Nobel Peace Prize Highlights Moral Imperative Behind Nuclear Ban Treaty

On October 6, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) for its work bringing about a treaty banning nuclear weapons (a good summary of the treaty and negotiation process is here). This was exciting news for the nuclear disarmament community after, frankly, what has been a dispiriting few years—dangerous presidential rhetoric that could lead to a nuclear confrontation with North Korea; worries that the new administration’s review of U.S. nuclear policies could result in new nuclear weapons capabilities and an expansion if the role of nuclear weapons in security policy; a continued deterioration in relations with the United States’ only nuclear peer, Russia; and, most recently, news that President Trump plans to take action that would likely lead to the collapse of the Iran nuclear agreement (aka the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA), which was a signature diplomatic achievement negotiated in part by NTI’s new CEO, former Secretary Ernest J. Moniz (his most recent defense of the JCPOA is here).

It is also a mark of personal pride for me to work for an organization whose founder and co-chairman, former Senator Sam Nunn, along with former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, called for working toward a world without nuclear weapons through a series of steps in their seminal 2007 Wall Street Journal op-ed (first in a series). Their powerful statement helped to spur a global movement that brought the vision of a world without nuclear weapons into the mainstream—a vision that was then adopted as policy by the Obama administration. The foundation they laid for ICAN’s work was recognized in reporting on the Nobel Peace Prize award.

From left: Kissinger, Shultz, Nunn, Perry at the White House

I am aware of the criticisms of the ban treaty, and I have closely analyzed the treaty in the context of other policy issues and its consequences for nonproliferation and disarmament objectives broadly. For instance, many experts see major problems in the treaty text related to safeguards (analysis by NTI consultant John Carlson here) and verification (here, here, and here). Others worry about how the ban treaty will exacerbate existing divisions between countries with and without nuclear weapons, which could undermine the cornerstone of the nonproliferation and disarmament regime, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Still others (including the five recognized nuclear-weapons states under the NPT) point out that the ban treaty will fail to result in the elimination of a single nuclear weapon because not only will countries with nuclear weapons refuse to sign it, but it does not address the very real security concerns of countries with nuclear weapons and countries that rely on U.S. nuclear weapons (U.S. allies in NATO and in the Asia-Pacific region). 

Although I believe that some of these policy and technical issues are significant and should be addressed, they are not what I want to delve into here. As someone who believes that nuclear weapons are dangerous and their use immoral, I see the nuclear weapons ban treaty as an achievement for humanity. I had a chance to witness history when I attended the first round of negotiations for the ban treaty earlier this year in New York (see my observations here). Although I was there in my professional capacity to observe, analyze, and liaise with diplomats and government representatives, in my personal capacity I was spellbound by the scene. The majority of the world was represented there working together—and with NGOs and other members of civil society—toward a common purpose: to take back the narrative on nuclear weapons from one of deterrence and security to one of humanity.

Why is this so important? I’ve often found myself sitting at panel discussions and workshops discussing nuclear weapons policy—stockpiles, capabilities, yields, alert status, warhead types, etc.—and have been struck by how most of the discussions about nuclear weapons are so clinical and seem completely divorced from what the use of nuclear weapons would actually mean in terms of the significant loss of life and fear and panic of populations. (See what the death toll of a nuclear detonation where you live would be using this nukemap.) We know what nuclear weapons can do to the human body—from the blast, thermal radiation (read: fires), initial radiation, and fallout—because we’ve seen it in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and those effects have been studied again and again. (And it’s worth noting that the nuclear weapons we have today are immensely more powerful than the bombs used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) We know that the use of nuclear weapons could have catastrophic consequences for the environment, affecting the entire globe because of the devastating climate effects. We also know that simply having nuclear weapons, even if there is no intention to use them, is dangerous because of the potential for an accident, miscalculated use (perhaps because of a false warning due to a computer glitch or a cyber-attack), or unauthorized use by a terrorist or rogue actor.

For all its flaws, both real and perceived, the ban treaty reminds us why working toward a world without nuclear weapons matters—because doing so is a moral imperative as well as something that would make us all safer. The voices of survivors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and of nuclear testing were heard in the ban treaty process, a good reminder that nuclear weapons use is not theoretical and that there are people alive today who have been victims of these deadly weapons. For those who need a reminder, I recommend the 1945 piece by John Hersey in The New Yorker describing in great detail the experiences of several Hiroshima survivors (it’s long, but extremely powerful).

Given the consequences of nuclear use, both in terms of the resulting casualties, destruction of the environment, and the potential consequences of a devastating nuclear retaliation against us, I find it unimaginable that any leader would choose to use a nuclear weapon. Yet we continue to live in a world where doing so is considered an option. Over the decades we’ve evolved in other ways—including the evolution of the international laws of armed conflict, which reject military action that would disproportionately and unnecessarily result in civilian deaths (for a summary of these international rules and how they might apply in the context of nuclear weapons use, see here). That more than 70 years after nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki we still have policies in place and plans at the ready to actually use nuclear weapons seems like a failure of civilized society to evolve. By recognizing ICAN’s work toward a ban treaty, the Norwegian Nobel Committee calls out this failure as well.

October 10, 2017
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer

Senior Director, Global Nuclear Policy Program

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