Lord Byron’s evocative and prescient poem “Darkness” was written in 1816, the “year without a summer”, following the 1815 volcanic eruption of Mt Tambora in Indonesia. Byron “wrote it … at Geneva, when there was a celebrated dark day, on which the fowls went to roost at noon, and the candles were lighted as at midnight”. Average global cooling in 1816 from the volcanic debris blasted into the atmosphere was 0.7°C, enough to cause widespread crop failures in North America and famine across Europe and India, despite good harvests in 1815 and 1817.
Just 100 Hiroshima-sized nuclear bombs, less than one per cent of the global nuclear arsenal, would generate more than five million tons of soot and smoke if targeted at cities. In addition to local devastation and widespread radioactive contamination, the climate impact would be catastrophic. Global cooling would be twice as large as following the Tambora explosion, and would persist not a couple of years but for over a decade, decimating global agriculture. On top of that would come the effects of price hikes; hoarding of food; food riots; intrastate and potential interstate conflicts over food supplies; the disease epidemics that inevitably spread through malnourished populations; disruption to trade and the complex international supply chains for agricultural inputs – seed, fertiliser, pesticides, fuel and machinery.
World grain reserves currently range between 60 and 70 days supply. The 925 million people chronically malnourished today, and the additional 300+ million highly dependent on imported food, could not be expected to survive such a prolonged global food shortage.
Famine on a scale never before witnessed would worst affect poor and malnourished people even on the other side of the world from the nuclear explosions. Such global nuclear famine is well within the capacity not only of the US and Russian arsenals, with between them more than 90 per cent of the world’s 17,300 nuclear weapons, but also the smaller arsenals of China, France, UK, India, Israel and Pakistan – in fact all the current nine nuclear-armed states except for North Korea.
That the smaller nuclear arsenals of tens of hundreds of weapons pose not only a regional threat but a global danger has profound implications. It is not widely understood that the most acute risk of abrupt and dangerous climate change is from nuclear weapons. The extent of our collective vulnerability is illustrated by the fact that the nuclear warheads carried on a single US Ohio class submarine, if targeted on Chinese cities, could produce not 5 but 23 million tons of smoke. The US has 14 such submarines; Russia 10 similar ones.
The fundamental realities of nuclear weapons are as profound as they are clear. Nuclear weapons are by far the most destructive, indiscriminate, persistently toxic weapons ever invented. Single nuclear weapons have been built with more destructive power than all explosives used in all wars throughout human history. In its landmark Resolution 1 of 2011, the Council of Delegates of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, its highest governing body, “finds it difficult to envisage how any use of nuclear weapons could be compatible with the rules of international humanitarian law, in particular the rules of distinction, precaution and proportionality”. They cannot be used in any way compliant with international law. While they exist, there is a danger they will be used. The only way to eliminate this danger is to eradicate nuclear weapons. While some nations possess them, others will inevitably seek to acquire them, or the means to produce them in short order. These means are now readily accessible around the world, even to isolated and impoverished countries like North Korea. The lifetimes of uranium and plutonium isotopes, which can fuel bombs, are measured over tens of thousands to millions of years. Human intent, nation-states and politics can change on a dime. Hence stocks of fissile materials, the capacity to create more, and nuclear weapons themselves are the problems, irrespective of the intentions of their custodians at any point in time.
Whatever their ostensible justification or purpose, a nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon – once detonated, whether through accident, cyberattack, in retaliation when deterrence fails, or any other human or technical failing, the searing catastrophe they would unleash is dictated by the laws of physics alone. Even a single nuclear weapon exploded over a city would cause a humanitarian catastrophe to which no effective response capacity exists or is feasible. If nuclear weapons were used, nuclear retaliation and escalation are likely to follow. It will not matter whose nuclear weapons were used first, second or third; the weapons of our allies will kill us just as surely and indiscriminately as any others.
Einstein reflected that “The splitting of the atom has changed everything, save our way of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” From any vantage, there is a massive dinosaur in the room. Tiptoeing around hoping it might go away if we ignore it is not a viable strategy for survival, for sustainability, for health, for the progressive realisation of human rights, for anything that matters in the thin shell of planet earth in which all living things known to us dwell. Since nuclear weapons entered our world, everything has changed; whether we like it or not; ready or not.
There are three major sets of existential challenges we collectively need to navigate. These go beyond the wellbeing, life and death of individuals and populations alive at any one time, and speak to the habitability of earth; to whether there will be a place for future generations. One is collision of the earth with a large celestial body. Such collisions have been the main cause of previous major extinctions, like that of the dinosaurs. The second is environmental change, and degradation and depletion of vital resources – rampant global warming posing the greatest such challenge. The third, more acute, is the danger of nuclear war. The World Health Organization, the world’s leading health agency, has concluded that nuclear weapons “constitute the greatest immediate threat to human health and welfare”. Preventing use of nuclear weapons necessitates their eradication, a necessary, urgent and feasible precondition for securing global health and sustainability.
Two of these great challenges are of human origin, needing human solutions. In all our evolutionary history , we are among the first generations to face such existential challenges. While the extraordinary responsibility we bear is a difficult burden, it is also a precious gift. Few people in all of human history have had as great an opportunity as we now have to avert harm and do good for humanity and for all the denizens of planet earth with whom we are intertwined.
The last few decades have seen major progress on the elimination of other indiscriminate and inhumane weapons – chemical and biological weapons, landmines and cluster munitions. It represents a profound failure of the global community that the worst weapons of all – nuclear weapons – remain the only ones not subject to a specific legal prohibition. It is 68 years since the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 43 years since the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) entered into force, and 17 years since the judges of the International Court of Justice held unanimously that “there exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.” Yet we still have no binding, verifiable, legal framework to eradicate nuclear weapons. And we have no international controls on uranium enrichment or the reprocessing of spent nuclear reactor fuel, both of which can provide the feedstock for nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, all the nuclear-armed states are investing massively in the modernisation of their nuclear arsenals, and justifying their planned retention indefinitely.
In addressing such momentous challenges, we need wisdom from all cultures, faiths and ethical traditions; lessons, insights, tools and perspectives from every field of human endeavor; and the recognition that whatever our core business, eradicating nuclear weapons is part of everyone’s business. Like respect for universal human rights, like addressing global warming on the scale and urgency demanded. Nuclear weapons are a critical human rights issue; the most urgent development issue; the paramount sustainability issue; potentially the most egregious violation of international humanitarian law; the most urgent environmental issue; the most profound ethical issue; the greatest blasphemy.
Two perspectives key to progress on complex global challenges like nuclear weapons and climate change are a global view transcending tribalism of all kinds, whether cultural, religious, ethnic or nation-state based; and a long-term, ecological perspective, that recognises human dependence on ecosystem services and custodial responsibilities for the biosphere. These both have strong roots in ancient wisdoms from many traditions, particularly indigenous ones, and are also increasingly underscored by scientific evidence and the ever-growing realities of global interdependence. There are few frames as powerful in a global view of human affairs and interests as the affirmation of universal human rights.
The right to life is, after all, the precondition for the enjoyment of all other rights. If nuclear weapons are used, everything else could become tragically irrelevant in an afternoon. Law, politics and culture have yet to fully catch up with the reality of the existential threats faced by not only those alive today but all those who might follow us. The rights of future generations and of the myriad living things other than human beings, and of the biosphere, a far more complex and wondrous thing than the sum of its parts, barely get a mention in any of the widely-accepted human rights instruments.
Nor is prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons high on the agenda of international human rights organisations. For example, the section on weapons and human rights on the Amnesty International website focuses only on conventional weapons, and the only specific recent Amnesty statement regarding nuclear weapons readily identifiable in a Google search is a (welcome) single sentence addressing the last question in a 10 April 2013 Q&A on the North Korea human rights crisis: “Amnesty International opposes the use, possession, production and transfer of nuclear weapons, given their indiscriminate nature.”
Some recent initiatives have brought a human rights focus to nuclear issues. One is a 2012 report to the UN Human Rights Council by the Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes, Calin Georgescu, on the ongoing recognition, care and compensation needs of Marshall Islanders harmed by US atmospheric nuclear tests on and near their islands in the 1950s, and the long-term continuing environmental monitoring and clean-up needs.
A second is the landmark 2012 report of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission established by Japan’s national Diet (parliament). The Commission highlights the lack of priority given to the wellbeing and safety of all Japanese citizens, the first responsibility of any government. Among the conclusions of the Commission: the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident accident “was the result of collusion between the government, regulators and TEPCO … They effectively betrayed the nation’s right to be safe from nuclear accidents.” “The Commission concludes that the government and regulators are not fully committed to protecting public health and safety; that they have not acted to protect the health of the residents and to restore their welfare.”
A third is an excellent report to the UN Human Rights Council by the UN Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, Anand Grover, who addresses the right to health for those affected by the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Grover makes recommendations to redress the various ways in which the health and safety of people has been neglected in order to reduce the eventual compensation bill.
There are fundamental human rights dimensions to nuclear technology, whether weapons or power generation. A so-called “inalienable right” of nations to the “use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes” articulated in Article IV of the NPT in reality means exposing people and other living things worldwide to a risk of indiscriminate, catastrophic radioactive contamination at any time. Nuclear power erodes the health and rights of future generations. Through its inevitable generation of plutonium, and the intrinsic potential of uranium enrichment plants to enrich uranium beyond reactor grade to weapons grade, it exacerbates the danger of nuclear war and its catastrophic human consequences. Nuclear power thus undermines fundamental human and biosphere rights, responsible custodianship and human security.
Were the Universal Declaration of Human Rights being drafted today, one would hope that additional rights would be front and centre: the right to live free from the threat of indiscriminate, inhumane weapons, most of all nuclear weapons; the rights of future generations; the rights of people everywhere to access benign, renewable energy sources; and to be protected from preventable, indiscriminate, transgenerational radioactive contamination. These human rights urgently need to become prominent in the global human rights agenda.
To quote Albert Einstein again: “There is no secret and there is no defense; there is no possibility of control except through the aroused understanding and insistence of the peoples of the world.”
Dr Tilman Ruff is an infectious diseases and public health physician, with particular involvement in the urgent public health imperative to abolish nuclear weapons.