Japan is the only country in the world to have been devastated by three nuclear catastrophes.
First, the two atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug 6 and 9, 1945, during World War II; and then a Level 7 nuclear reactor meltdown in Fukushima on March 11, 2011, caused by a tsunami.
The death toll linked to the 1945 bombings and their radiation effects was 460,000, according to a recent article in Japan Times. The Fukushima disaster not only forced the evacuation of about 170,000 people from the prefecture, but also left Japan with an intractable human and environmental disaster.
Global trends in military doctrines and ecologically unsustainable development strongly indicate that nuclear war and climate change now represent the two most critical threats to human security, the integrity of the planet, and ultimately the survival of civilisation.
The militarisation of diplomacy, such as the “war on terrorism”, has not only ignited armed conflict by state and non-state actors but it also carries the risk that, as long as nuclear weapons exist, they could be used by intent, miscalculation or accident.
During the ideological Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s, the United States and the Soviet Union played nuclear roulette with 90% of the global arsenal of 50,000 nuclear warheads. On more than one occasion, nuclear deterrence came close to failing and the world stood on the brink of nuclear annihilation. Such good fortune will not prevail forever.
The Cold War is over but tensions still exist between the US and Russia, who together still possess 93% of the world’s nuclear stockpile, which is now reduced to 16,000 warheads (figures in graphic opposite).
President Barack Obama’s speech in Prague in 2009 raised hopes that the world was at last seriously headed towards becoming free of nuclear weapons. But by the end of 2012, optimism had evaporated. There was more gloom when the recent 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference ended in disarray, following disagreement over a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East.
Relief agencies of the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross have made it clear that they would not have the capacity to respond meaningfully to the consequences of a nuclear conflict.
Scientific studies have shown that a large scale nuclear war, between the United States and Russia for example, would cause a “nuclear winter”. The smoke and dust from nuclear explosions in the atmosphere would prevent 10% of sunlight from reaching the Earth’s surface, which would cause an abrupt drop in global temperatures and rainfall; this in turn would cause a profound disruption of climate worldwide.
Even a limited, regional nuclear war involving as few as 100 Hiroshima-sized weapons between India and Pakistan could cause similar changes in climate worldwide.
According to an International Committee of the Red Cross report that quoted 2013 US studies, corn and soybean production would decline by 10% for an entire decade, and in China, rice production would decline by 20% for four years. Famine on this scale would threaten over one billion people, lead to major epidemics of infectious diseases, and create huge potential for regional wars and civil conflict.
These studies indicate that the consequences for humanity of using nuclear weapons are more destructive than those of any other weapon developed throughout history; this is why there is an urgent need for a global agreement to delegitimise, ban, and eliminate nuclear weapons.
At the height of the Cold War, doctors in many countries realised that there could be no meaningful medical response in the event of a nuclear war. Based on the sound principle of preventive medicine, an international group of doctors came together in 1980 and formed International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) to advocate for the elimination of nuclear weapons.
Since then, IPPNW has worked with other civil society organisations and states that do not have nuclear weapons to advance nuclear disarmament within the framework of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. For this, IPPNW received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.
When it finally became clear after the 2005 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference that the nuclear-armed states were not committed to getting rid of their nuclear arsenals, IPPNW changed its strategy and launched the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons in 2007, as a parallel process outside the ineffective Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The international campaign is now a dynamic movement of non-governmental organisations in 60 countries that are putting the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons at the centre of the discussion on nuclear disarmament.
The international community has in the past negotiated conventions to ban and eliminate biological and chemical weapons, land mines, and cluster munitions. But nuclear weapons, the most destructive, disproportionate and indiscriminate weapons ever to violate international humanitarian law, have not been banned.
At the 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, participants warned that if the world did not eliminate nuclear weapons, the consequences for humankind would be catastrophic.
In 2011, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement appealed to all states “to pursue in good faith and conclude with urgency and determination negotiations to prohibit the use of and completely eliminate nuclear weapons through a legally-binding international agreement, based on existing commitments and international obligations.”
The best way to do this would be to negotiate a comprehensive, irreversible, binding, verifiable treaty that would bring together all the necessary aspects of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation. Such an approach is supported by the vast majority of people and governments worldwide.
Ultimately, the responsibility to eliminate nuclear weapons rests with governments – all barriers to achieving a world free of nuclear weapons are political, not technical.
Generating an irresistible groundswell of public support for nuclear abolition, particularly in nuclear-armed states, will be key to ensuring that all governments enter constructively into negotiations to ban nuclear weapons.
States committed to such a treaty should undertake to do so even if the nuclear-armed states do not participate; such a treaty will extend and renew the stigma attached to nuclear weapons and will contribute to their progressive delegitimisation. This should be seen as the next essential step towards elimination, just as the prohibition of chemical and biological weapons was a necessary step to their ongoing elimination.
Badge of shame
Growing international focus on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons is significant because public awareness of the costs could alter the tone of discussions: instead of seeing the threat to use the weapons as a legitimate action that nuclear-armed states can take, the world could instead be made to realise that simply having these weapons is illegal, much less threatening or planning to use them.
An international treaty that makes nuclear weapons illegal would confer a badge of shame and international criminality on each nuclear-armed state until it gets rid of all its weapons. The core of such a treaty would be comprehensive prohibitions on the use, possession, development, production, and transfer of nuclear weapons under any circumstances.
In 2012, a growing number of governments endorsed international statements, arguing that immediate steps should be taken to outlaw nuclear weapons on the grounds that their use would cause catastrophic humanitarian consequences.
This awakening was coupled with a renewed sense of confidence within civil society, under the banner of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which is being sustained by the decades of work invested in nuclear disarmament over many years by civil society activists around the world.
Focusing on the human costs of nuclear-weapon use makes it clear that these weapons are unacceptable and that their elimination is imperative. A treaty that makes it very clear that nuclear weapons are illegal would build upon established instruments and approaches which can be pursued with confidence by states that have already rejected nuclear weapons. Civil society organisations could work as committed partners in such a process.
The Humanitarian Pledge
The 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference generated a renewed focus on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and an initiative to prohibit nuclear weapons and make them illegal in international law.
Three major diplomatic conferences have since been convened. The first was held in Oslo in March 2013 with delegates from 128 states; the second in Nayarit, Mexico, in February 2014 with 146 states; and the third in Vienna in December 2014 with 158 states. All included the voices of relevant UN agencies, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, academia, and non-governmental organisations, including IPPNW and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.
The focus on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons has highlighted a recognition that the stockpiling and deployment of nuclear weapons present distinct risks of nuclear detonation, whether intentional or accidental. It has also opened up space for consideration of the most appropriate political and legal responses to the continued existence of nuclear weapons. This new discourse has generated a growing realisation that the nuclear-armed states and their allies cannot be relied upon to accomplish the elimination of their weapons alone.
At the most recent Vienna conference, non-nuclear states were even more vocal in their support for negotiations on a prohibition treaty. The chair’s summary reflected this, stating that “Many delegations expressed support for the negotiation of a new legal instrument prohibiting nuclear weapons, constituting an effective measure towards nuclear disarmament, as required also by the Non-Proliferation Treaty”.
The host government, Austria, concluded the Vienna Conference by issuing the “Humanitarian Pledge” to identify and pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons”.
Many states have since endorsed this pledge by formal diplomatic means, signalling their intent toy work with relevant stakeholders “to stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons”.
The treaty would provide parameters for the elimination of nuclear weapons within agreed time frames for those states with nuclear weapons that join the treaty.
A treaty banning nuclear weapons should be developed by those states ready to do so, even without the participation of the nuclear-armed states. The negotiating process should be open to all states and be free of obstruction by any state.
In the United Nations and other international fora, the Government of Malaysia continues to be steadfast in its support for the elimination of nuclear weapons and a world free of nuclear weapons.
Dr Ronald McCoy is founding president of Malaysian Physicians for Social Responsibility and past co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985. He is a retired obstetrician and gynaecologist who believes that all the babies he has delivered deserve to live in a world without nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants.