UC Irvine Journal of International, Transnational, and Comparative Law


On July 21, 2021, a resolution was introduced in the Chicago City Council calling on the US government to ratify the new United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and describing the struggle to abolish nuclear weapons as a matter of racial justice. Unlike prior nuclear disarmament treaties, the TPNW bans all nuclear weapons outright and reframes nuclear disarmament as a matter of decolonial struggle. The coming into force of the TPNW treaty raises questions about the relationship between this new treaty regime and the traditional framework of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

In this Article, we argue for understanding the novelty of the TPNW through the prism of intergenerational conflict and justice. The Nuclear Ban Treaty comes into effect at a moment when the generation that personally experienced nuclear warfare is quickly passing, and it speaks to a new generation of activists and diplomats who place less hope in back-room negotiations among great powers. More broadly, we argue for centering intergenerational justice in international law. Although the question of what each generation owes the next is not a standard frame of reference in international law, as we suggest in Part II, upon closer analysis, questions of intergenerational justice pervade may international legal problems, from climate change to human rights to the law of war.

To address the challenge of intergenerational justice demands that international lawyers develop more complex and subtle approaches to intergenerational conflict and collaboration. In Part III, we borrow insights from a global anti-nuclear art mural project with roots in Chicago's community-based struggles for racial justice in which political action is framed as a problem of intergenerational collaboration.

Ultimately, we argue in Part IV that the contested relationship between the NPT and the TPNW frameworks can be an opportunity for intergenerational collaboration of its own. Progress on the elimination of nuclear weapons now requires working across generational divides in international law and developing methodologies and commitments to build solidarity across generations of experts and activists.