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International Law’s Notable Roles and Limits in Nuclear Non-Proliferation

This month, 78 years ago, the United States dropped atomic bombs, killing more than 200,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, days before the end of World War Two. 78 years later, Japan spends this anniversary confronting Russia’s nuclear threats. This month presents an opportunity to reflect on the international laws in place such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and their effectiveness since WWII.

Last year, on 1 August, 2022, António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, spoke at the tenth Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons

delivered the following statement:

“The clouds that parted following the end of the Cold War are gathering once more. We have been extraordinarily lucky so far. But luck is not a strategy. Nor is it a shield from geopolitical tensions boiling over into nuclear conflict. Today, humanity is just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation.”

The effectiveness of international law in preventing nuclear proliferation and global arms races remains a predominant topic, as it serves as an enforcing factor of the “luck” described by Guterres that our world has experienced. This topic gains renewed prominence not only with the anniversary of the US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki but also through the release of "Oppenheimer," a film capturing public attention this year. In light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is necessary to evaluate the effectiveness of these laws in deterring nuclear military actions. Additionally, it is worth noting which countries have committed to participating in non-proliferation efforts.

By far the most effective treaty, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has been a prime example of how International Law can curtail the nuclear arms race. In fact, the NPT has been labeled as one of the most significant milestones of International Law. The NPT was signed in 1968 “by several of the major nuclear and non-nuclear powers that pledged their cooperation in stemming the spread of nuclear technology.” The United Kingdom, the Soviet Union and 59 other countries signed the treaty that year. The NPT has not completely resolved the world’s nuclear strife but it “was a major success for advocates of arms control because it set a precedent for international cooperation between nuclear and non-nuclear states to prevent proliferation.”

However, participation was not guaranteed, as some countries like China and France abstained from signing the agreement. Moreover, India significantly disrupted the non-proliferation landscape by deploying nuclear weapon tests in 1974. Pakistan then tested its first atomic bomb in 1983 further highlighting the intricate dynamics surrounding nuclear proliferation. Despite its initially limited participation, the NPT was extended indefinitely in 1995. Presently, it boasts near-universal adherence, with 191 state parties. The NPT has three pillars:

  • Nonproliferation

  • Disarmament

  • Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy

This pivotal cornerstone of international law is subject to periodic review every five years at the NPT Review Conference. In principle, if a country breaks its commitment under the treaty, it will be a violation of international law.

In addition to the NPT, the New START Treaty is another notable force taming the global pursuit of nuclear armaments. This treaty is specifically for the United States and Russia and has been extended to 4 February, 2026. According to the US Department of State, “Both the United States and the Russian Federation met the central limits of the New START Treaty by February 5, 2018, and have stayed at or below them ever since. Those limits are:

  • 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), deployed submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments;

  • 1,550 nuclear warheads on deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments (each such heavy bomber is counted as one warhead toward this limit);

  • 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments.”

The NPT and the New START Treaty are two current and arguably effective examples of international law preventing nuclear proliferation and the spread of technology. Yet, since the beginning of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the “luck” the world has experienced since WWII has been threatened.

Japan has shared several statements on several news sources in light of the 78th anniversary of the U.S. bombings. On 31 July 2023, the United States reaffirmed its commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, offering reassurance that the U.S. wants to maintain a non-nuclear future. This satisfies many fears that history may repeat itself. However, the escalating nuclear threats from Russia have raised concerns regarding international security and stability. Given Japan's distinctive and tragic experiences during World War II, it comprehends this threat perhaps more acutely than others.

The Prime Minister of Japan made a statement on Russia’s threats on 6 August, 2023.

“Japan, as the only nation to have suffered atomic bombings in war, will continue efforts towards a nuclear-free world,” said Fumio Kishida at a ceremony in Hiroshima. “The path towards it is becoming increasingly difficult because of deepening divisions in the international community over nuclear disarmament and Russia’s nuclear threat.”

This concern raised by Japan highlights a crucial flaw in International Law: its reach is only to those willing to participate. If Russia chose to ignore treaties such as the NPT and the New START treaty, Russia could even avoid prosecution if they match it with a greater threat. While the world can thank international law and the treaties attempting to slow nuclear arms development, its reach is beginning to feel insufficient, especially as the world reflects on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 78 years ago.


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