In a historic vote on October 27 at the United Nations Committee for Disarmament, what has long seemed to be hopelessly clogged institutional machinery for abolishing nuclear weapons was upended when 123 nations voted to move forward with negotiations in 2017 to prohibit and ban nuclear weapons just as the world has already done for biological and chemical weapons. Civil-society participants broke out into cheers and shouts of jubilation in the normally staid halls of the UN basement conference room, accompanied by beaming smiles and muffled applause from some of the leading government representatives in the room, which included Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Mexico and Nigeria, along with South Africa, who had drafted and introduced the resolution, then sponsored by 57 nations.
The most stunning realization after the vote was posted was the apparent breach in what had always been a solid, single-minded phalanx of nuclear-weapon states recognized in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), signed 46 years ago in 1970—the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China. For the first time, China broke ranks by voting with a group of 16 nations to abstain, along with India and Pakistan, non-NPT nuclear-weapon states. North Korea actually voted yes in support of negotiations’ going forward to outlaw nuclear weapons. The ninth nuclear-weapon state, Israel, voted against the resolution with other 38 countries, including those in nuclear alliances with the United States such as the NATO states as well as Australia, South Korea, and, most surprisingly, Japan, the only country ever attacked with nuclear bombs. Only the Netherlands broke ranks with NATO’s unified opposition to ban treaty talks, as the sole NATO member to abstain on the vote, after grassroots pressure on its Parliament.
All nine nuclear-weapon states had boycotted a special Open Ended Working Group for Nuclear Disarmament last summer, which was established at the 2015 UN General Assembly following three conferences in Norway, Mexico, and Austria with civil-society and government representatives to examine the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear war, opening a new pathway for how we think and speak about the bomb. The recently launched humanitarian initiative has shifted the conversation from the military’s traditional examination and explanations of deterrence, policy, and strategic security to an understanding of the overwhelming deaths and devastation people would suffer from the use of nuclear weapons.
Today there are still 16,000 nuclear weapons on the planet, 15,000 of which are in the United States and Russia, now in an increasingly hostile relationship, with NATO troops patrolling on Russia’s borders, and the Russian Emergencies Ministry actually launching a sweeping nationwide civil-defense drill involving 40 million people. In the United States, President Obama has announced a $1 trillion program for new nuclear-bomb factories, warheads, and delivery systems, and Russia and other nuclear-weapon states are also engaged in modernizing their nuclear arsenals as well. Yet the issue has largely disappeared from public debate in a world lulled by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Back in the 1980s, during the Cold War, when there were some 80,000 nuclear bombs on our planet, most of which were stockpiled in the United States and Russia, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) held a series of widely promoted scientific, evidenced-based symposiums on the disastrous effects of nuclear war and were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985 for their efforts. The Nobel Committee noted that IPPNW “performed a considerable service to mankind by spreading authoritative information and by creating an awareness of the catastrophic consequences of atomic warfare.” It further observed: