Now the time to ban nukes: Nobel laureate

by Seana K. Magee

Kyodo News

NEW YORK — Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams says a window of opportunity is now open to push U.N. officials to begin work on a new comprehensive treaty to ban nuclear weapons, but the opportunity shouldn’t be squandered.

“I think we are at a moment of possibility, but I think if we don’t seize that moment and push governments to do more now it will be lost,” she said in an interview Friday on the sidelines of the nearly monthlong Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference that opened Monday.

The U.N. conference occurs only once every five years. World leaders weigh in on the performance of the treaty, the world’s primary legal and political barrier against the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and debate strategies for improvement.

“I believe with my whole heart and soul that if we do not seize that moment now, it will be lost and there probably will not be another possibility because there will be proliferation,” she said.

Williams won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for her work on the Mine Ban Treaty, signed in December that year, and her spearheading of a global campaign to outlaw and eliminate nuclear weapons in the 1990s.

She is now part of a global grassroots movement calling for total nuclear disarmament through a legally binding and verifiable nuclear weapons convention. It would ban the production, testing, use and possession of nuclear weapons, as well as establish a time frame for elimination.

In a speech at the United Nations earlier Friday, she recalled her first visit to Hiroshima several years ago. She said that standing at ground zero, she was “overwhelmed” by the sheer number of people who died almost instantly on Aug. 6, 1945, when the bomb went off.

She also recalled being struck by a drawing of a woman running away from ground zero with her arms outstretched. Williams said she could easily imagine herself when she saw the woman’s skin coming off her arms in what looked like a “human kimono.” She has since held onto that experience.

“It is immoral. It is unethical. It is unconscionable to me as a U.S. citizen that my country contemplates the possibility of use (of nuclear weapons),” she told the packed room, which also included Japanese nongovernmental organizations and atomic-bomb survivors.

“If we really want to seize this moment of possibility and get rid of nuclear weapons it means starting the framework of negotiating a convention now, not in 40 years, when my president is dead,” she added.

Although many have praised recent moves by President Barack Obama toward nuclear disarmament, Williams believes his administration could do more.

She was greatly disappointed with the Nuclear Posture Review that Obama released in April, which said the United States wouldn’t deploy or threaten to use nuclear weapons against a country that doesn’t have them and complies with the nonproliferation treaty.

Among other things she had hoped a no-first-use policy would have been instituted.

As Japan is the only nation to have suffered from a nuclear attack, the Japanese people in particular have every right to oppose the destructive devices, she said.

“I think (Japanese people) should massively mobilize and march in the streets all the time,” she said. “I think they should be nonviolently pressing their elected representatives to get the U.S. military out of their islands and stop relying on the bomb.”

Williams also backed the important presence of hibakusha as active participants at the conference.

“They are an important component of a coordinated effort of civil society pressure on governments to bring about change,” she said. “But they, by themselves, will not change the world.”

Drawing from past experiences on the land mine issue, she believes the same principles could be applied to rid the world of nuclear weapons. By enlisting ordinary citizens to work together, people can press politicians to build up momentum even on a worldwide scale.

She regrets that the review conference isn’t being held at Hiroshima’s ground zero, where diplomats would be surrounded by atomic-bomb survivors.