Bill Knight column for Thursday, Friday or Saturday, July 13, 14 or 15
Will our own children and grandchildren be spared the threat of nuclear holocaust, some innocent and angry questions asked. Have we explained our experiences practicing “duck and cover” drills to prepare to be annihilated in an orderly fashion? Or having fallout shelters sold like the new-model cars on lots? Or 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis, when some high school freshmen thought, “Why study for Latin class when it’s a coin toss that we may not be here Monday?”
Last week, despite (or due to) dangers on the Korean peninsula, in the Mideast, and with Russia and various “proxy wars,” 122 nations voted to ban nuclear weapons. Only the Netherlands opposed it, and Singapore abstained. Together, they started the process to offer to the future “The Gift of Time,” as journalist/activist Jonathan Schell described the abolition of nuclear weapons in his 1998 book.
It’s the first time in history that a majority of countries approved such a pact, an unprecedented move, except perhaps for the Paris Accords on climate change.
Why? Nuclear weapons threaten all life, from people to animals to plants to Earth itself. And humanity needs a plan. As Gen. (ret.) Lee Butler, former head of the U.S. Strategic Command, has said, we can’t take much credit for our survival in the atomic age. Nuclear apocalypse has only been avoided, Butler’s said, by a combination of skill, luck and Divine intervention.
The last few weeks of negotiations followed meetings in Austria, Mexico and Norway, spurred by the International Red Cross and non-governmental organizations working for five years and building on grassroots concerns perhaps best exemplified by a million protestors gathering in New York City to demonstrate against nuclear arms during a 1982 UN session on disarmament.
Unfortunately, nine nuclear-armed nations didn’t participate: China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States (and China, France, Russia, the UK and the US are permanent members of the UN’s Security Council, and the United States and Russia have about 90 percent of all nuclear weapons.) Interestingly, earlier test votes on drafts had China, India and Pakistan abstaining (and North Korea agreeing!)
“The historic shift powering the negotiations is that states without nuclear weapons are taking leadership to achieve a global public good on the basis of international humanitarian, human rights and environmental law,” said Marie Dennis and Jonathan Frerichs of Pax Christi and the World Council of Churches. “The permanent members of the Security Council still cling to Cold War plans that require an unshakeable commitment to ‘mutually assured’ nuclear destruction and to a nuclear ‘balance of terror.’
“Instead of meeting their United Nations Charter obligations, instead of negotiating nuclear disarmament in good faith as required by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, instead of outlawing the ultimate instrument of indiscriminate violence in an era of indiscriminate violence, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council are boycotting the deliberations and even belittling their purpose.”
Still, the treaty may offer cover to reluctant policymakers, or leverage to pressure governments to plan to cooperate instead of to obliterate.
“By delegitimizing nuclear weapons and raising awareness of the terrifying dangers that come from continued reliance on them, the nuclear ban makes a valuable contribution to nonproliferation and disarmament efforts,” commented Meredith Horowski with the anti-nuclear weapons group Global Zero. “There are many more steps to come in order to secure a world without nuclear weapons, but the world took a step in the right direction.”
After all, global cooperation is possible, seen in pacts providing for no-questions-asked help for distressed vessels in international waters, and assistance for emergencies or disasters, whether tsunamis or orbiting spacecraft. Such common sense has even occurred in Congress, where this year bills were introduced by Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) prohibiting a first-use nuclear strike.
As the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has said, “Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way.”
That could lead to future reunions where talk drifts to how strange it was when nuclear weapons seemed as common as the pestilence of leaf-devouring beetles.
[PICTURED: Photo from The Nation magazine, Nov. 1, 2016.]