Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 35 Issue 3 Autumn 2014
Project Ploughshares’ Cesar Jaramillo presents the keynote address on the anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Thanks to the Hiroshima Day Coalition for inviting me to speak at this special commemoration, and thanks to everyone in attendance.
Today is a somber day. But it is also a hopeful day.
Somber because we stand here to remember that dreadful month of August, 69 years ago, when death, destruction, and incalculable human suffering befell the men, women, and children of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Many died instantly; others in the weeks and months that followed. Up to a quarter-million people are estimated to have been killed. Farmers and teachers, singers and poets, sons and daughters, old and young.
Yet some survived: the brave Hibakusha, who have since offered firsthand, living testimony of the utter devastation caused by nuclear weapons and the long-lasting physical and emotional scars they leave behind.
So yes, this is a sad anniversary. A grim reminder that humankind has devised the means to destroy itself—efficiently.
Signs of hope
But this is also a day of hope. Because the push for a ban on nuclear weapons is growing with every passing day. In intensity, in sophistication, in effectiveness, in numbers.
People all over the world are working tirelessly and diligently to make sure that humanity never again witnesses a tragedy like the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
And how can the international community go about preventing such a tragedy? The endgame to nuclear disarmament is remarkably straightforward: there must be a global legal ban on the development, possession, testing, and use of nuclear weapons, with specific provisions for the actual elimination of existing arsenals and a timeline for implementation. There is no other way to rid the world of the most destructive weapons ever made.
Regrettably, the international community has allowed this issue to drift endlessly without resolution, despite overwhelming evidence that nuclear weapons lack any legal, political, military, or moral justification. More than four decades after the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty came into force, and nearly seven decades after the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the states that rely on the purported benefits of nuclear weapons consider serious work toward a Nuclear Weapons Convention “premature.”
The pervasive notion that the primary problem of nuclear weapons is the risk of their proliferation, and not their very existence, cannot be further perpetuated. To be absolutely clear: the main problem with the existence of nuclear weapons is the existence of nuclear weapons. Proliferation concerns are important, of course, but they will never be fully allayed unless the responsibility to disarm is taken seriously by states with nuclear weapons.
Furthermore, the discriminatory nature of the NPT is untenable. Just consider the lopsided logic by which the very states that have developed, stockpiled, tested, and used nuclear weapons deem themselves fit to chastise others on the risks of proliferation. The moral high ground claimed by nuclear-weapons states (NWS) is built upon an extremely weak and inherently unjust foundation.
The combined nuclear arsenal of these states is more than 16,000 warheads, many of which are tens of times more powerful than the ones that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many are on high alert status, ready to be launched within minutes. The risk of deliberate use is compounded by the concomitant risks of accidental or unintended use.
But 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 weapons states.
A series of meetings over the past few years have underscored the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons as a key reason for their unequivocal prohibition. Most recently, in Nayarit, Mexico, the Mexican government hosted official delegations from more than 140 nations, several multilateral organizations, and international civil society representatives, at the Second Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons.
Like the first, held in Norway last year, it was premised on the belief that the only foolproof way to ensure that humans do not again suffer the devastation caused by nuclear bombs is to completely eliminate this category of weapons.
Heightened awareness of the catastrophic consequences of any nuclear weapons use and of the concomitant impossibility of providing effective emergency relief following their use has created a new sense of urgency for their elimination. Organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations office for the co-ordination of humanitarian affairs have made it abundantly clear that there could be no effective response capacity in the event of a nuclear weapons exchange.
Later this year, the Austrian government will build on the Nayarit conference with another in Vienna. The expectation is that this event will go beyond visceral discussions of the disastrous effects of a nuclear weapons exchange to focus on concrete measures to avoid such an exchange. The difficulties of such a diplomatic undertaking are clear, but nuclear disarmament advocates—in and out of government—are experiencing a rare ray of optimism.
Calling on Canada
And where does Canada stand in this struggle? Unfortunately, it stands not with the growing number of nations, organizations, and individuals that believe that a ban on nuclear weapons is long overdue. Instead, the Canadian position is aligned with that of the few who continue to question the merits of a nuclear weapons ban.
Yet Canada is uniquely positioned to assume a leadership role in the push for a world free of nuclear weapons. Besides enjoying well-earned international credibility as an honest broker, the country is a member of NATO, a state party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and a member of the G7 and G20.
However, the current government has failed to make nuclear disarmament a top foreign policy priority—a stand that would have wide public support.
Civil society organizations, former diplomats and government officials, and more than 750 recipients of the Order of Canada are urging the Canadian government to support UN resolutions calling for formal negotiations toward a nuclear weapons convention. Polls indicate that more than 88 per cent of Canadians support a legal agreement to eliminate nuclear weapons.
In 2010 a unanimous motion by the House and Senate urged the Canadian government “to engage in negotiations for a nuclear weapons convention as proposed by the United Nations Secretary-General” and “to deploy a major worldwide Canadian diplomatic initiative in support of preventing nuclear proliferation and increasing the rate of nuclear disarmament.”
But it fell on deaf ears.
Last year, during the second Preparatory Committee of the NPT, 80 nations endorsed a joint statement focusing on the devastating humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons use. Canada did not.
In October, 125 nations endorsed a similar statement at the UN General Assembly First Committee on Disarmament and International Security. Again, not Canada.
Regrettably, Canada is missing the boat on the growing international tide to finally rid the world of the most destructive type of weapon of mass destruction.
Racing against intelligence
The humanitarian initiative was never focused on merely recognizing the impact of nuclear weapons, but on drawing out the policy implications that follow from such a recognition. If the consequences of nuclear weapons use are unacceptable, and there is a clear and present danger that these weapons may be used by accident, miscalculation, or design, then they must be eliminated.
The process to establish a legal ban on nuclear weapons constitutes a necessary step forward. It will be rooted in the widespread rejection of the continued existence of nuclear weapons and a full recognition of the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of their use.
The road to an actual convention that eliminates nuclear weapons will have obstacles. All the more reason to start laying the groundwork for a Nuclear Weapons Convention now, before the accidental or deliberate detonation of a nuclear weapon—by a state or non-state actor—reminds the world of just how urgent this matter is.
The calls to address the fundamental injustices underpinning the global nuclear disarmament regime are getting louder and more determined. An engaged international civil society will continue to urge progress and scrutinize results. And decision-makers will be increasingly held accountable by their constituents for their failure to act.
Before I finish, let me share a passage by the late author and Nobel Prize laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez from a speech entitled “The cataclysm of Damocles,” delivered in Ixtapa, Mexico, on August 6, 1986:
The nuclear arms race runs against intelligence. And not just against human intelligence, but also against the intelligence of nature, whose purpose manages to escape even the wise clairvoyance of poetry itself. 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, unlike our primitive ancestors, 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. [Translated from the Spanish]
The use of nuclear weapons is unacceptable and the goal of their complete elimination is not negotiable. It is thus imperative that decision-makers realize that they must have the wisdom, the courage, the foresight, and the audacity to rid the world of the most devastating instruments of mass destruction ever conceived. What better way to honour those who suffered the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
The stakes are that high. And the cause is that worthy.