Sixty-five years ago, on December 9, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a convention prohibiting genocide. It seems appropriate to discuss nuclear warfare against the background of this important standard of international law.
Article II of the 1948 convention defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
Cannot nuclear warfare be seen as an example of genocide? It is capable of killing entire populations, including babies, young children, adults in their prime and old people, without any regard for guilt or innocence. The retention of nuclear weapons, with the intent to use them under some circumstances, must be seen as the intent to commit genocide. Is it not morally degrading to see our leaders announce their intention to commit the “crime of crimes” in our names?
The use of nuclear weapons potentially involves not only genocide, but also omnicide, the death of all, since a large-scale thermonuclear war would destroy human civilization and much of the biosphere.
If humanity is to survive in an era of all-destroying nuclear weapons, we must develop an advanced ethic to match our advanced technology. We must regard all humans as our brothers and sisters, More than that, we must actively feel our kinship with all living things, and accept and act upon our duty to protect both animate and inanimate nature.
Modern science has, for the first time in history, offered humankind the possibility of a life of comfort, free from hunger and cold, and free from the constant threat of death through infectious disease. At the same time, science has given humans the power to obliterate civilization with nuclear weapons, or to make the earth uninhabitable through overpopulation and pollution. The question of which of these paths we choose is literally a matter of life or death for ourselves and our children.
Will we use the discoveries of modern science constructively, and thus choose the path leading towards life? Or will we use science to produce more and more lethal weapons, which sooner or later, through a technical or human failure, may result in a catastrophic nuclear war? Will we thoughtlessly destroy our beautiful planet through unlimited growth of population and industry? The choice among these alternatives is ours to make. We live at a critical moment of history – a moment of crisis for civilization.
No one living today asked to be born at such a moment, But history has given our generation an enormous responsibility, and two daunting tasks: We must stabilize global population, and, more importantly, we must abolish both nuclear weapons and the institution of war.
The human brain has shown itself to be capable of solving even the most profound and complex problems. The mind that has seen into the heart of the atom must not fail when confronted with paradoxes of the human heart.
The problem of building a stable, just, and war-free world is difficult, but it is not impossible. The large regions of our present-day world within which war has been eliminated can serve as models. There are a number of large countries with heterogeneous populations within which it has been possible to achieve internal peace and social cohesion, and if this is possible within such extremely large regions, it must also be possible globally. We must replace the old world of international anarchy, chronic war and institutionalized injustice, by a new world of law.
The Nobel laureate biochemist Albert Szent-Györgyi once wrote: “…Modern science has abolished time and distance as factors separating nations. On our shrunken globe today, there is room for one group only: the family of man.”