Ending the threat of nuclear war requires U.S. leadership by guest writer Steve Baggarly

Editors Note: this article originally ran for January 22nd, 2021.

Today nuclear weapons become illegal. Today the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) enters into force. The 51 (and counting) state parties to the international Treaty have agreed to have nothing to do with nuclear weapons—including their development, manufacture, possession, testing, deployment, stockpiling, transfer, use or threat of use, as well any assistance to other states’ nuclear weapons programs. It effectively, and finally, makes nuclear weapons illegal under International Law and is primed to be the instrument for comprehensive, verifiable, global nuclear disarmament.

The nine nuclear-armed nations boycotted the TPNW process and, as non-ratifying nations, are still outside its legal power. The United States and Russia (with 90 percent of the world’s 14,500 nuclear weapons between them—1800 that are ready to be launched in minutes), along with China, England and France have instead reiterated their 1970 commitment under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to complete nuclear disarmament “at any early date.” The TPNW represents the well-founded suspicion of the non-nuclear nations that, after 50 years, those nuclear powers do not intend to keep their promise.

And time is running out. Last year the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set its iconic Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds before midnight (the closest we’ve been to global annihilation), raising the alarm about the urgency of reversing the existential dangers posed by nuclear weapons and climate change amidst worsening world tensions, a new nuclear arms race, broken nuclear treaties, and the possibilities of nuclear war by accident, malfunction, or mistake. The mounting threat of cyberattacks, alone, renders nuclear deterrence obsolete and more dangerous than ever.

The use of even a tiny fraction of the world’s nuclear arsenal (say a limited exchange between India and Pakistan) would incinerate millions of people and send smoky soot into the upper atmosphere causing worldwide climate disruption threatening 2 billion people with starvation. An all-out nuclear war (intentional or not) would kill, maim, and traumatize billions of people, plunge temperatures to ice age levels and potentially end life on the planet as we know it.

In the TPNW the global community has a powerful new tool to stigmatize the handful of nuclear-armed nations and the financial institutions and corporations that fund and build their weapons. The United States is in the best position to organize and lead the nuclear powers to sign, ratify, and implement the treaty, but until someone does those states will feel the Treaty’s moral (and soon economic) force, as nuclear weapons join chemical and biological weapons as the final weapons of mass destruction to be outlawed internationally.

Hiroshima survivor Setsuko Thurlow was one of two women who accepted the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) for its part in creating the Treaty. In her acceptance speech she described crawling out from the fiery wreckage of her high school where 350 of her classmates were killed, and concluded that “Whenever I remember Hiroshima, the first image that comes to mind is of my four-year-old nephew, Eiji—his little body transformed into an unrecognizable melted chunk of flesh. He kept begging for water in a faint voice until his death released him from agony.

To me, he came to represent all the innocent children of the world, threatened as they are at this very moment by nuclear weapons. Every second of every day, nuclear weapons endanger everyone we love and everything we hold dear. We must not tolerate this insanity any longer.”

Beatrice Fihn, ICAN’s Executive Director, put it this way: “The story of nuclear weapons will have an ending, and it is up to us what that ending will be. Will it be the end of nuclear weapons, or will it be the end of us? We must choose one.”

Steve Baggarly is a member of the Hampton Roads Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons and the Norfolk Catholic Worker.

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