Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 36 Issue 3 Autumn 2015
On the morning of Thursday, August 6, I was among tens of thousands of people gathered at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Setting the stage
Despite the multitude, which included officials from more than 100 countries, there was a brief moment of complete silence at precisely 8:15 a.m.—the exact time when the bomb euphemistically called “Little Boy” was dropped on Hiroshima.
Schoolchildren then solemnly rang a bell in the middle of the park. Next came speeches from, among others, the Mayor of Hiroshima, Kazumi Matsui, and the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe.
Some Hibakusha (bomb survivors)—most now over 80 years old—were also in attendance. And a peculiar combination of sorrow and hope filled the air.
Sorrow because we stood there to remember that dreadful month of August when death, destruction, and incalculable human suffering befell the men, women, and children of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Up to a quarter-million people died—many instantly, others in the weeks and months that followed. Farmers and teachers, singers and poets, old and young. The commemoration offered a grim reminder that humankind had devised the means to destroy itself—efficiently.
But it was also a day of hope. The push for nuclear abolition is growing steadily in intensity, sophistication, effectiveness, and numbers of supporters. People in and out of government are working tirelessly to make sure that humanity never again witnesses such a tragedy.
What the international community must do
There must be a global legal ban on nuclear weapons, with specific provisions for the elimination of existing arsenals and a timeline for verified implementation.
Regrettably, more than 45 years after the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty came into force, more than a quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, and seven decades after the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, some states still consider serious work toward nuclear abolition premature.
More than 15,000 nuclear warheads remain in existence, many of which are tens of times more powerful than the ones that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nearly 2,000 are on high-alert status, ready to be launched within minutes, thereby exacerbating the risk of their deliberate or accidental use. This situation must change.
The lopsided logic by which the very nations that rely on nuclear weapons deem themselves fit to chastise others on the risks of proliferation is built on an extremely weak and inherently unjust foundation. This includes not only states that actually possess nuclear weapons, but also those that perpetuate nuclear deterrence as a legitimate part of their collective security arrangements—such as members of NATO, itself a nuclear weapons alliance. These states must be challenged.
While every other category of weapons of mass destruction has been specifically prohibited under international law, nuclear weapons—the most destructive of them all—remarkably still have not. A process to establish a legal ban on nuclear weapons would therefore constitute a welcome step forward on the urgent path to nuclear abolition. It would be rooted in the widespread rejection of their continued existence and a full recognition of the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of their use.
Canada in the minority
The global nuclear disarmament regime is in a state of disrepair. The seminal 2015 Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty did not produce a consensus outcome document; the final draft was openly blocked by the United States, the United Kingdom, and—ostensibly at the behest of Israel, a non-party to the treaty—Canada.
In this struggle, Canada stands not with the growing number of nations, organizations, and individuals that believe that a comprehensive process for complete nuclear disarmament is long overdue, but with the few that question the merits, feasibility, and timeliness of a global ban on nuclear weapons. Canada has recently adopted minority positions at some of the most important multilateral governance forums that tackle nuclear disarmament.
During the 2014 UN General Assembly First Committee on Disarmament and International Security, 155 nations endorsed a joint statement focused on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons that said that these weapons should not be used “under any circumstances.” Canada did not.
During this year’s NPT Review Conference, 159 nations endorsed a similarly worded statement. Again, not Canada.
The Cataclysm of Damocles
Let us consider the words spoken by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in a 1986 speech entitled “The Cataclysm of Damocles”:
Since the appearance of visible life on Earth, 380 million years had to elapse in order for a butterfly to learn how to fly, 180 million years to create a rose with no other commitment than to be beautiful, and four geological eras in order for us human beings to be able to sing better than birds, and to be able to die from love. It is not honorable for the human talent, in the golden age of science, to have conceived the way for such an ancient and colossal process to return to the nothingness from which it came through the simple act of pushing a button.
Demands for nuclear abolition are mounting. Calls come from a growing number of scientists, legal scholars, mayors and parliamentarians, active and retired diplomats, statesmen and regular citizens—from both nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states. The message is clear: the threat posed by nuclear weapons is real; their use is unacceptable; and their complete elimination is not negotiable.
The cost of inaction could be another Hiroshima. Or worse.