By Jim Hannah

For decades, nations with nuclear weapons have resembled gunslingers of the Wild West—staring each other down, honing their quick-draw delivery, terrorizing innocent civilians with their ability to shoot up the town.

But eventually the town folk of the Wild West wearied of the threats and the shootouts, passed ordinances, hired sheriffs, and made the gunslingers “check their guns at the door.” Gunslingers who refused to comply with the law became out-laws in civilized society.

Today history is repeating itself, in modern form.

One hundred twenty-two member states of the United Nations have wearied of nine nuclear-armed nations holding the world’s 190-some nations hostage by their potential for nuclear annihilation—by land, sea, or air. So in 2017 they passed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

This treaty not only requires nuclear-armed nations to “check their nukes at the door” by deeming them illegal, but goes even further, calling for their total abolition.

The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation describes the far-ranging extent of the treaty: “Article One of the treaty prohibits state parties from developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, transferring, possessing, stockpiling, using or threatening to use nuclear weapons, or allowing nuclear weapons to be stationed on their territory. It also prohibits them from assisting, encouraging or inducing anyone to engage in these activities (wagingpeace.org).”

It was several decades before the Wild West of the 1860s was tamed, and realistically a similar process will be required before all nations hang up their nukes for good. Indeed, none of the nuclear-armed nations or their allies are signatories of the UN treaty, and some have sharply criticized the treaty as dangerous or destabilizing.

Nonetheless, civic organizations like PeaceWorks-KC continue to urge nuclear-armed states to immediately diminish their nuclear footprint toward a nuclear weapons-free world. One such effort, Target 2045, urges total abolition of nukes by the year 2045, the 100-year anniversary of the United Nations. (See worldbeyondwar.org.)

An extremely significant milestone toward nuclear weapons abolition was recently reached. On October 24, 2020, Honduras became the 50th nation to ratify the UN’s Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which will enter into force Jan. 22, 2021. While its provisions only apply to signatory nations, its effect will be to declare that, for a growing majority of nations, nuclear weapons are deemed illegal.

A similar process of delegitimization has in the past led to international bans of chemical and biological weapons, torture, landmines, and cluster munitions. The TPNW is a welcome step for those who have been pressing 50 years for the first nuclear nations to live up to their promise to reduce and eliminate nuclear weapons (in exchange for other nations not developing nuclear weapons). The failure to eliminate the nuclear arsenals is a breach of international contract, in itself illegal. Now, with the new treaty, the weapons themselves are increasingly recognized as illegal as well. The twilight of the nuclear Wild West is here. A new day is dawning.

—Jim Hannah is a former member of the PeaceWorks-KC Board.