By Thalif Deen*
UNITED NATIONS (IDN) — When the United Nations commemorated the annual International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons on September 26, the President of the General Assembly (GA) Csaba Kőrösi reminded delegates of the statue of Saint—"found in the ruins of Nagasaki, charred and mottled from the atomic blast"—and which now stands at the centre of UN’s permanent collection of memorable anti-nuclear artefacts in the Secretariat building. [2022-09-25-15] CHINESE | JAPANESE TEXT VERSION PDF | PORTUGUESE
"She is there to remind us of a past that must never be repeated. For my part, I will heed her grim warning. I will do whatever I can to bring us closer to our dream: a world that is safe from the scourge of war," he added.
The International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons has been observed annually since 2014. The General Assembly declared the International Day in December 2013, in its resolution 68/32, as a follow-up to the high-level meeting of the General Assembly on nuclear disarmament held on 26 September 2013 in New York.
The United States detonated two atomic bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945, respectively. The two bombings killed between 129,000 and 226,000 people, mostly civilians. But that bombing still remains as the only use of nuclear weapons in an armed conflict.
In the first days of this year, the GA president pointed out that the leaders of the five nuclear-weapon states—the US, UK, France, Russia and China—jointly affirmed that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought".
The other four nuclear powers include India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea.
"Only nine months later, tensions between world powers are reaching new highs. And we are again, permanently 100 to 110 seconds away from launching a nuclear strike to be followed by responses."
The war in Ukraine has raised credible risks of global nuclear disaster, and, as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warned, there are certain circles are "playing with fire".
"I am particularly appalled by the recurring, thinly veiled threats of nuclear strikes. Tactical strikes, it is often added, but we all know that such a conflict would never stay at the tactical level."
On the Korean Peninsula, he reminded delegates the nuclear threat continues to pose an unacceptable risk to the region and the world.
Meanwhile, arsenals across the world are filled with more than 13,000 warheads. Investments in these weapons continue to increase while too many people struggle to buy food, educate their children, and keep warm, the GA President declared.
Still, Kazakhstan is cited as a country that took a pioneering role in giving up its weapons and shutting down its nuclear test site.
Between 1949 to 1989, an estimated 456 Soviet nuclear tests, including 116 atmospheric tests, were carried out at the Semipalatinsk test site, with devastating long-term consequences for human health and the environment.
After the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhstan inherited approximately 1,400 Soviet nuclear warheads, which it subsequently relinquished, recognising that its security was best achieved through disarmament.
Former Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev was the first among newly independent former Soviet states to call for the elimination of nuclear weapons and the creation of a nuclear-free zone in the Central Asian region.
Kazakhstan volunteered to return all nuclear weapons to Russia, signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and entered the world as a non-nuclear state.
In an interview with IDN, Joseph Gerson, President of the Campaign for Peace, Disarmament and Common Security and Vice-President of the International Peace Bureau, said, "one wants to weep, to scream, at the contradiction between the vision, hopes and ceremonies embedded in the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons and the reality that humanity is now hostage to the most dangerous nuclear confrontation since Cuban Missile Crisis".
In August, on the eve of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference, Secretary-General António Guterres warned that humanity was "just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation". In these circumstances, our first and urgent priority must be preventing a nuclear war.
Gerson said Russian, and US leaders are playing with nuclear fire that could consume us all as they move eyeball to eyeball in the spiralling escalation of the Ukrainian war.
As Russian President Vladimir Putin moves to annex more of Ukraine, ostensibly making them part of Russia, he threatens to use nuclear weapons to "protect" Russia and warns that he is not bluffing, he noted.
"Backed by the US and NATO, President Zelensky repeats his commitment to win back all of the territories conquered by Russia. We thus face the danger of an endless war that bleeds Russian resources or a decisive defeat of Russian forces, each of which would make Putin’s rule vulnerable and raise the possibility of Russia launching tactical nuclear weapons to terrorize Kyiv into bowing to Moscow’s demands," Gerson warned.
In response to Putin’s nuclear sabre rattling, the Biden Administration responds that it will "respond decisively", which implies possible nuclear retaliation. But given political and nationalist forces in each of the superpowers, it will be more than difficult for either leader to accept the appearance of defeat".
"And thus, the fate of humanity hangs in the balance," he declared.
The UN meeting on the total elimination of nuclear weapons took place amid a Global Appeal to "end the nuclear threat, abolish nuclear weapons and shift the weapons budgets and investments to support public health, COVID-19 recovery, the climate and sustainable development".
The appeal came from Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (PNND), a global network of legislators working on a range of initiatives to prevent nuclear proliferation and to achieve a nuclear-weapons-free world.
Addressing delegates, the UN Chief said in an era of "nuclear blackmail", countries should step back from the threat of potential global catastrophe and recommit to peace.
"Nuclear weapons are the most destructive power ever created. They offer no security—just carnage and chaos. Their elimination would be the greatest gift we could bestow on future generations," he said.
Guterres recalled that the Cold War had brought humanity "within minutes of annihilation". Yet decades after it ended, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, "we can hear once again the rattling of nuclear sabres". he said.
"Let me be clear. The era of nuclear blackmail must end. The idea that any country could fight and win a nuclear war is deranged. Any use of a nuclear weapon would incite a humanitarian Armageddon. We need to step back."
The Secretary-General also spoke of his disappointment after countries failed to reach consensus at a conference last month to review the landmark Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the only binding commitment to the goal of disarmament by States which officially stockpile nuclear weapons.
Following four weeks of intense negotiations at UN Headquarters, delegations left without an outcome document because Russia objected to the text about its control over Ukrainian nuclear facilities.
The UN Chief pledged not to give up and urged countries "to use every avenue of dialogue, diplomacy and negotiation to ease tensions, reduce risk and eliminate the nuclear threat."
Meanwhile, Gerson also pointed out that the US-Chinese confrontation over Taiwan, Indian-Pakistani confrontations over Kashmir, and the nine nuclear powers' nuclear arms races all carry the same danger of nuclear Armageddon.
"The International Day for the Complete Elimination of Nuclear Weapons provided an opportunity to refocus our attention on the imminent and long-term nuclear dangers. Our first priority must be preventing nuclear war."
This dictates the urgency of winning an immediate ceasefire and negotiated comprise settlement to the Ukraine War and an end to the US and Chinese provocative military manoeuvres near Taiwan and in the South China Sea.
"As we face new Cold Wars with no shared assumptions or guardrails to contain tensions and to prevent catastrophic miscalculations, the US and Russia and the US and China must reengage in the process of re-establishing strategic stability. It can serve as the foundation for negotiation of meaningful arms control and disarmament agreements," warned Gerson.
Without such steps, despite the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), the vision and urgent need for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons—which is the only way to prevent nuclear war ultimately—will remain beyond our reach.
"If there is one truism that we must remember and act upon on this international day and tomorrow, it is the Hibakusha’s (nuclear weapons victims) admonition that 'Human beings and nuclear weapons cannot coexist," he declared. [IDN-InDepthNews – 29 September 2022]
*A Fulbright scholar with a Master’s Degree (MSc) in Journalism from Columbia University, New York, Thalif Deen is co-author of the 1981 book "How to Survive a Nuclear Disaster" and author of the 2021 book on the United Nations titled "No Comment – and Don’t Quote me on That." The link to Amazon via the author’s website follows: https://www.rodericgrigson.com/no-comment-by-thalif-deen/
Photo: The "Good Defeats Evil" sculpture, located at UN Headquarters in New York, depicts an allegorical St. George slaying a double-headed dragon. The dragon is created from fragments of Soviet SS-20 and United States Pershing nuclear missiles. Photo: UN Photo/Milton Grant