The Nobel Committee’s decision to honour the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, known as Ican, provides a powerful and timely reinforcement of the opprobrium and concern that should be attached to nuclear weapons.
It comes at a moment when North Korea is actively developing its nuclear programme, the fate of the Iran nuclear deal is in the balance, and the US and Russia are both actively seeking to modernise their nuclear forces.
Ican campaigned for the drafting of an entirely new disarmament agreement – the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons that was opened for signature at the UN in July this year.
This seeks to make nuclear weapons illegal under international law in the same way as the anti-personnel landmines treaty banned a whole category of weaponry.
But why is this new treaty needed at all? And why do its backers see it as being so important today?
There is of course already the long-standing Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – a product of the Cold War years whose chief goal was to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons beyond the five established (or “declared”) nuclear powers – Britain, France the US, China and the then Soviet Union.
The agreement was a series of bargains. Countries that joined the treaty as non-nuclear weapons states gave up the bomb in return for the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology.
Those five countries who were declared nuclear powers agreed to take steps progressively to give up their nuclear weapons.
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