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First-ever treaty to ban nuclear weapons enters into force

IAEA director on rising nuclear threats
IAEA director on rising nuclear threats 03:35

United Nations —The first-ever treaty to ban nuclear weapons entered into force on Friday, hailed as a historic step to rid the world of its deadliest weapons but strongly opposed by the world's nuclear-armed nations.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is now part of international law, culminating a decades-long campaign aimed at preventing a repetition of the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. But getting all nations to ratify the treaty requiring them to never own such weapons seems daunting, if not impossible, in the current global climate.

When the treaty was approved by the U.N. General Assembly in July 2017, more than 120 approved it. But none of the nine countries known or believed to possess nuclear weapons — the United States, Russia, Britain, China, France, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel — supported it and neither did the 30-nation NATO alliance.

Japan, the world's only country to suffer nuclear attacks, also does not support the treaty, even though the aged survivors of the bombings in 1945 strongly push for it to do so. Japan on its own renounces use and possession of nuclear weapons, but the government has said pursuing a treaty ban is not realistic with nuclear and non-nuclear states so sharply divided over it.

Nonetheless, Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize-winning coalition whose work helped spearhead the treaty, called it "a really big day for international law, for the United Nations and for survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki."

"This is really an historic moment where, for the first time, you have a global prohibition on nuclear weapons," Fihn said in an interview with CBS News' Pamela Falk.

The treaty received its 50th ratification on Oct. 24, triggering a 90-day period before its entry into force on Jan. 22.

As of Thursday, Fihn told The Associated Press that 61 countries had ratified the treaty, with another ratification possible on Friday, and "from Friday, nuclear weapons will be banned by international law" in all those countries.

The treaty 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." It also bans any transfer or use of nuclear weapons or nuclear explosive devices — and the threat to use such weapons — and requires parties to promote the treaty to other countries.

Fihn had no illusions that world powers would sign on. "We, of course, have realistic expectations. We don't think that a Biden administration will quickly move to support this treaty at this point, but hopefully we can see a new attitude and more openness," she told CBS News. "We know that President Biden himself has a longstanding commitment to arms control and non-proliferation and we really hope to push the administration further towards nuclear disarmament, towards engaging in new reduction negotiations beyond 'New START' with the Russian Federation."

Fihn told the Associated Press the prohibition treaty is "really, really significant" because it will now be a key legal instrument, along with the Geneva Conventions on conduct toward civilians and soldiers during war and the conventions banning chemical and biological weapons and land mines.

But she told CBS News that it is still important to limit nuclear arsenals. "For me, I think the biggest fear is actually use of nuclear weapons by accident or by mistake or by miscalculation. A mistake will happen, an accident will happen, an unintended consequence that we did not think about will happen," she said. "We've seen these hacking attacks lately. And I think it is just a question about when, not if."

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the treaty demonstrated support for multilateral approaches to nuclear disarmament.

"Nuclear weapons pose growing dangers and the world needs urgent action to ensure their elimination and prevent the catastrophic human and environmental consequences any use would cause," he said in a video message. "The elimination of nuclear weapons remains the highest disarmament priority of the United Nations."

But not for the nuclear powers.

As the treaty was approaching the 50 ratifications needed to trigger its entry into force, the Trump administration wrote a letter to countries that signed it saying they made "a strategic error" and urging them to rescind their ratification.

The letter said the treaty "turns back the clock on verification and disarmament" and would endanger the half-century-old Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, considered the cornerstone of nonproliferation efforts.

Fihn countered at the time that a ban could not undermine nonproliferation since it was "the end goal of the Nonproliferation Treaty."

Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said the treaty's arrival was a historic step forward in efforts to free the world of nuclear weapons and "hopefully will compel renewed action by nuclear-weapon states to fulfill their commitment to the complete elimination of nuclear weapons."

Fihn said in an interview with the Associated Press that the campaign sees strong public support for the treaty in NATO countries and growing political pressure, citing Belgium and Spain. "We will not stop until we get everyone on board," she said.

It will also be campaigning for divestment — pressuring financial institutions to stop giving capital to between 30 and 40 companies involved in nuclear weapons and missile production including Airbus, Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

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