September 26th is the United Nations’ International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. One year on from the historic adoption of an international treaty which aims to make these weapons illegal, it is urgent that we step up the treaty’s implementation and remind ourselves why these weapons of mass destruction must be banned to build a peaceful world.
1) They cause catastrophic harm
“My beloved city of Hiroshima suddenly became desolation, with heaps of ash and rubble, skeletons and blackened corpses.” Setsuko Thurlow, Hibakusha (survivor) of the Hiroshima bombing.
This haunting witness account reminds us of the enormous destructive power of nuclear weapons. Hitting civilians and soldiers indiscriminately, they wreak devastation and have long-term radiation effects that affect future generations.
Used twice in wartime, in 1945, on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, around a quarter of a million civilians were incinerated in an instant or were subjected to horrendous deaths in the weeks and months following the attacks.
2) They are pointless
What defence can the atomic bomb provide against the main threats of our era, such as climate change, terrorism or cyber-attacks? Nuclear weapons are totally obsolete and unable to meet today’s challenges. On the contrary, far from maintaining peace, they fuel fear and distrust between countries.
3) They cost us a fortune
While nuclear arsenals have decreased since the mid-1980s, the budgetary expenditure related to nuclear weapons is constantly on the rise. This pattern of spending of public money is found in all states which possess nuclear weapons. According to estimates (Global Zero, 2011) it’s close to $1000 billion for the decade of 2010-2020.
Imagine if this money went instead to health, education, the fight against climate change, assistance to survivors, and other services to ensure human security.
4) They carry huge proliferation risks
Proliferation is the risk that states that have nuclear weapons increase their weapon stockpiles or that new states become nuclear-armed. To combat these huge risks, an international non-proliferation treaty entered into force in 1970 with the aims to prevent non-nuclear states from developing nuclear weapons, and to get nuclear states to reduce their arsenals.
Unfortunately, these undertakings remain for the most part empty rhetoric. How can it be possible to claim that the security of a nation is based on a nuclear deterrence policy when at the same time other nations are asked not to use this means of “security”?
5) They are the only weapons of mass destruction which have not yet been (really) banned
But this could change soon. While biological and chemical weapons have been prohibited worldwide, since 1972 and 1993 respectively, nuclear weapons have not been constrained up to now. This is a legal anomaly which is in the process of being fully corrected with the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons which is set to come into force in 2020, and was adopted in 2017 by 122 states at the United Nations.
Of course, states that have nuclear weapons, including France, have boycotted this Treaty. But the pressure on the nine nuclear-armed states is building – from the growing number of nations and financial institutions who are ceasing to invest in the production of these weapons systems, to thousands of people speaking out across the globe.
So what can we do?
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is a roadmap to achieving the total elimination of these weapons of mass destruction. To enter into force, the Treaty must be signed and ratified by 50 countries. To date, there are 15 ratifications and 60 signatures.
Let’s keep up the pressure on governments to put an end to nuclear proliferation and to strengthen international security.
Jen Maman is the Senior Peace Advisor at Greenpeace International