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More Than 80 Nations Sign On To A New Global Treaty To Prohibit Nuclear Weapons

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A new global treaty banning nuclear weapons goes into effect tomorrow. It aims to make nuclear war obsolete. But as NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, some question whether it'll work.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: It's known as the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and it does exactly what it says.

ELAYNE WHYTE: For the first time in history, nuclear weapons are going to be illegal in international law.

BRUMFIEL: Elayne Whyte is a former Costa Rican ambassador to the United Nations. She oversaw the drafting of the treaty a few years back. It bans every aspect of nuclear weapons.

WHYTE: The development, the manufacturing, the transfer, the possession, the use, the threat of use.

BRUMFIEL: So far, more than 80 countries have signed up to the new treaty, but none of them are countries that have nuclear weapons. Jeffrey Lewis is a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. He says without the nuclear weapons states...

JEFFREY LEWIS: It's mostly symbolic in nature.

BRUMFIEL: In fact, the new treaty is actually designed to send a message to a handful of nuclear nations, including the U.S. Back in the 1960s, they signed another treaty, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. According to that agreement, those with nuclear weapons had to work towards disarmament, but that hasn't happened. This new treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons is designed to pressure nuclear nations. But Lewis worries it could have unintended consequences.

LEWIS: Because it is created, I would argue, in frustration, it is a competitor to the agreement we do have, which is the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

BRUMFIEL: Lewis and others fear that countries could play the two treaties against each other or shop around to see if they could get better concessions for joining one or the other. Ambassador Elayne Whyte says the two treaties are designed to work together and that the new nuclear ban sends a clear message to nuclear weapons states about disarmament.

WHYTE: To remind them they need to be moving forward.

BRUMFIEL: She says this is a first step towards a difficult goal, but the world has grappled with tough issues before.

WHYTE: How did the international community deal with slavery, colonialism? Once you delegitimize that conduct, it completely has an impact on the policy-making process.

BRUMFIEL: Nuclear weapons will be around for a while, she says. But over time, she hopes nations like the U.S. can be convinced and cajoled into giving them up.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF TO ROCOCO ROT'S "TELEMA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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