6 August 2014 marks the 69th anniversary of the first detonation of a nuclear weapon over Japan. Today, the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will hold ceremonies commemorating those hundreds of thousands who perished in the two nuclear attacks in 1945, and the countless more whose lives would forever be affected.
But in these past decades, can we say that we have truly learned from the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Is our recognition of the suffering inflicted upon those cities matched with the concrete action to ensure that it can never be repeated?
While the numbers of nuclear weapons are down significantly from the days of the Cold War – when it seemed as though another Hiroshima or Nagasaki could be imminent – we are far from having secured our future against another such unspeakable human tragedy. According to the most recent estimates by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, there are currently over 16,000 nuclear weapons in the possession of nine states across the world. Each one of these missiles represents a potential catastrophe that, if detonated over a city, would likely exceed even the horrific death and injury tolls of the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And while this number represents a modest decrease from 2013, all of the nuclear weapons possessors are investing billions into modernisation programmes intended to update and expand their strike capabilities.
What is needed is a new perspective and a new strategy. And that is precisely what is currently taking place with the new focus by governments, international organisations and civil society on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons – represented by the two conferences held on the subject in Norway and Mexico, and statements at the United Nations General Assembly and the meetings of state parties to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Austria will now carry the torch for the next step – the third conference on the humanitarian consequences on 8-9 December 2014. This reframing and refocusing on the inherent nature of nuclear weapons is something that seems to have been forgotten over the past decades. But it is precisely this focus that is the only appropriate way of discussing the most horrible weapon ever invented – one whose legacy we know all too well and one that must never be used again.
We are approaching 70 years since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is a sad inevitability that, as time passes, those who can and have spoken most poignantly on the terror of nuclear weapons, the Hibakusha, who experienced the horrors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima first-hand, will gradually fall silent. They have longed for a world without nuclear weapons and many have devoted themselves to try to make sure that no one in the world would have to experience the suffering that they have. Their strong voices have managed to convince the government of Japan, whose reliance on the United States’ so-called “nuclear umbrella” had initially made it reluctant to embrace the humanitarian initiative, to eventually come on board and support it, and to decide to participate at the upcoming conference in Austria.
While the only true measure of preserving future generations and finally doing right by the Hibakusha will be when the last nuclear weapon is dismantled, a treaty banning nuclear weapons would be a strong statement of rejection and stigmatisation – a message by states that these weapons have no place in our world. The chair of the most recent conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, Deputy Foreign Minister Juan Manuel Gomez Robledo of Mexico, elucidated this vision in his summary of the conference, calling for a new legal instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons and setting the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks as the appropriate milestone to achieve this goal.
A treaty banning nuclear weapons is not just a symbol. History shows us that legal prohibitions usually precede elimination. This has been the case for the other weapons of mass destruction – chemical and biological weapons – as well as other weapons whose effects were considered too unjust to ever be used in any context, such as landmines and cluster munitions.
And real action, more than words and tributes, is the best way of honouring the victims and those who have suffered and continue to suffer the horrible legacy of nuclear weapons.
In the words of one of the Hibakusha, Setsuko Thurlow, who has dedicated her life to telling her story and those of her friends and family who did not survive:
“Although we hibakusha have spent our life energy to warn people about the hell that is nuclear war, in nearly 70 years there has been little progress in the field of nuclear disarmament. We therefore urgently need a new path, one that recognizes the utterly unacceptable humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons — weapons we have a moral obligation to prohibit. It is our hope that this new movement to ban nuclear weapons will finally lead us to a nuclear weapon free world.
The time has come for non-nuclear weapons states and civil society to initiate a nuclear weapons ban for the sake of humanity.
You and I, together, we can. We must.”
From today to next August 6, let us make this year the one that is remembered for the unequivocal rejection of nuclear weapons. Let us call on our governments to support negotiations to ban nuclear weapons.
Mr Akira Kawasaki is International Steering Group member of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and Executive Committee member of Tokyo-based NGO Peace Boat.