NATO reaffirms opposition to nuclear ban treaty

17 December 2020

In a statement released on 15 December 2020, the North Atlantic Council (NAC)—NATO’s principal political decision-making body consisting of Permanent Representatives from its member states—said it was opposed to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), as it does not fit in with the existing security architecture.

Having received its 50th ratification in October, the treaty will enter into force on 22 January. As ratification was being triggered, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said that any use of nuclear weapons would have "catastrophic humanitarian consequences". A Greenpeace study in August estimated that half a million people would be killed in a nuclear attack on Germany.

The NAC statement argues however, that "As the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, or ban treaty, nears entry into force, we collectively reiterate our opposition to this treaty, as it does not reflect the increasingly challenging international security environment and is at odds with the existing non-proliferation and disarmament architecture”. NATO says it is still committed to strengthening arms control and non-proliferation. "We call on our partners and all other countries to reflect realistically on the ban treaty's impact on international peace and security, including on the NPT, and join us in working to improve collective security through tangible and verifiable measures that can reduce strategic risks and enable real progress on nuclear disarmament", the statement said.

Representatives from 122 of the 193 UN member countries voted to formally adopt the TPNW in 2017. There are currently 86 signatory states and 51 ratifications, but none involving the nuclear-armed states nor NATO member states. From the outset, the United States applied pressure on its NATO allies to boycott the process. In October 2016, for example, in an unclassified letter it warned NATO allies that “the effects of a nuclear weapons ban treaty could be wide ranging”. The United States also called on all allies and partners “to vote against negotiations on a nuclear weapons treaty ban, not to merely abstain. In addition, if negotiations do commence, we ask allies and partners to refrain from joining them”.

Following a growing number of ratifications of the treaty, in October this year the United States sent a letter to all state parties urging them to withdraw their ratification. However, it is becoming clear that a growing number of the non-nuclear weapon states no longer accept the traditional argument of the nuclear weapon states (and NATO) that they need nuclear weapons to preserve their security.

The TPNW requires that all ratifying countries "never under any circumstances … develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices". The new treaty also bans any transfer, use of, or threat to use nuclear weapons, and requires parties to promote the treaty among other countries. The NATO statement also argues that the TPNW lacks "any rigorous or clear mechanisms for verification". However, the treaty defers detailed verification and compliance provisions for subsequent negotiation—as was the case with both the NPT and the treaties governing nuclear-weapon-free zones. These treaties later created such measures as IAEA safeguards, national guidelines for nuclear-related exports and other confidence-building approaches.