When Nelson Mandela walked free, in 1990, after 27 grueling years behind bars, South Africa began the process of emancipating itself from not only from its brutal apartheid regime but also its arsenal of atomic bombs. Like white-minority rule, these awful weapons had weighed heavily on us all, entrenching our status as a pariah nation. Their abolition was essential for our liberation.
Today, North Korea rightly faces the same kind of stigma over its nuclear weaponry. By pursuing such arms, it is behaving as no respectable member of the family of nations should. But too seldom do we hear strong words of censure for others who wield these abominable devices. On the world stage, they present themselves, oxymoronically, as “responsible” nuclear powers.
All of those who wield nuclear weapons are deserving of our scorn. The development and stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction by any state is morally indefensible. It breeds enmity and mistrust and threatens peace. The radiation unleashed by an American or British or French nuclear bomb is just as deadly as that from a North Korean one. The inferno and shock waves kill and maim no less indiscriminately.
With sabres rattling and the specter of nuclear war looming large, the imperative to abolish man’s most evil creation—before it abolishes us—is as urgent as ever. Further arms races and provocations will lead us inexorably to catastrophe. The overwhelming majority of the world’s nations understand this, and are now developing a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons under international law.
They began negotiating the accord at the United Nations in March and will resume their work on June 15. Regrettably, however, all of the nuclear-armed nations, along with several of their allies, are refusing to take part. They claim that their bombs help keep the peace. But what peace can be maintained through threats of annihilation? So long as these weapons exist, we will continue to teeter on the brink.
To realize a nuclear weapon–free world, we must first acknowledge that nuclear weapons serve no legitimate, lawful purpose. That is precisely what the new treaty will do. It will place nuclear weapons on the same legal footing as chemical and biological weapons, anti-personnel landmines, and cluster munitions—all of which the international community has declared too inhumane ever to use or possess.
Some leaders, intent on preserving the status quo, have dismissed this UN process as futile given the resistance of the so-called great powers. But what is the alternative? To wait and hope that the powerful few will one day show enlightened leadership? That would be a very poor strategy indeed for safeguarding humanity. In the absence of tremendous pressure, disarmament will remain but a fantasy.
For too long, the nuclear powers have failed us terribly. Instead of disarming—as they are duty-bound to do—they have squandered precious resources on programs to bolster their nuclear forces. They have held humankind to ransom. But nuclear-free nations are now rising up, asserting their right to live in a safe, harmonious global community, unburdened by this ultimate menace.
Of course, it was not the slaveowners who led the struggle to abolish slavery. Nor was it the Afrikaners who tore down the system of apartheid in South Africa. The oppressed fought for, and ultimately secured, their own freedom. Through collective action, we built the foundations for transformative change, to the benefit of all. This is what we are witnessing today in the arena of disarmament diplomacy.
Every nation will be better off in a world without these “terrible and terrifying weapons of mass destruction,” as Mandela so aptly described them to the UN General Assembly in 1998. Disarmament was a cause dear to his heart. He saw racism, injustice, and the bomb as inextricably linked, and he knew that the arms race, if not curtailed, could only end in oblivion. What we need now is a disarmament race.