At the United Nations this past week, 123 nations voted to commence negotiations next year on a new treaty to prohibit the possession of nuclear weapons. Despite President Obama’s own words in his 2009 pledge to seek the security of a world free of nuclear weapons, the U.S. voted “no” and led the opposition to this treaty.
Rather than meet our obligations under international law, the U.S has proposed by stark contrast to begin a new nuclear arms race spending $1 trillion over the next 30 years to “upgrade” every aspect our nuclear weapons programs. A jobs program to end humanity. Each of the nuclear nations is expected to do the same in rebuilding their weapons programs continuing the arms race for generations to come—or until planetary thermonuclear murder, whichever comes first.
The myth of deterrence is the guise for this effort when in fact deterrence is the principle driver of the arms race. For every additional weapon my adversary has, I need two and so on and so on to our global arsenals of 15,500 weapons.
Fed up with this inaction and doublespeak, the non-nuclear nations of the world have joined the ongoing efforts of the world’s NGO, health and religious communities in demanding an end to the madness. Led by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)—a global partnership of 440 partners in 98 countries—along with the International Red Cross, the world’s health associations representing more than 17 million health professionals worldwide, the Catholic Church and World Council of Churches, are all calling for a treaty to ban and eliminate nuclear weapons.
The effort to ban nuclear weapons has several parallels to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines led by Jody Williams, recipient of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. This effort was dismissed and called utopian by most governments and militaries of the world when it was launched by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in 1992; then it succeeded in 1997 through partnerships, public imagination and political pressure resulting in the ultimate political will. The nuclear ban movement has been vigorously fought against by the nuclear nations arrogantly persisting in possessing those horrific weapons and pressuring members of their alliances to hold the line.
Nuclear weapons present the greatest public health and existential threat to our survival every moment of every day. Yet the United States and world nuclear nations stand in breach of the 1968 Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, which commits these nations to work in good faith to end the arms race and to achieve nuclear disarmament. Forty-eight years later the efforts of the nuclear nations toward this goal are not evident and the state of the world is as dangerous as it was during the height of the Cold War.
This year’s presidential campaign has once again done little to focus on the dangers of nuclear weapons, looking instead at who has the temperament to have their finger on the button with absolutely no indication of any understanding of the consequences to all of humanity by the use of these weapons even on a very small scale. In addition to tensions between Russia and the U.S. in Ukraine and Syria, there is a real danger of nuclear war in South Asia, which could kill more than two billion people from the use of “just” 100 Hiroshima-size weapons.
Some of rest of the world is finally standing up to this threat to their survival and that of the planet. They are taking matters into their own hands and refusing to be held hostage by the nuclear nations. They will no longer be bullied into sitting back and waiting for the nuclear states to make good on empty promises.
Unfortunately these weapons and control systems are imperfect. During the Cold War there were many instances where the world came perilously close to nuclear war. It is a matter of sheer luck that this scenario did not come to pass by design or accident. Our luck will not hold out forever. Luck is not a security policy. From a medical and public health stance, our current evidence-based understanding of what nuclear weapons can actually do means any argument for continued possession of these weapons by anyone in untenable and defies logic. There is absolutely no reasonable or adequate medical response to nuclear war.
As with any public health threat from Zika, to Ebola, Polio, HIV, prevention is the goal. The global threat from nuclear weapons is no different. The only way to prevent the use of nuclear weapons is to ban and eliminate them. Our future depends upon this.
President Kennedy speaking on nuclear weapons before the U.N. Security Council in September 1961 said, “The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.” Our children’s children will look back and rightly ask why we–the only nation to ever use nuclear weapons–remained on the wrong side of history when it came to abolishing nuclear weapons.