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When North Korea tested a nuclear weapon in January, condemnation from all around the world flowed within minutes. A week later, the United States carried out a mock nuclear weapons test of a new type of “more usable” warhead in the Nevada desert. Aside from a small number of civil society organizations, the international community was silent.
Just two weeks ago, North Korea carried out a rocket launch and thereby tested the capability to launch long-range missiles, capable of delivering nuclear weapons on targets far, far away. The world once again rose up and criticized this, with statements by the United Nations Security Council and condemnations from Foreign Ministers all around the world.
Early this morning, the United States tested its Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile, a missile that is intended for launching nuclear bombs on Russia or any other target on the other side of the world. Again, few seem to care.
The United Nations Secretary-General has said, “There are no right hands for the wrong weapon”. But many in the international community often act with implicit acceptance of American, British, French, Russian, and Chinese nuclear weapons.
The “Humanitarian Initiative”, however, is challenging this implicit acceptance. Through a series of international conferences on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and a formal pledge to “fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons” endorsed by 123 governments, non-nuclear weapon states are working to stigmatize, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons.
By stigmatizing nuclear weapons — declaring them unacceptable and immoral for all — the international community can start demanding and pressuring the nuclear-armed states and their military alliances to deliver what they’ve actually promised: a world free of nuclear weapons.
Negotiating a new international treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons, even without the participation of nuclear-armed states, would be one of the most effective tools for achieving such stigmatization.
And that work starts now. Far removed from headlines regarding North Korea’s recent tests or other non-proliferation issues like the Iran deal, a new UN Working Group in Geneva, Switzerland, will start today.
In true UN-style, the Working Group has a blurry and bureaucratic mandate, wrapped inside a Resolution of several pages from the UN General Assembly. However, its task is to work on new legal measures for nuclear disarmament.
Through this Working Group, the 123 states that have endorsed the humanitarian pledge to “fill the legal gap” have an opportunity to start work on a new, legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons.
The Working Group might not cause big headlines like the Iran deal, but judging by the strong reaction from the nuclear weapon states and those under the nuclear umbrella, it is clear that they do not see it as just another talking shop.
The nuclear weapon states seem genuinely dismayed about the efforts to stigmatize and prohibit nuclear weapons. They are all boycotting the Working Group and are strong-arming allied states under the US nuclear umbrella and NATO members into representing their interests whilst pretending to be disengaged.
The nuclear weapon states are doing everything they can to stop the process to stigmatize and prohibit nuclear weapons – as they know it will challenge their self-proclaimed right to keep these weapons of mass destruction around for as long as they wish.
70 years since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it’s time to see nuclear weapons for what they really are. Not a sign of power and prestige. But as a weapon created to ensure as much destruction and human suffering as possible.
The use of nuclear weapons would cause an instant vaporization of huge numbers of civilians, followed by an even larger number of excruciatingly painful deaths caused by fires, blasts and immediate radiation. First responders and medical personnel – if they survive the immediate, devastating impact – would be unable to provide adequate relief to survivors. Those that despite this would survive would be faced with the medium and long-term consequences of radioactive fallout, contamination, and environmental devastation.
No matter which country possesses them, be it North Korea, United States, Russia, Pakistan or the United Kingdom – nuclear weapons are inhumane, indiscriminate, and should be unacceptable for any state to possess.
It’s time to start working on an international prohibition of nuclear weapons.
Follow Beatrice Fihn on Twitter: www.twitter.com/BeaFihn
This article by Beatrice Fihn, the Executive Director of International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, originally appeared as a blog entry on Huffington Post here