Half a century after the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of destruction, we again find ourselves at a time of deeply disturbing nuclear threats and dangers of nuclear war.
These threats are considered by most experts – such as the 15 Nobel laureates among the custodians of the Doomsday Clock – to be as high as they have ever been.
It seems that the superpowers of the world have not taken their history lessons as seriously as many of us had hoped they would. Which is why it is heartening that the majority of the world, 122 states, have stepped up and shown leadership.
On Sunday in Oslo, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (Ican) was awarded the 2017 Nobel peace prize for “its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons”.
The prize references the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons, which was adopted by a vote of 122 to 1 at the United Nations in New York on 7 July 2017. It provides a historic watershed; a moment of truth regarding the only weapons which pose an existential threat to the entirety of humanity and our living planet.
Ican was a driving force behind the treaty, working closely with governments and other bodies such as the Red Cross to get it over the line, and it could not have come at a better or more urgent time.
For far too long these weapons have loomed over humanity, threatening to obliterate us any day. For far too long the voices who told us that these global suicide bombs were crucial to our security held sway.
For far too long reason has given way to the lie that we are safer spending billions every year to build weapons which, in order for us to have a future, must never be used.
Nuclear disarmament is the most urgent humanitarian necessity of our time.
The treaty prohibits not only the use of nuclear weapons, but also their development, testing, stockpiling, production and threat of use – as well as inducing, assisting or encouraging these activities. It reinforces the fact that any use of nuclear weapons would be inconsistent with the rules of international humanitarian law. It provides pathways for all states to join, including nuclear-armed states. And it contains commitments to assist victims of testing and use of nuclear weapons and to remediate contaminated environments.
The Norwegian Nobel committee recognises the unacceptable human suffering that a nuclear war would cause. They are also acutely aware that no nuclear-armed states have so far signed up to the treaty, which is why they have stated that: “This year’s Peace Prize is a call upon these states to initiate serious negotiations with a view to the gradual, balanced and carefully monitored elimination of the almost 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world.”
The adoption of this historic treaty should mark the beginning of the final chapter in the story of nuclear weapons. Now the hard work of encouraging nuclear-armed states and nuclear-umbrella states to also sign must not only proceed, but ramp up, utilising the powerful added tool of a treaty banning nuclear weapons.
Ican calls for all states to join the treaty, and as many states as possible to promptly sign up and ratify the treaty so it can enter into force quickly and set a powerful norm. There must be strong domestic legislation enshrining treaty commitments, international diplomacy promoting the importance of the treaty, and there must be large-scale public and private divestment from companies that make nuclear weapons and their integral components. Once the weapons themselves are widely held to be illegal, the industry that supports them will be weakened to the point of being no longer viable.
States should also work with the UN, the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, and other humanitarian organisations to fulfil their obligations under the treaty to assist victims of nuclear use and testing and support feasible remediation of environments contaminated by nuclear tests.
My dear friend and co-founder of Ican, Bill Williams, sadly passed away before he could celebrate the wonderful developments of this year with us. It was Williams who so eloquently summed up Ican’s brief, saying:
“We need a determined worldwide movement to outlaw and abolish nukes. To get there in this generation, we need to build the wave of public opinion into a mighty crescendo: a massive, surging, irresistible force which carries us all the way to absolutely zero nukes. Without it, even the most inspirational of leaders will falter on the way.”
122 states have acted. Together with civil society, they have brought global democracy and humanity to nuclear disarmament. They have realised that since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, real security can only be shared, and cannot be achieved by threatening and risking use of these worst weapons of mass destruction.
Self-assured destruction can never be a solution.
The ban treaty is a triumph of the interests of common humanity, and it is not going away. As founding chair of Ican, it is my greatest hope and my life’s mission that this historic treaty ushers in the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons on our planet.
Professor Tilman Ruff AM is founding international and Australian chair of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (Ican), which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2017.