Nuclear arms risks — a reminder

International efforts toward eliminating nuclear weapons in recent years have come to focus on the devastating consequences their use can have on humanity. The third Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons was held on Dec. 8 and 9 in Vienna, following the first conference in Oslo in March 2013 and the second gathering in Nayarit in Mexico in February 2014.

Although the Vienna conference was unable to come up with a concrete timetable to get rid of nuclear arms, discussions at the meeting helped deepen underst∂anding among participants of “the consequences and the actual risks posed by nuclear weapons,” according to the statement issued by Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s minister for foreign affairs and integration, who chaired the confeƒrence.

The meeting underscored all the more the need for both nuclear powers and nonnuclear states to make serious efforts to make the world free of the devastating weapons whose effects will put victims in affliction for decades to come.

The chair’s summation of the discussions by delegates from 158 nations, the United Nations, the Red Cross movement, civic organizations and academia stressed that the “scope, scale and interrelationship of the humanitarian consequences caused by a nuclear weapon detonation are catastrophic and more complex than commonly understood. These consequences can be large-scale and potentially irreversible.”

More than five years have passed since U.S. President Barack Obama put forward his vision of creating a world without nuclear weapons in his April 2009 speech in Prague. But little progress for nuclear disarmament has since been made, despite the signing of a new nuclear arms reduction treaty between the United States and Russia.

Both countries are modernizing their nuclear weapons. Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Japan still attach importance to the U.S. nuclear umbrella. China, Pakistan and India are bolstering their nuclear arsenal, and North Korea continues to push for its nuclear weapons program. Thus it is important for all the countries to heed what the Vienna conference chair’s statement said: “As long as nuclear weapons exist, there remains the possibility of a nuclear weapon explosion.

“Even if the probability is considered low, given the catastrophic consequences of a nuclear weapon detonation, the risk is unacceptable.” It also pointed out that “There are many circumstances in which nuclear weapons could be used in view of international conflicts and tensions.”

The statement noted that the risks of “accidental, unauthorized or intentional use of nuclear weapons” increase over time. It pointed to such factors as “the vulnerability of nuclear command and control networks to human error and cyber attacks, the maintaining of nuclear arsenals on high levels of alert, forward deployment and their modernization.”

The statement makes clear the negative stance toward the idea of nuclear deterrence, which is behind the stockpiling of nuclear weapons: “As nuclear deterrence entails preparing for nuclear war, the risk of nuclear weapon use is real.”

The U.S. and the United Kingdom, both nuclear weapons states under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, attended the conference for the first time — itself a meaningful development.

But while the chair’s statement said the “only assurance against the risk of a nuclear weapon detonation is the total elimination of nuclear weapons,” the U.S. expressed opposition to a treaty banning nuclear arms, although it said its commitment to creating a nuclear weapons-free world is firm.

The U.K. also opposed prohibiting nuclear weapons at this moment or setting up a timetable for their elimination from security viewpoint.

Reflecting the divisions among participants, the statement noted that while many delegations recognized that “the only way” to guarantee security for all is “through the total elimination of nuclear weapons and their prohibition,” a number of delegations said “a step-by-step approach was the most effective and practical way to achieve nuclear disarmament.” The U.S., U.K. and Japan were among the latter group.

The speech made by a Japanese delegate followed the policy line of the U.S. and U.K., and would not go beyond the bounds of the idea of nuclear deterrence.

On the other hand, Setsuko Thurlow, who was exposed to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima at the age of 13 and now lives in Canada, talked about her experience and suffering. She asked how long the world will continue to allow the nuclear powers to threaten lives on Earth and called for starting work immediately toward a nuclear arms ban treaty.

Referring to the attendance of Thurlow and other survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings at the conference, the chair’s statement said “their presence and contributions exemplified the unspeakable suffering caused to ordinary civilians by nuclear weapons.”

As the 70th anniversary of the nuclear attacks on the two Japanese cities approaches, it is high time that Japan worked out its own idea for eliminating nuclear weapons and presented it to the international community to rouse broad-based discussions for the goal.

Although Japan relies on the nuclear umbrella of its security ally, it should not shy way from the duty of fulfilling the task as the only nation in history that suffered nuclear attacks.

Pope Francis’ message to the conference deserves heeding from all the nations, especially nuclear powers and states that rely on nuclear umbrella as a key pillar of their security. He said, “Nuclear deterrence and the threat of mutually assured destruction cannot be the basis for an ethics of fraternity and peaceful coexistence among peoples and states.”

Japan and all other nations should seriously take his message as well as the risks pointed out in the chair’s statement, and put together their brains to develop concrete steps for creating a world free of nuclear weapons.

  • Aaron Tovish

    Mayors for Peace participated this conference. There is no greater threat to cities than nuclear weapons; and when cities are targets the entire world suffers from catastrophic climate disruption.