My Turn: Nuclear treaty offers hope in a new year

For the Monitor
Published: 1/15/2021 6:20:26 AM

Martin Luther King’s birthday is now upon us. While he still lived, he called repeatedly for nuclear disarmament.

In 2017, the New London town meeting passed a warrant article calling for nuclear disarmament, the U.S. Conference of Mayors passed a similar resolution, and the United Nations drafted its Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The treaty stipulated that once 50 nations had ratified it, it would go into force 90 days later. That 50th ratification, from Honduras, came on Oct. 24 last year, which incidentally was the U.N.’s 75th anniversary.

The treaty will go into force this Jan. 22, thereby becoming international law. Thirty-four more nations have signed the treaty, but have not yet ratified it.

Once they learned the treaty had enough ratifications to go into force, the original five nuclear weapons states – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, and France – protested, arguing that the treaty would complicate their efforts at arms control and arms reduction, thereby making the world more dangerous.

What was forgotten in that complaint is that none of them have seriously negotiated toward nuclear disarmament as required by Article 6 of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

As Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons pointed out, “There is nothing about a ban on nuclear weapons that prevents implementation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.” One of the nations which ratified the treaty, Kazakhstan, was a testing ground during the Soviet nuclear weapons program. And Setsuko Thurlow, a world renowned Hiroshima survivor and disarmament activist, declared that she “cried tears of joy” when she learned the treaty would go into force.

One can only imagine how Dr. King would have responded were he still alive.

Admittedly the United States and Russia have taken significant steps toward nuclear arms control and arms reduction. There are far fewer nuclear weapons now than there were in the 1980s, and to that extent the world may be a safer place.

Unfortunately, nuclear arms reduction has slowed and stagnated since the 1990s and there are still several times more than enough nuclear weapons left to wipe out life on earth in the event of an all-out nuclear war. Once we have overkill, as we still have, it makes no difference, notwithstanding arms reduction’s possible effect in reducing tensions.

There are three more points to understand. First is that during the Trump years, the arms control regime that took two generations to build has largely disintegrated. Second, the nuclear weapons states have long since embarked on a modernization program that will cost trillions of dollars and threatens to make the nuclear arms race permanent, with all the risks to the future that entails. Last October, as part of this trend, the Pentagon selected Texas A&M to organize and manage a University Consortium on Applied Hypersonics, whose job would be to help develop hypersonic missiles. Finally, arms control and arms reduction, while worthwhile in themselves, are simply ways to regulate a nuclear arms race.

They are not disarmament.

The treaty not only outlaws the further development of nuclear weapons; it also forbids any threat to use them for reasons of state. At the same time, Article 10 provides for the treaty’s amendment, and Articles 15 and 17 stipulate ways to back out of it. Right now, the treaty applies only to those nations that have ratified it – none of which possess, store, or have transferred nuclear weapons.

Nevertheless, there are several points which the treaty makes plain. Article 12 obligates ratifying states to press the rest of the world’s nations, especially the nuclear weapons states and their allies, also to ratify it. Articles 6 and 7 require all parties to provide victim assistance and environmental remediation to all people and every area affected by nuclear weapons use and testing. Article 3 obligates all non-nuclear weapons states to develop comprehensive safeguards agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Article 4 mandates that any nation which holds another country’s nuclear weapons must remove those weapons once it joins the treaty.

On Sept. 21, former defense and foreign ministers from 22 countries – Albania, Belgium, Canada, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, and Turkey – all countries that claim protection from an ally’s nuclear weapons, sent an open letter to current world leaders urging them to advance nuclear disarmament. In those respects, the treaty is an important moral statement.

Even though we in the United States – leaders and public alike – generally avoid discussing the topic and cling to the notion of nuclear deterrence, the world as a whole has grown sick and tired of the nuclear arms race and its waste. And now, measured by the treaty’s standards, every nuclear weapons state on earth is a rogue nation.

Ever since the treaty had enough backing to go into force, the original five nuclear weapons states have been actively urging nations that have ratified the treaty to opt out. Even if their leaders and people fervently wish an end to nuclear weapons, the contradictions between wish and practice among nuclear-armed nations and the habitual self-deception involved are both astonishing and grave.

Consider that as we move through the new year and into a new presidency.

(John Raby lives in New London.)


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