Copy of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Image: ICAN

Time to Ban the Bomb

A path forward: the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

By Beatrice Fihn

Of late, the world has been reminded that the threat posed by nuclear weapons is severe and worsening.

The United States has signaled that it will withdraw from one of the most important Cold War arms control agreements — the 1987 Intermediate- Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) — which successfully removed an entire class of nuclear and conventional missiles from Europe. President Trump has assailed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran. Rhetoric and tensions among nuclear-armed states are rising, and nearly all are engaged in rebuilding their nuclear weapons programs. The United States alone plans to spend close to $2 trillion over the next 30 years on such efforts.1 The stage is set for a new global nuclear arms race.

The risk of use of nuclear weapons is higher today than it has been for years. With developments in cyber warfare, autonomous weapons and an increasingly uncertain global security situation, that risk will only increase over time. A security policy based on plans to fight — and “win” — a nuclear war is morally bankrupt and unsustainable. The United States must begin developing a policy for a non-nuclear future, or risk becoming an outlier without moral authority.

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a global coalition of over 530 organizations, is leading a movement to achieve this non-nuclear future. Over 10 years, together with countless partners in governments, international organizations and civil society groups around the world, we helped incubate and amplify a previously-ignored conversation about nuclear weapons. We placed civilians and the harm caused to them by nuclear weapons at the center of debate. This movement ultimately led to the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and to ICAN being awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for its work in promoting nuclear disarmament.

The Treaty emerged through something new and different in the disarmament debate within the nuclear community — the Humanitarian Initiative. This initiative reframed the discourse around nuclear weapons to make the horrific humanitarian consequences caused by their use the center of discussion, rather than a secondary issue. In seeking the negotiation and adoption of the treaty, we followed the path set by other global weapons prohibitions, including conventions related to biological weapons, chemical weapons, antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions. The premise, based in international law, is founded on the total abnegation of possession and use of weapons with unspeakable consequences.

No sustainable, smart or effective national security strategy can be based on weapons that cause the level of harm to civilians that nuclear weapons do. This reflects a shift in security and development policies toward a more pre-eminent role for humanitarian concerns, humanitarian law and the protection of civilians. Therefore, such weapons cannot remain legal or be considered legitimate options for states in warfare.

On July 7, 2017, the TPNW was adopted by 122 states at the United Nations (UN). It will enter into force once 50 states have deposited their instruments of ratification, which2 we expect will happen by 2020. This moment represents an opportunity for the international community to make real progress toward a world free of nuclear weapons. With this in mind, the United States — and all states possessing nuclear weapons — must engage the majority of the world’s countries working toward true global peace and security.

The United States’ path forward is clear: 1) end nuclear saber-rattling and place humanitarian consequences at the center of nuclear policy; 2) commit in good faith to multilateralism with a view to ending the new nuclear arms race, putting legal and diplomatic options above military expansionism; and 3) cease denigrating the TPNW and instead support the treaty and its signatories.

Humanitarian Consequences at the Center of Nuclear Policy

By their nature, nuclear weapons are indiscriminate and inhumane. Any use of nuclear weapons would have catastrophic humanitarian consequences that would quickly ripple across the world, even if a nuclear conflict was localized. The use of a nuclear weapon over a populated area would immediately kill tens of thousands — if not hundreds of thousands — of men, women and children, and injure countless more.3 We continue to pay the price of atmospheric nuclear testing in many countries around the world with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people dying early from cancers.4

We also must not forget that the effects of nuclear detonations have disproportionately affected women. Though the immediate effects of nuclear weapons use are indiscriminate — no matter your sex or gender identity — the impact on survivors is not. Women in Hiroshima and Nagasaki have nearly double the risk that men do of developing and dying from solid cancer due to ionizing radiation exposure.5 Robust findings from the Chernobyl disaster indicate that girls are considerably more likely than boys to develop thyroid cancer from nuclear fallout.6 Pregnant women exposed to nuclear radiation face a greater likelihood of delivering children with physical malformations and stillbirths, leading to increased maternal mortality.7 And these effects last generations.8 Women’s rights, human rights, cannot be fully realized when we are threatened by, or threaten others, with such consequences.

A national security framework that respects human rights must work to eliminate and legally ban any weapon that causes these consequences. The TPNW codifies the stigma against the infliction of such barbarity and can be used as an example of how to incorporate humanitarian consequences at the center of policy. A congressional inquiry is needed on the short- and long-term environmental and human cost of past nuclear programs. Members must ask: Who has died early as a result of these programs and who will die in the future as a result of past misdeeds? And to be credible, such an inquiry must include women and other survivors as an integral part of the process.

Beatrice Fihn on stage with ICAN campaigners at the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize Concert. Image: ICAN

Commit to Multilateralism

The key to sustainability in national security is multilateralism. Outside the United States, a cohort of nations is trying to restrain the global military-industrial complex. The adoption of the TPNW is a reaffirmation of this multilateralism. All regions of the world — not just the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — must have a say in the solutions. Just as no nation will be immune to the consequences of nuclear weapons, no nation should be excluded from a seat at the table when it comes to deciding the fate of nuclear security — and through that the fate of the world. In addition to refusing to engage the majority of states who negotiated and adopted the TPNW, the Trump administration is rejecting international solutions to the global nuclear problem. This is the exact opposite of how to ensure security for the United States.

The United States must re-engage with international bodies and the global community on nuclear issues, particularly if it prides itself as being a global leader. Only solutions built upon international law and existing frameworks can provide comprehensive, verifiable and irreversible nuclear disarmament. Once unthinkable, US allies who claim protection through the US nuclear umbrella are facing mounting domestic pressure to reject a security arrangement rooted in nuclear weapons. North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member states are awakening to the false argument that there can be no NATO except a nuclear NATO.

Spain has signaled an intent to join the TPNW while remaining a full member of the Alliance. Even states like Italy that host nuclear weapons on their territory are considering joining the treaty and renegotiating their security relationship with the United States. These examples make clear that it is time for the United States to refocus attention on how to reduce tensions by engaging in practical arms control and disarmament negotiations. These negotiations were successful during the Cold War and can be successful again in an increasingly multipolar world.

The US Congress should support and enforce international treaties on nuclear nonproliferation and arms control. It must stop the administration from applying a wrecking ball to agreements that have maintained international peace and security for years. It’s easy to rip up agreements, but far harder to make them, and even harder still to make them work. But this is what leaders do. Members of Congress must support the existing international legal order and also urge the administration to engage in good faith in multilateral negotiation to further reduce nuclear arsenals around the world. And when engaging in such negotiations, the humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons should be at the forefront of all leaders’ minds. For they are, in effect, discussing the potential elimination of humankind as a species. Now more than ever, we need more arms control, not less.

Engage with the Prohibition Treaty

The TPNW offers a pathway forward at a time when the world and the United States are in desperate need. Already concerned citizens from cities across the country are stepping forward to have their voices heard, calling on their representatives to come forward in support of nuclear disarmament. Several towns and cities, including Baltimore and Los Angeles, have already endorsed the TPNW and the US Conference of Mayors supports ICAN’s work. California, the largest state by economy and population, became the first to endorse the TPNW when it passed CA resolution AJR 33 in August 2018.9

We call on cities, states and municipal authorities throughout the United States to do likewise. Do not stay silent: every resolution that is passed endorsing the TPNW takes us a step closer to a nuclear-free world. Similarly, members of Congress need to put aside shortsighted commercial and military interests and introduce and debate a resolution calling on the United States to join the TPNW.

They must "acknowledge the ethical imperatives for nuclear disarmament and the urgency of achieving and maintaining a nuclear-weapon-free world, which is a global public good of the highest order, serving both national and collective security interests.”10

A tide of support for the TPNW is rising around the world. It can be seen across NATO member states and within cities, counties and states in the United States. Once ratification is achieved in 50 nations, the ban on nuclear weapons will become international law. This will impact all countries, including those that have not yet joined. The United States will be no exception. Any leader that wants to be taken seriously on security and represent a realistic plan to keep Americans and the world safe must engage with this treaty. Engaging with the TPNW means engaging with the world. This is the only way to finally fulfill the long unfulfilled promise of a world free from these weapons of mass destruction.

No nation, not even one as powerful as the United States, can outrun the nuclear threat. It is time to respect the rights of all people to live free of nuclear terror. Every leader in the United States — from local officials to those that walk the halls of Congress to those in the White House — has the opportunity today to ensure a safe and secure world. Bring the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons to the forefront of your nuclear conversations. Engage in multilateralism and international arms control agreements. Support the TPNW. Change is sweeping across the world, one that the United States cannot afford to ignore.

Beatrice Fihn is the executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize-winning campaign coalition that works to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons. She has over a decade of experience in disarmament diplomacy and civil society mobilization, through her work with ICAN, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. She has written extensively on weapons law, humanitarian law, civil society engagement in diplomacy and multilateral institutions and gender perspective on disarmament work. 

This article is part of our new report, "A New Vision: Gender. Justice. National Security." See all the articles from our report here.

Read @BeaFihn on why it's time to ban nuclear weapons #NewVision2019.

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1 William J. Perry and James E. Cartwright, “Spending less on nuclear weapons could actually make us safer,” Washington Post, Nov. 16, 2017.

2 “Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, Status of the Treaty,” United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, accessed December 7, 2018.

3Tilman Ruff. “The health impact of nuclear weapons” Unspeakable Suffering: The humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, (Reaching Critical Will, February 2013).

4 Tilman Ruff. “The health impact of nuclear weapons” Unspeakable Suffering: The humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, (Reaching Critical Will, February 2013).

5 John Borrie et al. “Gender, Development and Nuclear Weapons: Shared goals, shared concerns,” (International Law and Policy Institute and United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, October 2016),

6 John Borrie et al. “Gender, Development and Nuclear Weapons: Shared goals, shared concerns,” (International Law and Policy Institute and United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, October 2016),

7 John Borrie et al. “Gender, Development and Nuclear Weapons: Shared goals, shared concerns,” (International Law and Policy Institute and United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, October 2016),

8 John Borrie et al. “Gender, Development and Nuclear Weapons: Shared goals, shared concerns,” (International Law and Policy Institute and United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, October 2016),

9 “Assembly Joint Resolution No. 33,” (State of California, Sacramento, CA, 2018),

10 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, United Nations, 2017,


Photo: a copy of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Photo credit: ICAN