Against all odds, the United Nations has successfully negotiated a treaty to outlaw nuclear weapons. On July 7, some 130 countries agreed to make the developing, testing, manufacturing, possessing, or stockpiling of nuclear weapons by any state illegal. As they have done already with chemical and biological weapons and land mines, an overwhelming majority of countries have come together to prohibit nuclear weapons from ever being used again. Their goal is to bring the treaty forward for signing on September 20 when the UN General Assembly meets in New York.
At a time when many people feel that organizations supporting globalization, such as the European Union, the World Trade Organization, and the European Parliament, ignore the needs of ordinary people, the UN, instead, is placing the protection and well-being of people at the very heart of this treaty. Indeed, it was inspired by UN-sponsored conferences beginning in 2013 to consider the harm to individuals and to highlight the humanitarian catastrophes resulting from the use of nuclear weapons.
Prominent among the nongovernmental organizations at the conferences were the International Committees of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, as well as physicians groups and environmental scientists. These are the international groups that will be called upon to respond to the certain disasters if nuclear weapons are used, whether by accident, miscalculation, or intentional war—to treat the burned and wounded, attend the sick and dying, bury the dead, and assess the environmental destruction. Because of the likely scale of damage, these relief and medical organizations know they will be overwhelmed by any detonation of nuclear weapons. They also understand that the Bomb is an affront to human decency and defies the laws of war that set limits to prevent unnecessary suffering.
In proposing this treaty, the United Nations is taking seriously its responsibility to protect people, even as national governments have admitted they cannot save their citizens from an enemy’s nuclear weapons. It’s telling that US leaders have built a system of fortified sites that protect them in the event of nuclear cataclysm, but have no such plans for the rest of the country’s people. (See Garrett M. Graff’s recent book, Raven Rock: The Story of the US Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself While the Rest of Us Die.) Even more insidious, as Joseph Masco documents in The Theater of Operations (2014), rather than reducing the dangers, the United States government creates and manages fear about nuclear weapons to emotionally bind its people to the national security state, resulting in the loss of their critical judgment about nuclear weapons policy.
Although the leaders of nuclear weapons countries claim that their own nuclear arms provide security by deterring others from using theirs, the underlying principle of that deterrence is still one of mutually assured destruction. That is, each side will be able to inflict unacceptably massive damage on the other’s population, communications and transportation systems, agriculture and environmental resources. This is the mutual suicide pact upon which deterrence really rests. As such, nuclear nation-states no longer even claim to fulfill the first obligation of a national government: to provide security for its people.
In light of the nuclear weapons states’ inability or unwillingness to protect their own citizens, the UN treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons is a most welcome development. It recognizes that the only way to protect people from the horror and unacceptable damage of nuclear weapons is to eliminate them. Although leaders in nuclear weapons states claim that this is an unrealistic goal, the current state of affairs appears to be even more unrealistic. Contending that nuclear weapons deter aggression because their use would destroy hundreds of thousands of people on each side of the conflict is more than unrealistic; it is self-destructive and beyond reason.
Participants in the current negotiating conference view the prohibition treaty as a necessary building block in the nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation regime. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970 set the stage for drastic reductions in nuclear stockpiles, but it has not resulted in the promised disarmament or to plans to eliminate nuclear weapons, even as it seems to have prevented substantial proliferation. To the contrary, nearly all the nine nuclear weapons states continue to rely on nuclear weapons in military planning and security doctrine and today are engaged in weapons build-ups and modernization programs. The new treaty calls again for disarmament but goes even further—it outlaws nuclear weapons. By doing so, it offers states an opportunity to recommit themselves to the disarmament goals of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and, at last, to fulfill the first obligation of national security—to protect their people from mass destruction. Aspiring to prohibit nuclear weapons may be audacious, but it is necessary if humanity is to survive.