By Alicia Godsberg
Nuclear weapons are the only weapons of mass destruction not banned by international convention. Yet the use of only one nuclear weapon would have devastating consequences for the climate, environment, health, food production, and economy of our planet. A nuclear exchange, by design or accident, would cause an unmanageable global humanitarian crisis, as described in recent reports of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the International Physicians to Prevent Nuclear War (IPPNW). A global nuclear winter would result from only a small nuclear exchange, leaving people to die in pain with no medical help, an altered climate causing reduced food production and global famine, the collapse of trade and the international economy, and the devastation of our ecosystem as we know it. We cannot allow this to happen, and we will not.
From 11-12 February 2014, the government of Mexico hosted the 2nd Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in Nayarit. Participants in Nayarit heard from policy experts, climate scientists, and survivors affected by nuclear weapons and tests. Hibakusha, victims from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, shared their stories of living through the hell of a single nuclear blast of a bomb much less powerful than the nuclear weapons of today. The delegations of Kazakhstan and some Pacific Island nations relayed the horror of being subjected to hundreds of nuclear weapon tests, and the devastation tests brought to their people, crops, oceans, food supply, water and air. Experts reported on the climate effects of nuclear detonations and the humanitarian crisis that would follow for any survivors, including the collapse of the international economy, widespread famine, and the destruction of our ecosystem for decades. Other experts reported on risk calculation and safety concerns of the world’s nuclear forces and military guardians, explaining how close we have come over and over to accidental detonations, intentional use over false warnings, and general sloppy management of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems.
The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) organized a civil society conference around the governmental conference in Mexico to focus on promoting a dialogue towards a treaty banning nuclear weapons. ICAN is a coalition of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) with 360 partners in 93 countries. Their conference focused on lobbying delegations during the governmental conference to support a ban treaty and on what campaigners could do in their home countries to strengthen support for a nuclear ban treaty. More than 100 NGO representatives attended the ICAN conference, some of whom participated on panels at the governmental conference and others who intervened from the floor.
The ultimate goal of a nuclear ban treaty is to prohibit the possession and use of nuclear weapons and to provide a framework under which their complete elimination may be pursued. Such a treaty would not have to be overly technical or include the resolution of complex problems related to nuclear disarmament. By contrast, a Nuclear Weapons Convention requires both the support and ratification of nuclear armed states to be effective and needs to address those complexities in detail. The ban treaty is a way for non-nuclear weapon states who comprise all but nine states of the international community to take responsibility for ridding the world of nuclear weapons instead of waiting for the so-called “step-by-step” process of nuclear disarmament to make significant changes to the status quo.
The International Court of Justice concluded in its 1996 Advisory Opinion on the legality of the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons that the use of nuclear weapons would be “scarcely reconcilable with respect for the requirements of the law applicable in armed conflict.” We know nuclear weapons cause unnecessary suffering, cannot discern between combatant and civilian, and cannot contain their effects to the field of battle. There was universal outcry when chemical weapons were used last year in Syria because these weapons are banned by international law and cause extraordinary suffering, leaving them no place in a civilized world, even on the battlefield. Nuclear weapons must be banned for the same reasons, even more so because the effects of their use would be vastly more devastating and last for generations to come all around the globe.
President Obama’s Prague speech of 2009 seemed to indicate he understood the gravity allowing the continued existence of nuclear weapons, yet there has been little substantive change in US nuclear policy. He should act boldly and make the world a safer place by following the precedent set by George H.W. Bush when he issued an executive order to destroy all ground based tactical nuclear weapons and withdraw all sea-based tactical nuclear weapons from deployment. President Obama should start by issuing an executive order to eliminate the air leg of the nuclear triad, destroying all nuclear gravity bombs and nuclear capable cruise missiles. Doing so by executive order would prevent members of Congress from fighting similar legislation in order to keep funding in their districts for nuclear weapons work and military bases. The billions of dollars in savings from eliminating the bomber leg of the triad will help with our nation’s financial crisis and could even be earmarked for factory retooling and job training in districts hit hardest by the air leg’s termination. But financial benefits pale in comparison to the message such bold, unilateral, decisive, and prudent action would send to the world; it could be the beginning of the end of relying on the total destruction of our planet for a false sense of security.
In Nayarit the world came together. More than half the countries that spoke expressed support for some kind of treaty banning nuclear weapons. While the world doesn’t need the U.S. or the other nuclear armed states for that, those states will be needed once momentum turns to the next step, which is the criminalization of possessing, producing, or stockpiling nuclear weapons. All the nuclear armed states should join the rest of the world in Vienna later this year at the 3rd Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, but only if they are truly interested in achieving a world without nuclear weapons. That world starts with a nuclear ban treaty, and many countries have already stated they are ready to begin discussions in Vienna on actionable steps to achieve the ban. America should be on the right side of history and work with the vast majority of the world and civil society to ban nuclear weapons. President Obama, your seat at the table is waiting.
Alicia Godsberg is the Executive Director of Peace Action New York State. Her background is in nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation policy and deterrence theory. Alicia graduated from The Graduate Center at the City University of New York in 2007 with a master’s degree in political science and received her B.S. in political science from the University of Michigan.
Prior to joining PANYS, Alicia was the Research Associate for the Strategic Security Program and UN Affairs at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C. From October 2007 – May 2008 Alicia took a leave of absence from FAS to work as the research assistant for Dr. Ellen Williams on the Strategic Posture Review Commission of the United States. Alicia’s brief for Dr. Williams and the Commission on outer space arms control treaties was published in the U.S. Institute of Peace’s companion publication, In The Eyes Of The Experts.
Before working at FAS Alicia worked as a research associate for the Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy in New York.