An Analysis of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Light of its Form as a Framework Agreement

Monika Subritzky
Content Type
Journal Article
The Goettingen Journal of International Law
Issue Number
Publication Date
The Goettingen Journal of International Law
Nuclear weapons present a unique problem and risk to global safety and security. The destructive capability of nuclear weapons, which extends beyond intended targets, is what sets these weapons apart from all else; they are sui generis. These weapons are indiscriminate in both their scale of destruction, which cannot be said to involve proportionate force, and in their residual effects of radioactive fallout, which some scholars have equated to the effect of a poisoned weapon.1 The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was adopted at the United Nations Headquarters on 7 July 2017, with 122 States voting in favour of the final draft, one voting against, and one abstaining.2 As of July 2019, the Treaty has twenty-three parties and seventy signatories.3 It is currently not in force as it requires ratification by a minimum of fifty States in order to come into effect.4 The core prohibitions of the Treaty are set out in its first Article, in which State parties agree to never develop, acquire, use or threaten to use, transfer, or stockpile nuclear weapons. What the Treaty does not do, however, is directly eliminate any nuclear weapons; a challenging task in itself considering that none of the current possessors of nuclear weapons even partook in the negotiation of the Treaty. State parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) have obligations under Article VI to undertake negotiations on effective measures leading to disarmament.5 Against a backdrop of little discernible progress on the implementation of Article VI over the last fifty years, Ireland, on behalf of the New Agenda Coalition, submitted a Working Paper outlining possible pathways to nuclear disarmament in an effort to fulfil the provisions of Article VI.6 These pathways were debated in 2016 during the Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG), which was set up for the purpose of providing a forum for discussion regarding advancing nuclear disarmament. The argument of this paper is that the TPNW has the potential to function radically as a disarmament mechanism. At first glance, the Treaty appears to fit within the second pathway outlined in the Irish Working Paper, effectively functioning as a simple Ban Treaty. However, a careful analysis reveals that it more neatly fits into the third pathway – a framework arrangement. It is this characteristic which makes the TPNW a novel and profound instrument as well as a potential foundational solution to the problem of nuclear weapons. The core section of the paper is divided into two parts. The first delves into the three main pathways discussed in the Irish Working Paper and analyzes how well each of the proposals can address the problem of achieving nuclear disarmament. As suggested by Brazil in the OEWG debates in 2016, three categories are key in establishing the degree to which each pathway can achieve progress in achieving nuclear disarmament – universality, effectiveness, and political viability.7 All nuclear disarmament treaties must intend to be universal in light of the humanitarian consequences of their usage. However, a disarmament treaty can be successful with universality as one of its objectives, rather than a precondition. Widespread support for a treaty also lends to its effectiveness, as do mechanisms for verification and enforcement.8 The political viability of a treaty is key as, without the willing participation of governments, proposals can easily be discarded. The analysis is centred on these categories. The second core part of the paper analyzes the structure of the TPNW with a focus on Articles 4 and 8. It demonstrates that the TPNW surreptitiously functions as a framework agreement and that this attribute has enormous value, both in practice and in shaping norms. The flexibility and adaptability of framework agreements is what makes them the most suitable mechanisms for nuclear disarmament.
Diplomacy, Nuclear Weapons, Treaties and Agreements, Military Strategy, Denuclearization
Political Geography
Global Focus