Nuclear Weapons and Possible Human Extinction: The Heroic Marshall Islanders

By |2015-03-11T10:09:56-07:00March 11, 2015|

Extinction is a harsh and unforgiving word, a word that should make us shiver. Time moves inexorably in one direction only and, when extinction is complete, there are no further chances for revival. Extinction is a void, a black hole, from which return is forever foreclosed. If we can imagine the terrible void of extinction, then perhaps we can mobilize to forestall its occurrence, even its possibility.

The brilliant American author Jonathan Schell, who wrote The Fate of the Earth and was an ardent nuclear abolitionist, had this insight into the Nuclear Age, “We prepare for our extinction in order to assure our survival.”[i] He refers to the irony and idiocy of reliance upon nuclear weapons to avert nuclear war.

David KriegerNuclear deterrence is what the political, military and industrial leaders of the nuclear-armed and nuclear-dependent states call strategy. It involves the deployment of nuclear weapons on the land, in the air and under the oceans, and the constant striving to modernize and improve these weapons of mass annihilation.

Nuclear deterrence strategy rests on the unfounded, unproven and unprovable conviction that the deployment of these weapons, including those on hair-trigger alert, will protect their possessors from nuclear attack. It rests on the further naïve beliefs that nothing will go awry and that humans will be able to indefinitely control the monstrous weapons they have created without incident or accident, without miscalculation or intentional malevolence. In truth, these beliefs are simply that, beliefs, without any solid basis in fact. They are tenuously based, on a foundation of faith as opposed to a provable reality. They are the conjuring of a nuclear priesthood in collaboration with pliable politicians and corporate nuclear profiteers. They are seemingly intent upon providing a final omnicidal demonstration of, in Hannah Arendt’s words, “the banality of evil.”[ii]

Nuclear strategists and ordinary people rarely consider the mythology that sustains nuclear deterrence, which is built upon a foundation of rationality. But national leaders are often irrational, and there are no guarantees that nuclear weapons will not be used in the future. There have been many close calls in the past, not the least of which was the 13-day Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. Does it seem even remotely possible that all leaders of all nuclear-armed countries will act rationally at all times under all circumstances? It would be irrational to think so.

In nuclear deterrence strategies there are vast unknowns and unknowable possibilities. Our behaviors and those of our nuclear-armed opponents are not always knowable. We must expect the unexpected, but we cannot know in advance in what forms it will present itself. This means that we cannot be prepared for every eventuality. We do know, however, that human fallibility and nuclear weapons are a volatile mix, and this is particularly so in times of crisis, such as we are experiencing now in US-Russian relations over Ukraine.

Such volatility in a climate of crisis deepens the concern regarding the possibility of nuclear extinction. We can think of it as Nuclear Roulette, in which the nuclear-armed states are loading nuclear weapons into the metaphorical chambers of a gun and pointing that gun (or those several guns) at humanity’s head. No one knows how many nuclear weapons have been loaded into the gun. Are our chances of human extinction in the 21st century one in one hundred, one in ten, one in six, or one in two? The truth is that we do not know, but the odds of survival are not comforting.

My colleague, physicist John Scales Avery, views the prospects of human survival as dim at best. He writes: “It is a life-or-death question. We can see this most clearly when we look far ahead. Suppose that each year there is a certain finite chance of a nuclear catastrophe, let us say 2 percent. Then in a century the chance of survival will be 13.5 percent, and in two centuries, 1.8 percent, in three centuries, 0.25 percent, in four centuries, there would only be a 0.034 percent chance of survival and so on. Over many centuries, the chance of survival would shrink almost to zero. Thus, by looking at the long-term future, we can see clearly that if nuclear weapons are not entirely eliminated, civilization will not survive.”[iii]

Here is what we know: First, nuclear weapons are capable of causing human extinction, along with the extinction of many other species. Second, nine countries continue to rely upon these weapons for their so-called “national security.” Third, these nine countries are continuing to modernize their nuclear arsenals and failing to fulfill their legal and moral obligations to achieve a Nuclear Zero world – one in which human extinction by means of nuclear weapons is not a possibility because there are no nuclear weapons.

Given these knowable facts, we might ask: What kind of “national security” is it to rely upon weapons capable of causing human extinction? Or, to put it another way: How can any nation be secure when nuclear weapons threaten all humanity? Certainly, it requires massive amounts of denial to remain apathetic to the extinction dangers posed by nuclear weapons. There appears to be a kind of mass insanity – a detachment from reality. Such detachment seems possible only in societies that have made themselves subservient to the nuclear “experts” and officials who have become the high priests of nuclear strategy. Whole societies have developed a gambler’s addiction to living at the edge of the precipice of nuclear annihilation.

Remember Jonathan Schell’s insight: “We prepare for our extinction in order to assure our survival.” Of course, it is nonsensical to prepare for extinction to assure survival. Just as to achieve peace, we must prepare for peace, not war, we must be assuring our survival not by preparing for our extinction, but by ridding the world of the weapons that make this threat a possibility. We must, as Albert Einstein warned, change our “modes of thinking” or face “unparalleled catastrophe.”[iv]

The Victims

There have been many victims of the Nuclear Age, starting with those who died and those who survived the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This year marks the 70th anniversary of those bombings. The survivors of those bombings are growing older and more anxious to see their fervent wish, the abolition of nuclear weapons, realized.

In addition to the victims in the atomic-bombed cities, there have been many other victims of nuclear weapons. These include the people at the nuclear test sites and those downwind from them. They have suffered cancers, leukemia and other illnesses. The effects of the radiation from the nuclear tests have also affected subsequent generations, causing stillbirths and many forms of birth defects.

The Marshall Islanders were one group of nuclear victims. They lived on pristine Pacific islands, living simple lives close to the ocean waters that provided their bounty. But between 1946 and 1958 the US conducted 67 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands. The tests had the equivalent power of 1.6 Hiroshima bombs being exploded daily for 12 years. Some of the islands and atolls in the Marshall Islands became too radioactive to inhabit. The people of the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), who became guinea pigs for the US to study, continue to suffer. They have never received fair or adequate compensation for their injuries resulting from the US nuclear testing program.

On March 1, 1954, the US conducted a nuclear test on the island of Bikini in the Marshall Islands. The bomb, detonated in a test known as Castle Bravo, had 1,000 times the explosive power of the Hiroshima bomb. It contaminated the Bikini atoll and several other islands in the Marshall Islands, including Rongelap (100 miles away) and Utirik (300 miles away), as well as fishing vessels more than 100 miles from the detonation. Crew members aboard the Japanese vessel “Lucky Dragon” were severely irradiated and one crew member died as a result of radiation poisoning. This day is known internationally as “Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific Day” or “Bikini Day.” Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Tony de Brum remembers the Bravo explosion as “a jolt on my soul that never left me.”[v]

The Victims as Heroes

On April 24, 2014, after more than a year-and-a-half of planning and preparations, the Marshall Islands filed lawsuits against nine nuclear-armed states in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague and against the United States separately in US Federal District Court in San Francisco. The Marshall Islanders seek no compensation in these lawsuits, but rather declaratory and injunctive relief declaring the nuclear-armed states to be in breach of their nuclear disarmament obligations and ordering them to fulfill these obligations by commencing within one year to negotiate in good faith for an end to the nuclear arms race and for nuclear disarmament.[vi]

The Marshall Islands lawsuits referred to obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and under customary international law. Regarding the latter, they relied upon a portion of the ICJ’s 1996 Advisory Opinion on the Illegality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons in which the Court stated: “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.”[vii]

The Marshall Islands is the mouse that roared, it is David standing against the nine nuclear goliaths, it is the friend not willing to let friends drive drunk on nuclear power. Most of all, the Marshall Islands is a heroic small nation that is standing up for all humanity against those countries that are perpetuating the risk of nuclear war and the nuclear extinction of humanity and other forms of complex life on the planet. The courage and foresight of the Marshall Islands is a harbinger of hope that should give hope to us all.

The Current Status of the Nuclear Zero Lawsuits

In the US case, the US government filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit against it on jurisdictional grounds. On February 3, 2015, the federal judge, a George W. Bush appointee, granted the motion. The Marshall Islands have announced their intention to appeal the judge’s decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

At the International Court of Justice, cases are in process against the three countries that accept the compulsory jurisdiction of the court – India, Pakistan and the UK. Both India and Pakistan are seeking to limit their cases to jurisdictional issues. It remains to be seen whether or not the UK will follow suit. Of the other nuclear-armed countries that do not accept the compulsory jurisdiction of the court, none have accepted the Marshall Islands invitation to engage in the lawsuits, but only China has explicitly said that it will not.

An important observation about the lawsuits is that there has been reticence by the nuclear-armed states to have the issue of their obligations for nuclear disarmament heard by the courts. It would appear that the nuclear-armed countries are not eager to have their people or the people of the world know about their legal obligations to negotiate in good faith for nuclear disarmament or about their breaches of those obligations. Nor do they want the courts to order them to fulfill those obligations.

The Lawsuits Are about More than the Law

With regard to the legal aspects of these lawsuits, they are about whether treaties matter. They are about whether the most powerful nations are to be bound by the same rules as the rest of the international community. They are about whether a treaty can stand up with only half of the bargain fulfilled. They are about who gets to decide if treaty obligations are being met. Do all parties to a treaty stand on equal footing, or do the powerful have special rules specifically for them? They are also about the strength of customary international law to bind nations to civilized behavior.

These lawsuits are about more than just the law. They are about breaking cocoons of complacency and a conversion of hearts. They are also about leadership, boldness, courage, justice, wisdom and, ultimately, about survival. Let me say a word about each of these.

Leadership. If the most powerful countries won’t lead, then other countries must. The Marshall Islands, a small island country, has demonstrated this leadership, both on ending climate chaos and on eliminating the nuclear weapons threat to humanity.

Boldness. Many of us in civil society have been calling for boldness in relation to the failure of the nuclear-armed countries to fulfill their obligations to negotiate in good faith to end the nuclear arms race and to achieve complete nuclear disarmament. The status quo has become littered with broken promises, and these have become hard to tolerate. Instead of negotiating in good faith for an end to the nuclear arms race “at an early date,” the nuclear-armed countries have engaged in massive programs of modernization of their nuclear arsenals (nuclear weapons, delivery systems and infrastructure). Such modernization of the US nuclear arsenal alone is anticipated to cost a trillion dollars over the next three decades. Nuclear modernization by all nuclear-armed countries will ensure that nuclear weapons are deployed throughout the 21st century and beyond. The Marshall Islands is boldly challenging the status quo with the Nuclear Zero lawsuits.

Courage. The Marshall Islands is standing up for humanity in bringing these lawsuits. I see them as David standing against the nine nuclear-armed Goliaths. But the Marshall Islands is a David acting nonviolently, using the courts and the law instead of a slingshot. The Marshall Islands shows us by its actions what courage looks like.

Justice. The law should always be about justice. In the case of nuclear weapons, both the law and justice call for an equal playing field, one in which no country has possession of nuclear weapons. That is the bargain of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the requirement of customary international law, and the Marshall Islands is taking legal action that seeks justice in the international community.

Wisdom. The lawsuits are about the wisdom to confront the hubris of the nuclear-armed countries. The arrogance of power is dangerous, and the arrogance of reliance upon nuclear weapons could be fatal for all humanity.

Survival. At their core, the Nuclear Zero lawsuits brought by the Marshall Islands are about survival. They are about making nuclear war, by design or accident or miscalculation, impossible because there are no longer nuclear weapons to threaten humanity. Without nuclear weapons in the world, there can be no nuclear war, no nuclear famine, no nuclear terrorism, no overriding threat to the human species and the future of humanity.

The dream of ending the nuclear weapons threat to humanity should be the dream not only of the Marshall Islanders, but our dream as well It must become our collective dream – not only for ourselves, but for the human future. We must challenge the “experts” and officials who tell us, “Don’t worry, be happy” with the nuclear status quo.

The people of the world should follow the lead of the Marshall Islanders. If they can lead, we can support them. If they can be bold, we can join them. If they can be courageous, we can be as well. If they can demand that international law be based on justice, we can stand with them. If they can act wisely and confront hubris, with all its false assumptions, we can join them in doing so. If they can take seriously the threat to human survival inherent in our most dangerous weapons, so can we. The Marshall Islands is showing us the way forward, breaking cocoons of complacency and demonstrating a conversion of the heart.

I am proud to be associated with the Marshall Islands and its extraordinary Foreign Minister, Tony de Brum. As a consultant to the Marshall Islands, the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation has worked to build the legal teams that support the Nuclear Zero lawsuits. We have also built a consortium of 75 civil society organizations that support the lawsuits. We have also created a way for individuals to add their voices of support with a brief petition. Already over 5 million people have signed the petition supporting the Nuclear Zero lawsuits. You can find out more and add your voice at the campaign website, www.nuclearzero.org.

I will conclude with a poem that I wrote recently, entitled “Testing Nuclear Weapons in the Marshall Islands.”

TESTING NUCLEAR WEAPONS
IN THE MARSHALL ISLANDS

The islands were alive
with the red-orange fire of sunset
splashed on a billowy sky.

The islanders lived simple lives
close to the edge of the ocean planet
reaching out to infinity.

The days were bright and the nights
calm in this happy archipelago
until the colonizers came.

These were sequentially the Spanish,
Germans, Japanese and then, worst of all,
the United States.

The U.S. came as trustee
bearing its new bombs, eager to test them
in this beautiful barefoot Eden.

The islanders were trusting,
even when the bombs began exploding
and the white ash fell like snow.

The children played
in the ash as it floated down on them,
covering them in poison.

The rest is a tale of loss
and suffering by the islanders, of madness
by the people of the bomb.

 

[i] Krieger, David (Ed.), Speaking of Peace, Quotations to Inspire Action, Santa Barbara, CA: Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, 2014, p. 69.

[ii] Arendt, Hannah, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, http://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/1023716-eichmann-in-jerusalem-a-report-on-the-banality-of-evil

[iii] Avery, John Scales, “Remember Your Humanity,” website of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation: https://www.wagingpeace.org/remember-your-humanity/

[iv] Krieger, David (Ed.), op. cit., p. 52.

[v] De Brum, Tony, website of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation: https://www.wagingpeace.org/tony-debrum/

[vi] Information on the Marshall Islands’ Nuclear Zero Lawsuits can be found at www.nuclearzero.org.

[vii] “Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice on the Legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons,” United Nations General Assembly, A/51/218, 15 October 1996, p. 37.