On 16th of July 1945 a desert outside Alamogordo, New Mexico, witnessed the test of world’s first nuclear device named the “Gadget”. J. Robert Oppenheimer, often called the “father of the atomic bomb” for leading the Manhattan Project named the site of the test as ‘Trinity’ – a name that evoked his intellectual mysticism. This was the ushering in of the nuclear age. Since then the nuclear weapons have become sort of a potential “final solution” to political and social problems that ought to be resolved through dialogue, diplomacy and cooperation.
The colossal destruction suffered by the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in August 1945 — according to careful estimates, Little Boy (August 6) and Fat Man (August 9) killed at least 129,000 people — made the world regret that the “bomb’s inventors did not destroy the weapon for the benefit of humanity” and call for a ban on nuclear weapons in order to avoid a nuclear arms race and the risk of future catastrophes. The vociferous advocacy for the elimination of nuclear weapons and making the world nuclear-free has been growing ever since. At the dawn of the nuclear age, the United States hoped to maintain a monopoly on its new weapon, but the secrets and the technology for making nuclear weapons soon spread. But, with the passage of time the voices to eliminate them have also grown to such an extent that while addressing a G-7 Summit in Hiroshima even the US President, Barack Obama, had to say: “It’s a chance to reaffirm our commitment to pursuing the peace and security of a [world] where nuclear weapons would no longer be necessary.”
Dangers of Nukes
“Nuclear weapons are unique in their destructive power, in the unspeakable human suffering they cause, in the impossibility of controlling their effects in space and time, and in the threat they pose to the environment, to future generations, and indeed to the survival of humanity.” — International Committee of the Red Cross, 2010
Nuclear weapons present humankind with an immense challenge, one far greater than most people understand. Many people realize, of course, that nuclear weapons are dangerous and deadly but few people have grappled with the proposition that these weapons are omnicidal; they go beyond suicide and genocide to omnicide, the death of all. Following is a brief description of the costs the world incurs on maintaining nukes:
1. Human Cost
Visited Hiroshima thirtieth, conditions appalling stop city wiped out, eighty percent all hospitals destroyed or seriously damaged; inspected two emergency hospitals, conditions beyond description full stop effect of bomb mysteriously serious stop many victims, apparently recovering, suddenly suffer fatal relapse due to decomposition of white blood cells and other internal injuries, now dying in great numbers stop estimated still over one hundred thousand wounded in emergency hospitals located surroundings, sadly lacking bandaging materials, medicines stop.
(Fritz Bilfinger, ICRC, telegram dated 30 August 1945)
Nuclear weapons are, undoubtedly, the most indiscriminately inhumane devices ever invented – shocking in the extent of the devastation they cause; shocking in their total inability to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants, between young and old, between victims and those trying to help them; and shocking in the longevity of their human impact. As the International Court of Justice determined, for all these reasons, their threat or use “would generally be contrary to the rules of international law … and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law”.
It is estimated that approximately 340,000 people died immediately and within the five years following the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But, in case of a nuclear attack, in future, countless men, women and children would be vaporized, crushed, baked, boiled or irradiated to death. Such a cataclysmic strike would result in the destruction of present life forms on the planet. These weapons would also obliterate the past and future, destroying both human memory and possibility. They would obliterate every sacred part of being, leaving vast ruin and emptiness where once life, love, friendship, decency, hope and beauty had existed.
2. International Security
Nuclear weapons are often presented as promoting security, particularly during times of international instability. But weapons that risk catastrophic and irreversible humanitarian consequences cannot seriously be viewed as protecting civilians or humanity as a whole.
— Peter Maurer, President of the ICRS
Nuclear weapons pose a direct and constant threat to people everywhere. Far from keeping the peace, they breed fear and mistrust among nations. These ultimate instruments of terror and mass destruction have no legitimate military or strategic utility, and are useless in addressing any of today’s real security threats, such as terrorism, climate change, extreme poverty, overpopulation and disease.
While more than 40,000 nuclear weapons have been dismantled since the end of the Cold War, the justifications for maintaining them remain largely unchanged. Nations still cling to the misguided idea of “nuclear deterrence”, when it is clear that nuclear weapons only cause national and global insecurity. There have been dozens of documented instances of the near-use of nuclear weapons as a result of miscalculation or accidents.
3. Environmental Hazards
“Climate change may be the global policy issue that has captured most attention in the last decade, but the problem of nuclear weapons is at least it’s equal in terms of gravity – and much more immediate in its potential impact.”
— International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, 2009
Nuclear weapons are the only devices ever created that have the capacity to destroy all complex life forms on Earth. It would take less than 0.1% of the explosive yield of the current global nuclear arsenal to bring about devastating agricultural collapse and widespread famine. The smoke and dust from fewer than 100 Hiroshima-sized nuclear explosions would cause an abrupt drop in global temperatures and rainfall.
4. Economic Impact
Nuclear weapons programmes divert public funds from healthcare, education, disaster relief and other vital services. The nine nuclear-armed nations spend in excess of US$105 billion each year maintaining and modernizing their nuclear arsenals. The US alone spends more than US$60 billion annually, and the British government’s plans to replace its ageing fleet of nuclear-armed Trident submarines could cost taxpayers over £100 billion.
Despite renewed commitments by nations to achieve a nuclear-weapons-free world, all of the nuclear powers continue to invest exorbitant sums of money in their nuclear forces. Funding allocated to national disarmament efforts is minuscule by comparison, and the principal UN body responsible for advancing nuclear abolition has an annual budget of just over $10 million. It is time to redirect money towards meeting human needs.
Why a nuclear –free World?
There is no denying the fact that the proliferation of nuclear weapons, whether by state or non-state actors, poses one of the greatest threats to international security today. Due to growing recognition of this problem and that of the urgency of making the world nuclear-free, there have been a host of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and world leaders who have called for freeing the planet from nuclear weapons. This especially gets important because the catastrophic and lasting human cost of nuclear weapons is gigantic.
The advocates of the elimination of nuclear weapons premise their arguments on the following five points:
1. Nuclear weapons are unique in their destructive power as well as in the scale of human suffering they cause. Their use, even on a limited scale, would have catastrophic and long-lasting consequences for human health, the environment, the climate, food production and socioeconomic development.
2. The health impacts of these weapons can last for decades and may affect the children of survivors through genetic damage to their parents. This has been evident where nuclear weapons have been both used and tested. We could not have imagined that Japanese Red Cross hospitals would still be treating victims of cancer and leukaemia attributable to radiation from the atomic blasts, even after more than seven decades have passed since then.
3. After more than seventy years of the dawn of the “nuclear age,” there is no effective or feasible means of assisting a substantial portion of survivors in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear detonation, while adequately protecting those delivering assistance, in most countries or at the international level.
4. The humanitarian consequences of a nuclear-weapon detonation would not be limited to the country where it occurs but would impact other countries and their populations. Thus, the continued existence of nuclear weapons and the risk of their intentional or accidental use is and must be a global concern.
5. Testimonies by nuclear experts and former nuclear force officers have shown that accidental nuclear-weapon detonations remain a very real danger. Malfunctions, mishaps, false alarms and misinterpreted information have nearly led to the intentional or accidental detonation of nuclear weapons on numerous occasions since 1945. The non-use of nuclear weapons since 1945 provides no assurance that such weapons will not be used in the future. Only the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons can prevent the severe humanitarian consequences that would entail.
In reality, the growing number of states that possess nuclear weapons and the potential for non-state actors to acquire them or related materials increases the risk of both deliberate and accidental detonations. The fact that an estimated 1,800 nuclear warheads remain on “high alert” status, ready to be launched within minutes, further amplifies those risks. Calls since the end of the Cold War to reverse such policies have unfortunately gone unheeded.
Hurdles to achieving the dream
The abolition of nuclear weapons is an urgent humanitarian necessity. Any use of nuclear weapons would have catastrophic consequences. No effective humanitarian response would be possible, and the effects of radiation on human beings would cause suffering and death many years after the initial explosion. Eliminating nuclear weapons – via a comprehensive treaty – is the only guarantee against their use.
Unfortunately, there are six obstacles that, if left unresolved, will prevent the vision of a nuclear-free world from becoming a reality.
1. The official members of the “nuclear club” — Britain, China, Russia, the United States and France — as well as the unofficial nuclear powers — Israel, India and Pakistan — have not begun talks on developing a general plan that would define the time frames and the numerical limits for reductions required in each phase.
2. Only two nuclear powers have held disarmament talks — first the United States and the Soviet Union, and now the United States and Russia — without the joint participation of all eight nuclear countries.
3. Moscow and Washington have not yet begun negotiations on the elimination of tactical nuclear weapons. All of Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons are deployed on Russian territory only, while there are several hundred US tactical weapons deployed throughout Europe. This unbalance needs to be addressed.
4. Israel, India and Pakistan refuse to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).
5. The United States and other countries have refused to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).
6. The United States, after withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972, is committed to building and deploying a global missile defence system. This upsets the strategic balance of power since there is a direct and inseparable link between strategic offensive weapons and defensive systems.
The information acquired since the last NPT Review Conference has increased the concerns about nuclear weapons. These findings have significant implications for the assessment of nuclear weapons under the fundamental rules of international humanitarian law. The new information about the health and environmental effects and the absence of an adequate assistance capacity in most countries should trigger a reassessment of nuclear weapons by all States in both legal and policy terms.
The evidence that has emerged since only strengthens these doubts. With every new piece of information, we move further away from any hypothetical scenario where the humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons could be compatible with international humanitarian law. This leads us, time and again, to the conclusion that the use of nuclear weapons must be prohibited and they be eliminated altogether.