Thank you to the San Francisco Chapter of the United Nations Association for organizing this celebration of the 65th anniversary of the United Nations and for bringing together such an impressive group of leaders for this event. Thank you also to Soka Gakkai International for hosting this event in your Ikeda Auditorium.
I want to draw attention to the beauty of the flower arrangements on the dais. They are filled with sunflowers, and sunflowers are the universal symbol of a world without nuclear weapons. Whenever you see a sunflower, I hope you will think of the need to work for a world free of nuclear weapons. Sunflowers are beautiful, natural and nutritious. They turn toward the sun. They stand in stark contrast to the manmade missiles that threaten death and destruction on a massive scale. Sunflowers remind us of the importance of preserving the natural beauty of our planet and ending the manmade threats of massive annihilation with which we currently live.
My subject today is nuclear disarmament. The United Nations Charter was signed on June 23, 1945. The first nuclear weapon was tested successfully just over three weeks later on July 16, 1945. The United Nations sought to save the world from the “scourge of war,” among other high ideals. Nuclear weapons threatened to destroy the world.
The subject of nuclear weapons is one that many people, perhaps most, understandably would like to put out of their minds. Assuring a human future demands that we resist that temptation.
We know that a single nuclear weapon can destroy a city and a few nuclear weapons can destroy a country. Scientists also tell us that an exchange of 100 Hiroshima-size nuclear weapons on cities, such as could occur between India and Pakistan, could result in a billion fatalities, due to blockage of sunlight and crop failures leading to mass starvation, in addition to the blast, fire and radiation. A full scale nuclear war could destroy the human species and most complex forms of life on Earth.
Given such high stakes, why do we tolerate nuclear weapons? I believe that there are two major reasons. First, we have been misled to believe that nuclear weapons actually protect their possessors. They do not. These weapons can be used to threaten retaliation, to retaliate or to attack preventively in a first-strike, but they cannot protect.
Second, we have grown far too complacent about these devices of mass annihilation over the period of 65 years since their last use in warfare. But the odds of catastrophe are too high for complacency. According to Stanford Professor Emeritus Martin Hellman, an expert in risk analysis, a child born today has at least a ten percent chance over the course of his or her expected lifetime of dying in a nuclear attack and possibly as high as a fifty percent chance. These are clearly unacceptable odds.
Any use of nuclear weapons would be a crime against humanity. These weapons cannot discriminate between soldiers and civilians, and the unnecessary suffering they cause is virtually boundless and can continue through generations. The International Court of Justice, in its 1996 landmark Advisory Opinion on the illegality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons, described the unique characteristics of nuclear weapons as “their capacity to cause untold human suffering, and their ability to cause damage to generations to come.” The Court wrote: “The destructive power of nuclear weapons cannot be contained in either space or time. They have the potential to destroy all civilization and the entire ecosystem of the planet.”
The use, even the threat of use, of nuclear weapons is morally abhorrent. The possession of nuclear weapons should be taboo. No country has the right to possess weapons that could destroy our species and much of life. They threaten our true inalienable rights – as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – to life, liberty and security of person. Nuclear weapons are the negation of these rights. They are an extreme manifestation of fear and militarism, reflecting the most destructive elements of the human spirit.
The generations who are alive today on the planet are challenged by the imperative to end the nuclear weapons era and strengthen our common efforts for achieving the global good as reflected in the eight Millennium Development Goals. This will require leadership. At present, this leadership has resided primarily with the United Nations and with civil society organizations. The UN and its supporting civil society organizations have provided vision and direction for social responsibility on disarmament, demilitarization and improving the lives of the world’s people.
The key to achieving a world without nuclear weapons lies in a Nuclear Weapons Convention, a treaty for the phased, verifiable, irreversible and transparent elimination of nuclear weapons. But agreement on such a treaty will require a far greater commitment by the governments of the world, including the nine nuclear weapon states. The United States, as the most powerful of these governments, will need to be pushed from below by its citizens. Each of us needs to embrace this issue, along with whatever other issues move us to action. It is an issue on which the future of humanity and life rest.
I’d like to share with you a reflection from my new book, God’s Tears, Reflections on the Atomic Bombs Dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is called, “The Final Period?”
The Final Period?
“Scientists tell us that the universe was created with a “Big Bang” some 15 billion years ago. To represent this enormous stretch of time, we can imagine a 15,000 page book. It would be a very large and heavy book, some 50 times larger than a normal book. In this book, each page would represent one million years in the history of the universe. If there were 1,000 words on each page, each word would represent 1,000 years.
“Most of the book would be about the expansion of the universe after the Big Bang. Our solar system would not occur in this history of the universe until page 10,500. It would take another 500 pages until the first primitive forms of life occurred on Earth some four billion years ago. The slow evolution of life would occupy the book nearly to its end. It would not be until page 14,997 that human-like creatures would appear on the planet, and it would not be until just ten words from the end of page 15,000 that human civilization would make its appearance.
“The Nuclear Age, which began in 1945, would be represented by the final period, the punctuation mark on the last page of the 15,000 page book. This small mark at the end of the volume indicates where we are today: inheritors of a 15 billion year history with the capacity to destroy ourselves and most other forms of life with our technological achievements. It is up to us to assure that the page is turned, and that we move safely into the future, free from the threat that nuclear weapons pose to humanity and all forms of life.”
Let me conclude with these thoughts: As the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have warned us over and over, “Nuclear weapons and human beings cannot coexist.” We must choose, and we are fortunate that we still have a choice. In another great war, such as World War II, the war that gave birth to both nuclear weapons and the United Nations, that choice could be foreclosed. Or, it could be foreclosed in less dramatic ways, by a nuclear accident or nuclear terrorism.
Now, today, we have the opportunity to turn the page of that great book that documents the development of our universe, the evolution of life and the history of humankind. Let us seize that opportunity with all our hearts and all our capacities by working to abolish nuclear weapons, strengthen the United Nations and international law, and put the missing Millennium Development Goal, disarmament, to work in achieving the elimination of poverty and hunger, and the promotion of education, health care, opportunity and hope for all of the world’s people.
David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.