It is perhaps a peculiar quality of human beings that we like to count things, and we seem to become particularly excited when our numbers end up with several zeros at the end. Such is the case with the year 2000, even though it is not exactly the turning of the millennium, which will take place as the year turns from 2000 to 2001. It is close enough, however, and it has its own set of problems, which have been characterized by the expression “Y2K.” I will return to that, but first I would like to offer a few observations to provide perspective on the past as a prologue to our current situation.

First, life has existed on Earth for some 4 billion years.

Second, humans have existed on Earth for only some 3 million years, less than 1/1000th of the existence of life on Earth.

Third, civilization and recorded history have existed for only some 10,000 years, barely a tick on the geological clock.

Fourth, the Nuclear Age began only some six decades ago with the first controlled fission reaction that was sustained under the bleachers of the stadium at the University of Chicago.

Fifth, less than 55 years ago, the first nuclear weapons were dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, utterly destroying those cities and killing over 200,000 of their inhabitants.

Sixth, throughout the latter half of the 20th century, the United States and the former Soviet Union engaged in a nuclear arms race that at its height saw the deployment of some 80,000 nuclear weapons, many of which were thousands of times more powerful than those that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Seventh, plutonium, which is the principal ingredient in nuclear weapons and did not exist as such until specifically created for nuclear weapons, will remain dangerous to humans and other forms of life for some 250,000 years. Even a microgram of plutonium, if inhaled, will lead to lung cancer, and we have created thousands of tons of plutonium by the fissioning of uranium for weapons and nuclear power.

Eighth, at the present time, ten years after the end of the Cold War, eight countries have a total of some 35,000 nuclear weapons, most of them in the arsenals of the United States and Russia. Due to the conditions of social disintegration in the former Soviet Union, there is increased concern that nuclear weapons or weapons-grade nuclear materials might fall (or might already have fallen) into the possession of additional countries or criminals or terrorists.

From this very quick walk through time, we can reach some interesting conclusions.

First, in a relatively short period of time, humans have devised a means for their own annihilation.

Second, we have created radioactive poisons, such as the thousands of tons of plutonium, that will be a danger to humanity for some 25 times longer than civilization has existed.

We are now an endangered species, endangered by our own cleverness in taming the atom and using the power of the atom for weapons of mass destruction.

With our new knowledge has come the need for far higher levels of responsibility to prevent our self-destruction. As a species, we have done a poor job of accepting this responsibility.

Let us look at what we have done in the relatively recent past to try to deal with the challenge of nuclear weapons.

Nearly 30 years ago the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons entered into force. In that treaty, the non-nuclear weapons states promised not to develop or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons. In return, the nuclear weapons states promised to engage in good faith negotiations on nuclear disarmament. In other words, this treaty was a trade-off: non-proliferation for nuclear disarmament. For the most part, the non-proliferation part of the bargain has been kept. The nuclear disarmament part of the bargain has been arrogantly pushed aside by the nuclear weapons states.

Five years ago, the parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty held a Review and Extension Conference, as called for by the terms of the treaty. At that conference the treaty was extended indefinitely, although many states argued that an indefinite extension was equivalent to a blank check which should not be given to the nuclear weapons states to continue to flout the treaty provisions. At that time, certain additional promises were made: to achieve a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) by 1996, to negotiate a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, and to “a determined pursuit” of systematic and progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally with the ultimate goal of their elimination.

A Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was signed in 1996, but has yet to be ratified by the US, Russia, China, India or Pakistan. There has been no progress on a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, and there has been a noticeable lack of “determined pursuit” of nuclear disarmament. The START II agreement has not been ratified by the Russian Duma. In fact, Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin agreed to move back the date for completing START II reductions from the beginning of 2003 to the end of 2007. There has been no progress on START III. The US and Russia still maintain dangerous postures of launch on warning. Some 5,000 nuclear weapons remain on hair-trigger alert, ready for immediate launching.

The US still considers its nuclear arsenal to be the “cornerstone” of its security policy. It has fought against a NATO review of nuclear policy. It has fought against consideration of nuclear disarmament in the UN Conference on Disarmament. It has refused to consider a No First Use policy. Further, it has promoted policies such as the expansion of NATO and the development of a National Missile Defense system that have made the Russians feel more threatened and rely more heavily on their nuclear arsenal.

In 1996 the International Court of Justice said that any threat or use of nuclear weapons that would violate international humanitarian law would be illegal. This means that nuclear weapons cannot be threatened or used if they would fail to distinguish between combatants and civilians, or if they would cause unnecessary suffering to combatants. Since it would be impossible to use nuclear weapons in any manner that would not either grossly injure non-combatants or cause unnecessary suffering to combatants, any threat or use of nuclear weapons would be illegal. This ruling by the World Court has been largely ignored by the nuclear weapons states.

The Court also pointed out in its opinion that the effects of the use of nuclear weapons cannot be controlled in either time or space. We know, for example, that today people are continuing to suffer and die as a result of the radiation releases from the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons that took place for four decades until the mid-1980s.

At the 1995 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review and Extension Conference, a group of Non-Governmental Organizations from around the world lobbied for greater progress on nuclear disarmament. Disappointed by the outcome of the conference, they formed a global network, which is called Abolition 2000, to work for the total elimination of nuclear weapons. Abolition 2000 is a citizens movement, which is now composed of some 1,400 citizen action groups in 89 countries. The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation is the International Contact for this global network.

Abolition 2000 has called for an international treaty to be concluded by the end of the year 2000 which would lead to the total elimination of nuclear weapons. Its goal is to enter the 21st century with a treaty in place providing a firm commitment on the part of the nuclear weapons states to eliminate their nuclear arsenals. As the year 2000 is approaching rapidly, this may seem like an unrealizable goal. But this is not necessarily the case.

Democracies respond to overwhelming citizen pressure. If such pressure were forthcoming in the United States, it could turn the tide. If we have continued complacency, then we will enter the 21st century with inertia and perhaps we will have to wait until a nuclear weapon destroys another city or many cities somewhere in the world before there is action to eliminate nuclear weapons. On the other hand, if Americans were to say, “Enough is enough,” and demand leadership from our government to obtain a treaty to eliminate nuclear weapons, it could be done and it could be done rapidly.

At the present time our national security is based upon the illegal threat of nuclear weapons use that could result in the murder of hundreds of millions of innocent people. We are all accomplices to this illegal threat. Were this threat ever to be carried out, we would be accomplices, willing or unwilling, to what the president of the World Court has described as the “ultimate evil.” If nuclear weapons are ever used again, by accident or design, it will be a greater crime than that committed by the Nazis during World War II. The German people were rightly terrified to challenge the Nazis. The American people have no such excuse. Nor can we claim ignorance. We are all parties to the threatened crime. And, as we learned at Nuremberg, superior orders do not constitute a defense.

Someone recently said to me, “I’m glad you’re working on this because I have other priorities.” That was not comforting. No one person is going to turn this country around. It will take all of us together. And all of us together can do it. As Jody Williams, the co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for the Landmines Campaign, said, “We are the new superpower.” She didn’t mean the United States or any other powerful nation alone. She meant us – you, me, and millions like us. Together we are the new superpower, but only if we make our voices heard.

I encourage you to write to the President and your representatives in Congress and to raise the issue of nuclear threat in every campaign setting in the upcoming elections. Ask that nuclear weapons be taken off alert status (if for no other reason than to avoid the problems associated with Y2K). Ask that the US adopt a policy of No First Use. Ask that the US take leadership in negotiating an international treaty, a Nuclear Weapons Convention similar to what we already have for chemical and biological weapons, setting forth the steps for the total elimination of nuclear weapons. Make the candidates discuss these issues. Make them declare where they stand on these issues.

In the final analysis, nuclear weapons are not weapons at all. They are the most terrible instruments of mass annihilation yet created by men. They are portable incinerators. They are illegal, immoral, and undemocratic. They have cost us some $6 trillion since the beginning of the Nuclear Age. More damaging still, they have cast a dark shadow over our consciences and our souls. I urge each of you to make your voice heard and to demand an end to the outrage of relying upon nuclear weapons for what they can never give to us — security.

Let us enter the 21st century with a commitment in place to abolish nuclear weapons. And if we cannot do it in the year 2000, let us recommit ourselves for the next year and as long as it takes to rid the world of this evil. In doing so, we will keep faith with all humanity that has preceded us and with all generations to follow. Perhaps most important, we will keep faith with ourselves and be, in the words of the great French writer, Albert Camus, “neither victims nor executioners.”

* David Krieger is the president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.