July 9, 2021 Reading Time: 5 minutes
The “Baker” Explosion, part of Operation Crossroads, a US Army nuclear test at Bikini Atoll, Micronesia, on 25 July, 1946.
Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) also known as the nuclear ban treaty came into force on 22 January 2021. The TPNW will forbid the development, production, testing, acquisition, stockpiling, transfer, possession and stationing, and the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons. As the treaty approached the ratification threshold required for it to enter into force, several Nuclear-Weapons States (NWS) most notably the U.S reportedly urged countries that had already ratified the TPNW to withdraw their support. The hostile and adversarial stance displayed by many of the NWS towards the TPNW has not changed in any considerable way despite the arrival of a new administration in Washington just two days after the TPNW entered into force. Nevertheless, it should be paramount for smaller states such as Sri Lanka to continue their obligations and advocacy towards nuclear disarmament as outlined under Article 6 of the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). The TPNW, in this regard, is the most valuable tool for Non-nuclear weapons states to build a coalition around strengthening the global nuclear weapons taboo and to advance the global nuclear disarmament agenda.
After decades of frustration at the lack of progress on nuclear disarmament within the NPT framework, civil society groups and like-minded states embarked on an initiative to construct a new treaty that prohibits nuclear weapons without exception. While the NPT achieved considerable success in minimising horizontal nuclear weapons proliferation (spread of nuclear weapons to new countries), the treaty has failed to stop the vertical proliferation of nuclear weapons (NWS increasing their stockpiles of nuclear weapons and technology). Many of the NWS frequently share the view that nuclear disarmament could only happen within an NPT framework. However, in practice after a period of cutbacks since the cessation of the Cold War, we now are appearing to enter a period of rapid scale-up and modernization of nuclear weapons. The United Kingdom for example recently announced its plans to expand its nuclear stockpile by more than 40 per cent.
In the mid to later 2000s, the nuclear disarmament agenda received a number of boosts from former high profile US administration officials. The most notable being a highly influential op-ed which appeared in The Wall Street Journal titled ‘A World Free of Nuclear Weapons’. What was notable about the article was that it was written by four former Cold War warriors; Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, William Perry, and George Shultz. In addition, support from newly elected US President Obama for the Global Zero project continued to push the conversation forward. However, the commonly cited catalyst for jumpstarting the process that years later would successfully achieve a legally binding prohibition on nuclear weapons would be the final document agreed on by participating member states at the 2010 NPT review conference. The document drew attention to the possible catastrophic humanitarian consequences that would result from the use of nuclear weapons. This sentiment helped drive a dual-track approach by civil society groups and like-minded states dubbed as the ‘humanitarian-impact movement to negotiate a new treaty on nuclear disarmament. The civil society groups in particular such as the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) managed to highlight the disproportionate cost borne by women and indigenous communities due to nuclear weapons development. The work of ICAN was later recognised as monumental enough to win the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.
In July 2017, Sri Lanka was one of the 122 countries that participated in the negotiations on the TPNW. Sri Lanka approved the text of the treaty and there was a strong expectation that Sri Lanka would honour its commitment to nuclear disarmament by signing and ratifying it. Sri Lanka’s former Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York, Dr Rohan Perera, was unequivocal in supporting the treaty’s objectives, stating “Sri Lanka is committed to the elimination of the threat posed by nuclear weapons. We will make all possible endeavours to make nuclear disarmament realizable and to bring peaceful uses of nuclear technology within reach.” However, four years later, Sri Lanka is yet to sign the treaty and has officially provided no official explanation as to the reasons for the delay in arriving at a decision.
From a strategic perspective, Sri Lanka ratifying the treaty has little to lose. Sri Lanka continues to maintain its foreign policy under the precept of non-alignment. Sri Lanka does not come under any form of extended nuclear deterrence strategy amongst any of the major nuclear-weapons States, nor is it part of any other formal defence alliances. Therefore, unlike the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) nuclear umbrella states, Sri Lanka does not have any of the same obligations such as ‘nuclear weapons sharing’ that would prevent it from signing on to the treaty. Furthermore, at a time when Sri Lanka has come under unfair criticism that its ties to Beijing have become too entangled in security matters, the signing of the TPNW would be a clear indication that Sri Lanka will not entertain any form of nuclear brinkmanship to be played out on its territory. Sri Lanka would not even be the first South Asian country to accede to the treaty, with Bangladesh and the Maldives having already done so in 2019.
Given the antipathy of the NWS and their allies to the TPNW, one may ask whether pursuing such a treaty is an exercise in futility. However, it is worth noting that even when the Non-Proliferation Treaty was opened for signature in 1968, there was opposition to the treaty from the Nuclear Weapons States, most notably with France boycotting the negotiation process that ultimately led to the formation of the NPT. With respect to nuclear umbrella states and other western allied countries, there is also a growing amount of domestic pressure within these countries which favours acceding to the TPNW. There are also subtle indications even among certain NATO member states like Canada and Norway that their positions are experiencing a gradual shift from outright hostility to tacit acknowledgement and acceptance of the TPNW. Furthermore, with simultaneous nuclear weapons financial divestment campaigns operating such as ‘Don’t Bank on the Bomb’, democratic governments, in particular, will not be in a position to dismiss these concerns. Even in the US, key figures that have served in previous administrations such as former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former Undersecretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation, Thomas Countryman, have urged the Biden administration to be more supportive of the TPNW. In addition, in 2020 56 former leaders and ministers penned an open letter in support of the TPNW which included the former Prime Ministers of Canada and Japan; Jean Chrétien and Yukio Hatoyama.
If the election of the Biden administration indicates at least a soft return to multilateralism, the current milieu could bring about a significant change in the global nuclear order. Sri Lanka as a smaller state should not miss this opportunity to take advantage of this potential shift to join the emerging ranks of countries at the forefront of nuclear disarmament.
*Malinda Meegoda is a Research Associate at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and not the institutional views of LKI, nor do they necessarily reflect the position of any other institution or individual with which the author is affiliated.