The Bangkok Post

Sept 20, 2017


Thailand will be at or very close to the front of the line Wednesday evening to sign the new “Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons”. As the name indicates, it is an international agreement that outlaws atomic and hydrogen bombs in every way. Thailand had a notable hand in developing this treaty, which passed in July with just one nation voting against it, and another single abstention. But no nuclear power or nuclear-protected country was allowed.

This seems counter-intuitive. It could easily turn out to be a laughing stock, particularly in light of news reports of a very bellicose North Korea vowing to develop bigger, more destructive nuclear weapons. However, it could also be the catalyst needed to approach nuclear disarmament in a rational way.

It is easy for countries that do not possess or wish to ever have an atomic bomb to agree to that stance in writing. That includes Thailand. Thai Ambassador to the UN Thani Thongphakdi was a prime organizer of the effort to write and pass the treaty. This took almost a year, and most of the work was done at the UN headquarters in Geneva, not at the General Assembly or Security Council in New York.

The basic rules were simple enough. Countries eligible to join this treaty must not currently or plan ever to develop, test, produce, manufacture, possess, transfer, stockpile, host, or, of course, actually use nuclear weapons. Thus, every country with nuclear weapons is ineligible. So are countries under the US nuclear umbrella, including members of NATO, Japan, South Korea, and so on.

No such country attended the treaty talks except the Netherlands, which cast the single vote against it. The only other participant-naysayer was Singapore, which abstained on the final vote. To some, this gives the entire treaty a hollow ring. But such treaties have brought results in the past. The successful worldwide ban on landmines began in a similar manner. So did the much-derided but eventually historic Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987. The INF wound up eliminating an entire class of US and Soviet Union nuclear weapons.

However, the treaty opening Wednesday has major flaws working against it. Its one-size-fits-all definitions mean that China and the US, say, are legally treated precisely like India and Pakistan — and they are treated like Canada and Iran. This drawback gets far worse. The treaty contains no protocols for verification or compliance. Every country that ratifies the treaty agrees to refrain from nuclear ambition, but there are no checks. Any country can violate the treaty without fear of legal repercussions.

The treaty in short revives memories of 1928, when 62 countries — at the time, virtually every nation — signed the Pact of Paris, also known as the Kellogg-Briand Pact after the US and French foreign ministers who guided it. That treaty didn’t just ban certain weapons. It banned war itself.

Some critics are already suggesting that the nuclear-ban treaty represents wasted time. Instead of spending a year on a treaty without means of enforcement, the anti-nuclear nations could have promoted agreements and international pressure for nuclear disarmament. That issue has received little attention for years. Arguably Pyongyang, Tehran and probably other countries have taken advantage to push their nuclear ambitions.

By signing the treaty, however, Thailand and friends gain a small step to the moral high ground. They have put their opposition to development, trade and use of nuclear weapons in writing. It’s possible nothing good will actually occur from this effort. More to the point, no harm is done by stressing the ethics of a righteous stance.