UN Adopts Historic Nuclear Weapons Ban over US-Led Opposition
The United Nations General Assembly has adopted the first ever global treaty to ban the possession of nuclear weapons — but all nine nuclear powers stand in the way. We speak to Rick Wayman of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and Ira Helfand of Physicians for Social Responsibility, who were both involved in the global campaign to push the treaty through
AARON MATE: This is the Real News. I’m Aaron Mate. The United Nations has moved a step closer in the goal for a nuclear-free world. On Friday, the General Assembly approved the first-ever global treaty to ban nuclear weapons.
ELAYNE W. GOMEZ: This is a historic moment for the international community. This is the first multilateral nuclear disarmament treaty to be concluded in more than 20 years.
AARON MATE: 122 nations voted in favor. Countries can start signing the treaty when the UN General Assembly meets in September, but there’s one big obstacle. All nine nuclear powers, the U.S., Russia, Britain, China, France, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel, oppose the treaty and boycotted the proceedings. I’m joined by two guests. Ira Helfand is cofounder of Physicians for Social Responsibility and Rick Wayman is director of programs and operations at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. Welcome to you both.
RICK WAYMAN: [crosstalk 00:01:08].
IRA HELFAND: Thanks for having us.
AARON MATE: Ira, I’ll start with you. You were involved in this long process to get this treaty going. Your reaction to its passage after such a long period of work on it.
IRA HELFAND: I think this is truly a historic treaty that provides a real impetus to moving forward now towards the actual abolition of nuclear weapons. As you pointed out, the nuclear weapons states, the nuclear-armed states, did not participate in this process, and that’s been the root of the problem. They have not wanted to honor their obligations under previous treaties, the Nonproliferation Treaty, to eliminate their nuclear arsenals. The rest of the world has finally lost patience. They’re concerned by the overwhelming medical evidence that even a very limited nuclear war would be a worldwide catastrophe. The rest of the international community has issued I think a real challenge saying that they will no longer accept a situation in which nine countries hold the entire world, including their own people, hostage to these terribly dangerous nuclear arsenals.
AARON MATE: Ira, it’s interesting you mentioned the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the argument that I’ve heard from the U.S. and other nuclear powers is that we need to strengthen the NPT, but that’s it, so that’s why we don’t need this new ban.
IRA HELFAND: The NPT specifically calls on all nations to regard further agreements to eliminate nuclear weapons, and so this treaty is fully consistent with the mandate of the Nonproliferation Treaty. If the United States were serious about its obligations to negotiate the abolition of nuclear weapons, it would have joined this process. The problem is that the United States and the other nuclear weapons states do not want to do that. They all intend to hold onto their arsenals as long as they possibly can.
This is a profoundly dangerous, reckless policy that they are pursuing. We need to see a fundamental change in that policy, away from the idea that nuclear weapons can somehow, in some way, enhance national security. We need to understand, rather, that these weapons are the primary threat to national and world security, and that the world will only be safe, the people of the world will only be safe when these weapons are actually abolished and dismantled.
AARON MATE: Rick Wayman of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, you also took part in the negotiating process. Can you talk about how this treaty came together over the objections of those states who have nuclear weapons, and what resistance you think or what obstacles it faces now, and the process towards ratification?
RICK WAYMAN: I think one of the most exciting things about this treaty process is the very deep and meaningful involvement of civil society, of my group, the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Many of us were under the umbrella of an international campaign called the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. This voice really was unstoppable, but I also want to mention, to the credit of the nations that participated in this UN process, they gave civil society a big voice. It was really unlike any other UN process that I have been a part of before. I think that this, in many ways, revolutionized the way that international diplomacy and international treaties are made, so I’m very excited about that and very hopeful for the future.
In terms of the obstacles that this treaty faces, the nuclear-armed countries and some of their allies, particularly in NATO, are like you said very opposed to it, and putting a lot of pressure. They’re really turning the screws on some of the smaller countries that were involved in negotiating and adopting this treaty. What I think that we all worldwide need to be watching out for is making sure that the governments that negotiated this and adopted it at the UN last Friday, that they stick to it. What they did is extremely important, and I just want to watch out and make sure that those governments don’t give in to the great amount of pressure that will likely be exerted upon them by many of the nuclear-armed countries.
AARON MATE: What kind of pressure have we seen so far? I have to note that it’s not just the Trump administration that opposed this nuclear ban. When it came up for the first time, it was President Obama who was in office, and his administration opposed it, too.
RICK WAYMAN: Absolutely. They vehemently opposed it under the Obama administration, and now that policy has definitely been consistent from Obama into the Trump administration. A lot of it is behind the scenes. There’s not a whole lot public, but they have publicly stated that they think this is a bad idea. They think it will be damaging to global security, and they believe it’s naïve and just overall a bad idea. What they’re doing behind the scenes, in terms of threats or actual economic or military screws that they’re turning, I don’t know. I haven’t heard specifics on that, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they are taking this very seriously and going into their toolkit and seeing what they can do to exert real pressure.
AARON MATE: All right. Ira, you mentioned the dangers of nuclear weapons, so I’m wondering if you could walk us through some scenarios that concern you most, both based on what’s happened in the past and what you fear might happen in the future.
IRA HELFAND: I think there are two basic scenarios that are driving this process forward. One is the concern over large-scale nuclear war between the United States and Russia. For many years, we were told we didn’t need to worry about this. The U.S. and Russia were friends. It was irrational to think they would ever fight a nuclear war.
In the last few years, we have seen this is simply not true. There is real pressure between the United States and Russia. There are a number of particular flashpoints, Syria, Ukraine, that could lead to armed conflict between these two countries. In the event that the U.S. and Russia go to war and use their nuclear weapons, hundreds of millions of people will die in the first 30 minutes as a direct effect of the explosions, the fires, the radiation. All the great cities in the United States and Russia would be leveled within a half an hour.
Beyond that, what we now know is that there will also be worldwide climate destruction of an extraordinary degree. This is called nuclear winter. Temperatures will plunge across the planet by as much as 14 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit on average across the whole planet. In the interior regions of North America and Eurasia, the temperatures will drop by as much as 45 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Under these conditions, basically all the ecosystems which have evolved in these temperate zones will collapse, food production will stop completely, and the vast majority of the human race will starve to death.
That’s one scenario, and I cannot emphasize enough, this is not something which is outside the realm of possibility by any means. Even if the United States and Russia don’t actually go to war by design, we know of at least six occasions during the nuclear weapons era so far when either Moscow or Washington prepared to launch its nuclear weapons in the mistaken belief that the other side had already done so. That kind of accidental nuclear war is certainly something which could take place at any moment. We have seen the vulnerability of computer systems, and we know how they make mistakes.
We also know how people can hack into computer systems. One of the great concerns that people have today is that terrorists will launch an attack not by bringing a small nuclear weapon into New York or Moscow, but by launching a cyber attack against Russia or the United States to attack the other side. This is an enormous and real threat, and one we live with every day until we get rid of these weapons.
In addition, we’ve also found in just the last decade that even a very limited nuclear war, the kind of war that might take place between India and Pakistan, would also cause enough worldwide climate destruction to provoke a global famine that could put up to two billion people at risk. This is not the extinction of our species as might follow from the U.S.-Russia war, but it is a catastrophe unparalleled in human history. It would almost certainly be the end of modern civilization as we know it.
These are real dangers. India and Pakistan, there’s fighting every single day on their border in Kashmir. This is a powder keg waiting to explode, and we sit around pretending that this danger doesn’t exist at great peril. I think it’s an understanding of these realities that has driven the nonnuclear states to pursue this treaty, and it is ignorance of these realities that allows the leadership of the nuclear-armed states to continue along as though it’s reasonable to maintain these gigantic nuclear arsenals and expect that nothing bad is ever going to happen.
AARON MATE: Rick, Ira mentioned Russia and the tensions between the U.S. and Russia. Continuing on one point, I’m wondering if you can comment on the state right now of politics inside the U.S., where Trump is facing pressure to show that he’s not controlled by the Russians in the aftermath of this alleged Russian meddling in the U.S. election. I’m wondering your thoughts on what possible impact that could have on tensions right now, at a time when the nuclear threat is so acute.
RICK WAYMAN: The U.S. and Russia between them possess over 90% of the nuclear weapons in the world. There are currently about 15,000 nuclear weapons worldwide. The U.S. and Russia have the vast, vast majority of those, and each side has many hundreds if not over 1,000 on what’s essentially hair-trigger alert, ready to be fired within minutes. Ira said a cyber attack, some sort of false alarm could trigger something. There are many scenarios that could trigger something, and to maintain these policies is simply unacceptable.
When we have a president of the U.S. who is under great pressure, who doesn’t appear to always make the best decisions whether he’s under pressure or not, it’s a real concern that nuclear weapons could be used. Right now, in the U.S., there is nothing stopping the president from unilaterally deciding to use nuclear weapons. There are bills right now in the House and Senate that are designed to at least partially put brakes on that, require a Congressional declaration of war prior to the president being allowed to use nuclear weapons first against an enemy, but as of right now, it’s the president’s prerogative. That’s always a concern no matter who is the president, but I think especially under the circumstances we find ourselves in now.
AARON MATE: Ira, on that point, what are some immediate policy goals that you think people here in the U.S., those who are concerned about this issue, aside from seeking U.S. ratification of this treaty? In terms of changing, for example, the hair-trigger alert.
IRA HELFAND: The Markey-Lieu legislation that Rick alluded to, introduced by Senator Markey and Congressman Lieu, should be passed. This is legislation that would make it impossible, or illegal at least, for the president of the United States to use nuclear weapons first without getting approval from Congress. The Constitution says that only Congress can declare war. Certainly, only Congress should be able to declare nuclear war, and we need to pass this legislation.
Second, we need to get the nuclear weapons that we have off of hair-trigger alert. There is no need to have weapons mounted on missiles that could be fired in 15 minutes. If we need to use nuclear weapons, we could destroy the world 24 hours from now. We don’t have to do it in the next half hour. Having them in that configuration greatly increases the chance of miscalculation, of cyber terrorist attack. That’s the second thing. We should take our weapons off hair-trigger alert.
More importantly, we need to make a fundamental change in our whole nuclear policy. The U.S. has operated with the doctrine of deterrence for many decades. It maintains that nuclear weapons are so terrible that no country would use them. That doctrine has demonstrably failed already. The six times that I mentioned when the U.S. or Russia planned to use nuclear weapons, they had already abandoned deterrence. They had decided to use them, as terrible as they are, and were preparing to launch them until they learned at the last minute that they weren’t already under attack.
In addition, deterrence requires that the leaders of the countries that possess nuclear weapons be reasonable, with good judgment and a sound knowledge of international affairs and their nuclear arsenal. It requires that they be at a position intellectually where they can be deterred from using them. The current president of the United States, in the judgment of the security experts in his own party, does not possess these qualities. We used to say that it would be a disaster if even a single nuclear weapon fell into the wrong hands, by which we meant a rogue state or a terrorist organization. The United States has now turned over 6,800 nuclear weapons to what I believe are demonstrably the wrong hands. That totally undermines the whole concept of deterrence, because it’s not clear this president could be deterred. If it could happen once here in the United States, it could happen again in the United States or some other country, that a leader takes power who should not have his finger on the button.
The solution to that is not to change the finger, but to get rid of the button so that this can never happen. I think that’s what we need to do. We need to abandon this idea that nuclear weapons make us safe, that they won’t be used, understand that as we do maintain these arsenals, they in fact may very well be used, and seek a different nuclear policy, one which embraces an active pursuit of an abolition treaty with the rest of the nuclear weapons powers. We may not be successful in that endeavor. We may not be able to convince the other countries to go along with us, but we have to try. The United States has not done that. It has gone in exactly the opposite direction, with plans to spend $1 trillion over the next 30 years to maintain our nuclear arsenal and to upgrade our nuclear arsenal for decades to come. This policy, we need to make 180 degree turn, and instead begin actively pursuing the security of a world free of nuclear weapons, not just in words, as Obama did in Prague, but in our real, actual nuclear policy.
AARON MATE: Okay. On that point of Obama and this $1 trillion upgrade program that he began, Rick, I want to end on that. What do anti-nuclear activists face in this country, when the consensus on developing nuclear weapons appears to be bipartisan, with Obama spending such a huge sum of money to upgrade the arsenal and President Trump vowing to continue it?
RICK WAYMAN: Yeah, it’s really a shame and a disaster politically that both sides of the aisle seem to be in agreement on the one thing that really could destroy us all. It just boggles the mind that this is a mindset that they’re in. There are very specific programs and facilities that we are fighting, along with groups around the nation. We’re trying to beat this plan back piece by piece, meanwhile, working on the international stage and working with people around the world to try to change the mindset and make real, lasting change.
In the meantime, the U.S. government is moving full force on doing what they call modernizing the nuclear arsenal and the production infrastructure, and we have to stop it. We simply have to stop it. One issue of course is the amount of money we’re going to spend and who we’re leaving behind while we’re spending that money on nuclear weapons, but the other thing is simply that these weapons are unacceptable. Under every single circumstance, these weapons are unacceptable. They can never be used, and we simply should not and cannot continue to develop them.
AARON MATE: I want to thank my guests, Ira Helfand, the cofounder of Physicians for Social Responsibility, and Rick Wayman, director of programs and operations at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. Thanks to you both.
RICK WAYMAN: Thank you, Aaron.
IRA HELFAND: Thank you very much.
AARON MATE: Thank you for joining us on the Real News.