Less than half a year ago, most of the Earth’s inhabitants could barely imagine a pandemic besieging almost the entire planet, shutting down numerous economies, and killing hundreds of thousands of people from San Francisco to Cape Town and Singapore. While some scientists and medical specialists had been warning about this prospect for years, most governments found themselves floundering. Few were able to respond with immediate coordinated and effective countermeasures leading (to date) to the infection of some 20 million people and over 700,000 dead. And these are only the official figures. Inefficient testing and tracking in many countries suggests that the numbers may be three, four or even 10 times higher.
With all the uncertainties about nuclear arms treaties, what are the chances of an atomic repeat? The apparently accidental explosion in Beirut shortly after 6 pm on 4 August, 2020 – killing nearly 200, wounding over 5,000 and making over a quarter of a million people instantly homeless – has given us an acute reminder of what can happen. According to munitions experts, the impact of the blast, causing a mushroom cloud to spew upwards and outwards into the air followed by a supersonic blastwave radiating across this Mediterranean city was not unlike that of a small nuclear bomb.
Faced by such recent catastrophes, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has lent a stern warning that the world should not be complacent. “The web of arms control, transparency and confidence-building instruments established during the Cold War and its aftermath is fraying,” he said in a 75th anniversary commemoration in Hiroshima of the Japan bombings, the first of which was on 6 August, 1945, the second over Nagasaki three days later on 9 August. “Division, distrust, and a lack of dialogue threaten to return the world to unrestrained strategic nuclear competition,” noted Guterres. The same message, however, has been coming from other international organization leaders and groups that monitor treaties and disarmament.
While U.S. President Harry S. Truman argued that the bombs were dropped in order to shorten the war and save American lives, between 129,000 and 226,000 people, most of them civilians, were believed killed. No one knows for certain. Tens of thousands were left with horrific injuries. By 1950, according to the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) an estimated 340,000 people had died because of the bombs’ effects, including from illnesses caused by exposure to ionizing radiation.
In the shadow of pandemics and climate change
For years, calls for armament reductions by the 21st century have been ignored. Today treaties designed to controlling them no longer seem fit for purpose. Still, nukes seem to be off the anxiety list as the world grapples with other insidious concerns, such as the novel coronavirus and climate change. As Guterres maintained, the commemoration of the past 75 years is taking place in the shadow of a pandemic that has “exposed so many of the world’s fragilities, including in the face of the nuclear threat”. And yet, he argued, “the only way to totally eliminate nuclear risk is to eliminate nuclear weapons totally.”
The use of atomic bombs shook many by their devastation. Even some of the weapon’s inventors wondered what fury they had helped unleash. (See BBC radio Documentary on Leo Szilard, a little-known Hungarian scientist who fought to prevent the bomb from falling into the hands of the Nazis by convincing President Roosevelt to invest in what became known as the Manhattan Project. When he realised what horrors such a bomb would instigate, he launched a campaign amongst his fellow researchers to halt its use. He failed)
But there was no effort to prevent the deployment of such weapons. Instead, the Cold War developed. Those who emerged ‘victorious’ in 1945 “raced each other to manufacture and deploy all kinds of new weapons and war technologies, especially nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and a variety of missiles to deliver them speedily anywhere in the world,” wrote Rebecca Johnson, Executive Director of the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy in a paper entitled: The United Nations and Disarmament Treaties.
She observes that the first resolution of the General Assembly of the United Nations in January 1946 addressed the “problems raised by the discovery of atomic energy”. And yet, despite “civil society’s efforts, led by scientists and women’s peace organizations, leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union rejected measures to curb nuclear ambitions.” She also noted that they ignored the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibiting the use of chemical and biological weapons in war, and a variety of missiles to deliver them speedily anywhere in the world.
A new nuclear arms race
“States possessing nuclear weapons are modernizing their arsenals and developing new and dangerous weapons and delivery systems,” Guterres has pointed out. “The risk of nuclear weapons being used, intentionally, by accident or through miscalculation, is too high for such trends to continue.”
At the start of 2020, nine nations – the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea – possessed about 13,400 nuclear weapons. Some 3,720 are believed to be deployed with operational forces, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) says in its 2020 Yearbook. Around 1,800 of these weapons are kept in a state of high operational alert. South Africa is the only armed nuclear state that has given up its atomic weaponry.
Overall, the inventories of nuclear warheads have been declining, primarily the result of the United States and Russia dismantling their retired warheads. Yet, as SIPRI cautions, “both the USA and Russia have extensive and expensive programmes under way to replace and modernize their nuclear warheads, missile and aircraft delivery systems, and nuclear weapon production facilities.”
Nuclear weapons today are regarded as far more sophisticated and flexible than those in 1945. However, one important variable should not to be forgotten, notably “the vulnerability of the target”, maintains John Borrie, the head of the Weapons of Mass Destruction programme for the Geneva-based UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDR). “Nuclear weapons used on highly populated areas like cities cause horrendous death and injury, although factors such as population density, topography, the altitude of detonation of weapons and whether the population had enough warning to take shelter would all be variables in how many would be killed or injured immediately.”
Lingering radiation effects
“Then there would be the lingering radiation effects which would affect them, killing many more,” he notes. “In addition, there is some evidence that in today’s much more interconnected world, the use of a single nuclear weapon in a highly populated area could cause global disruption far beyond the direct death and injury it causes.” Hence comparisons by some with what happened in Beirut. While not the result of nuclear impact, the incredible damage that the explosion inflicted on the city can lead one to imagine the possible consequences.
For the ICRC, the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings comes even as the risk of the use of nuclear weapons has risen to levels not witnessed since the end of the Cold War. It points out that military incidents involving nuclear states and their allies have increased in frequency. At the same time, certain nuclear-armed states have made explicit threats to use nuclear weapons. The Geneva-based humanitarian organization further noted that agreements to eliminate existing arsenals are being abandoned as new nuclear weapons are developed, placing the world “on the dangerous path of a new nuclear arms race”.
For ICRC President Peter Maurer, this is what he would describe as “an arms race, and it’s frightening”. While the horror of a nuclear detonation may feel like distant history, he said, “the risk of nuclear weapons being used again today is high.” Francesco Rocca, Maurer’s counterpart from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), which is also located in Geneva and deals mainly with disasters, highlighted some of the shortcomings of humanity’s ability to deal with COVID-19, and made the same observation on atomic warfare.
“The international community would not be able to help all those in need after a nuclear blast,” he rued. “Widespread radiation sickness, a decline in food production, and the tremendous scale of destruction and contamination would make any meaningful humanitarian response insufficient. No nation is prepared to deal with a nuclear confrontation.”
A nuclear free world
The International Red Cross Movement supports a complete dismantling of nuclear weapons worldwide and is running an ambitious “no to nukes” campaign pointing to the broad support obtained for the July 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), adopted by 122 states (See Video). The treaty, however, will only become legally binding if 50 or more ratify it. To date, no more than 40 have done so. The accord prohibits the development, testing, production, stockpiling, stationing, transfer, use, and the threat of nuclear weapons. For nuclear-armed states that join the treaty, it provides a time-bound framework for the verified elimination of their nuclear weapons programmes.
Beatrice Fihn, the executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize and is a major proponent of the TPNW, also has warned of the hugely uncertain nuclear world in which we live. “I don’t think we should underplay the fact that all the nine nuclear states are preparing to use the new weapons; that’s part of having nuclear weapons,” she recently told journalists from the Geneva UN correspondents association (ACANU).
“And we shouldn’t rely on any sane person in these moments to stop it. It’s actually an option that the generals and the heads of states are constantly having and are prepared to use.” Specifically citing the United States as an example, Fihn added that this is independent of whether Donald Trump remains in the White House or not. “It’s a very worrying situation” when a president sends “very irrational signals” to opponents in other countries.
According to Fihn, the risk of escalation increases when the higher the tensions lead to the higher the risk of an accident or a misunderstanding. “The US, Russia and all the nuclear-armed states really need to honour that message from survivors of Hiroshima, Nagasaki,” she said referring to their concern that the world needs to honour the obligations on the internation al treaties to disarm. Future talks should be within the international framework, notably international multilateral treaties. They should also be about new reductions resulting in a total elimination of nuclear weapons through the treaty on the prohibition. “Anything less than that is insufficient and dangerous,” said Fihn.
Treaty review conference
For Guterres, “now is the time for dialogue, confidence-building measures, reductions in the size of nuclear arsenals, and utmost restraint.” He added that all member states will have an opportunity to return to this shared vision at the 2021 Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. This was echoed by Izumi Nakamitsu, the UN high representative for disarmament affairs, who was also quoted by Der Spiegel as saying: “The move towards nuclear disarmament has stalled and is now in reverse.”
As emphasized by ICAN’s Fihn, both the United States and Russia possess 90 per cent of the world’s nuclear arsenal. “They have been ramping up spending on nuclear weapons while the rest of the world, non-nuclear armed states, are moving to prohibit them completely.” The US alone spent $35 billion in 2019 on developing and maintaining new weapons and its massive spending on existing weapons. “It’s an abdication of leadership [in] the middle of the COVID-19 crisis. For example, with that $35 billion, the US could have paid for 75,000 doctors and 150,000 nurses.” At this time of writing, the United States had more confirmed cases of COVID-19 and deaths than any other nation in the world.
South African journalist Peter Kenny covers UN. World Trade Organization and other international issues from Geneva.