevent their use.

PHAA members can take particular pride and encouragement from this achievement. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was founded in Melbourne through the Medical Association for Prevention of War and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). ICAN became the leading civil society coalition working with governments to conclude the nuclear weapons ban treaty. For this work in 2017 ICAN became the first Australian-born entity to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The effort involved many partners. The World Federation of Public Health Associations, World Medical Association and International Council of Nurses joined with IPPNW in 2015-17 during the UN processes that lead to the negotiation and adoption of the treaty. The coalition spoke with a united expert health professional voice to the compelling and irrefutable evidence that any use of nuclear weapons would be an unmitigated catastrophe, for which no health and humanitarian response is possible, and therefore prevention through the abolition of nuclear weapons is the only responsible course of action. This evidence-based advocacy was influential and is reflected in the treaty’s preamble. The world’s largest humanitarian organisation, the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, was also a crucial partner. All these organisations have called on all states to sign and ratify the treaty as a matter of urgency and to faithfully implement it.

PHAA members can also be proud that PHAA has had a clear policy on the public health imperative to eradicate nuclear weapons since 1993, revised and updated five times since,  maintained by members of both the International Health and the Ecology and Environment PHAA Special Interest Groups.

In the policy PHAA seeks the following actions:

– Exclude any role for nuclear weapons on Australia’s military policies.

– Exclude Australian facilities and personnel from any role in military preparations to use nuclear weapons.

– Sign and ratify the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons as soon as feasible.

Treaties work

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons fills a gaping hole in international law that for far too long saw the most destructive weapon, the only weapon which poses an existential threat to all humanity and to the biosphere, as the only weapon of mass destruction not to be prohibited under international law.

Experience with biological and chemical weapons, antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions provides consistent lessons. Treaties which have codified in international law the rejection of an unacceptable weapon provide a crucial basis and motivation for the progressive work of eliminating these weapons. Providing one legal standard for all nations has been essential to the substantial progress made in controlling banned weapons. All the weapons subject to treaty prohibition are now less often justified, produced, traded, deployed and used. No indiscriminate and inhumane weapon has been controlled or eliminated without first being prohibited.

The Australian Government’s opposition to the TPNW is at odds with its support for all the bans on other inhumane weapons. The sticking point is that Australia cannot be serious about nuclear disarmament while claiming that US nuclear weapons are essential to Australia’s security, and providing assistance for their possible use through hosting military facilities engaged in command, control and targeting of nuclear weapons. However, there is nothing in this treaty which stops non-nuclear military cooperation with a nuclear-armed state, as other US allies like New Zealand, Thailand and the Philippines have already proven.

There are welcome signs towards Australia getting on the right side of history, including support for Australia joining the treaty from parliamentarians from a wide cross-party spectrum. Labor leader Anthony Albanese and shadow foreign minister Penny Wong welcomed the 50th ratification and affirmed Labor’s National Policy Platform commitment to joining the treaty.

A sure sign that this treaty matters is the strong opposition it continues to arouse among nuclear-armed states. Shortly before the treaty reached 50 ratifications, the Trump administration wrote to all states that have joined the treaty saying it “turns back the clock on verification and disarmament and is dangerous” and admonishing them that “… you have made a strategic error and should withdraw your instrument of ratification of accession”. Nuclear-armed states are clearly nervous that the treaty becoming international law puts their continued justification and possession of nuclear weapons on notice and exposes their failure to deliver on their obligation to disarm.

Another important sign that the treaty matters is that money is already moving away from companies that profit from making the worst weapons of mass destruction, soon to be illegal. The world’s largest sovereign wealth fund (in Norway), major banks (like Deutsche Bank, KBC in Belgium and Kyushu Financial Group) and pension funds (including ABP, Europe’s largest) are among the growing number of financial institutions divesting from companies building nuclear weapons. Every responsible financial institution should now do the same.

In a dark time, the TPNW shines a light on the most promising path to free the world from the risk of indiscriminate nuclear violence. Not only does the treaty provide a comprehensive prohibition of nuclear weapons, it also provides the only internationally- agreed framework for all nations to fulfil their legal obligation to eliminate these weapons.

Further, the TPNW obliges joining nations to provide long-neglected assistance for the victims of nuclear weapons use and testing, and to undertake feasible remediation of environments contaminated by nuclear weapons use and testing.

The imminent entry into force of the ban treaty provides an excellent opportunity for renewed education and advocacy by PHAA and its members. Time is not on our side. The treaty provides our best hope for the worst weapons.


A/Prof Tilman Ruff AO (University of Melbourne) is co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (Nobel Peace Prize 1985) and founding chair of ICAN (Nobel Peace Prize 2017).

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