Banning the Bomb


The nuclear weapon ban treaty nears entry-into-force

By Gem Romuld, Australian Director, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (Nobel Peace Laureate 2017), Australia

In early August the world commemorated the 75th anniversaries of the 1945 nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The hibakusha, atomic bomb survivors, again raised up their call for the elimination of nuclear weapons so that nobody will again endure the pain and suffering they have. A whole lifetime later, all of us still bear the unacceptable burden of these weapons. First one country, then two, and now nine possess them. Failure by each of these nine countries to disarm leads directly to the risk of proliferation. As long as some nations wield them, others will be motivated to acquire these abhorrent bombs. Today close to 14,000 nuclear weapons exist, with around 1,800 able to be launched within minutes.

In 2019, nuclear-armed states spent $73bn on maintaining and upgrading their weapons, according to research by ICAN. Within the depths of a global health crisis, it is clear that even without being detonated, nuclear weapons cost lives. A political system that allocates resources for weapons of mass destruction over healthcare, supposedly in defence of lives, at the expense of lives, is fundamentally twisted. In recent months, the US Strategic Command has been at pains to assure the world that their ability to launch nuclear weapons and inflict massive radioactive violence is unimpeded by the COVID-19 pandemic. Please, read the room.

Nuclear weapons suck the life out of our future, but their continuation is not inevitable. They haven’t been around forever, and every last one can be dismantled because they are only objects after all.

A few years ago a global majority of nations identified an major gap in international law. Chemical weapons, biological weapons, anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions were all outlawed by a ban treaty, but nuclear weapons were not. In an incredible feat of multilateral negotiation, and defiance under pressure from nuclear-armed states, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was written and approved by 122 nations in 2017. Vastly outnumbered, the nuclear-armed nations couldn’t stop this forward progress and instead resorted to pressuring their allies not to support the prohibition project. Thus far, Australia has towed the line.

Three years later the treaty is changing the shape of nuclear politics, setting a new standard and undermining the political, economic and social status of nuclear weapons. With 84 signatories and 44 states parties at the time of writing, it is only half a dozen ratifications away from entering into force. Within the next six months, the treaty will become permanent international law, enshrining the illegality of nuclear weapons. Countries that possess nuclear weapons treat them as if they are a source of power and prestige, but instead they should feel shame and stigma. The ban treaty is helping to bring about this shift.

Australia knows the devastating impact of nuclear weapons due to the long term harm caused by nuclear testing in Western and South Australia in the 1950s and 60s. As second-generation nuclear test survivor, Yankunytjatjara-Anangu women Karina Lester said via video-link to a high-level UN event on 26 August “Justice has not been served by the governments responsible for the nuclear experiments in WA and SA… Australia and the UK, along with all nations, should show their commitment to ensuring such harms are not committed again by ratifying the nuclear weapon ban treaty.”

While Australia’s opposition appears steadfast on the face of it, behind the same-old excuses, a movement is growing. 87 federal parliamentarians have pledged to work for Australia to join the treaty, and federal Labor policy is to sign and ratify in government. The Australian Greens are unequivocal in calling for Australia to hasten its ratification, consistent with its position on other indiscriminate and illegitimate weapons. Thirty councils have endorsed the ICAN Cities Appeal, thereby declaring their support for the treaty and calling upon Australia to join it. Civil society supporters include the Australian Medical Association, Australian Red Cross, Australian Council of Trade Unions and more than 60 religious organisations that released an open letter supporting the treaty on Hiroshima Day this year.

Our government’s stated support for a world free of nuclear weapons is meaningless as long as they reject the ban. A broad and persistent movement will elicit the necessary, and inevitable, change. All people have a role to play; this is history in the making.

Header photo: A Sydney rally for the treaty. Credit: Zoe Jeanne Burrell, Greenpeace

[Opinions expressed are those of the author and not official policy of Greens WA]