Nukes Are Illegal, Now What?

Wednesday, January 27th, 2021

By Robert C. Koehler

Let’s not forget: We are standing at the edge of global change. I believe what’s visible in this fleeting moment is our own evolution.

Let’s not let this moment flicker and die, to be replaced, with a despairing shrug, by business as usual. Donald Trump shattered the centrist political norms, sent chaos rippling through the corridors of power. Now he’s gone. We have to look through the cracks — these cracks in American exceptionalism — and see what’s possible. We have to make sure Joe Biden sees it as well.

And what’s possible is geopolitics beyond borders. What’s possible is addressing the truly profound threats that the planet — and the future — face, among them climate change and, with even more immediacy, nuclear war. The necessity for total nuclear disarmament — including American disarmament, for God’s sake — is more urgent than ever. This is bigger, by far, than reinstating the Iran nuclear agreement, necessary as that is. We must move beyond the world’s fragile pseudo-peace maintained by the threat of Armageddon. The time to move beyond this insanity is now.

Consider this tidbit of logic: Since nuclear war would respect no borders — its outbreak would inflict hell on every occupant of Planet Earth — why should their use and, indeed, their existence, be at the whim of the nine national leaders whose nations possess nuclear weapons?

Because that’s the way it is?

Those who would say yes to this, ending the discussion with a sigh and telling me to shut up and move on, would have to admit that humanity’s singular value, its singular source of empowerment, is utter and total selfishness — these nukes are ours! — no matter the potential harm and insanity such selfishness could wreak.

I fear this is the belief of the world’s nuclear powers and their allies, who have boycotted, mocked, dismissed and ignored the global movement to create a nuclear-free world, most significantly in the last three years by the creation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which was approved by the United Nations General Assembly in 2017 by a vote of 122-1. The nuclear nine — the United States, Russia, China, the U.K., France, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea — along with their allies, including all NATO members, boycotted the vote.

The arduous journey of this treaty, which flat-out bans the use, development and possession of nuclear weapons, required that 50 signatory nations officially ratify it before it could become international law. That finally happened last October, when Honduras became the fiftieth country to do so. And then ninety days had to pass, which occurred on Jan. 22. Nuclear weapons are now . . . ahem . . . illegal.

What could that possibly mean?

Before I address this question, I must make this crucial point. By totally snubbing the debate and vote on this crucial treaty, the world’s nuclear-armed nations — “the developed” world, as they self-proclaim — demonstrated that the opposite is the case: The nuclear-armed nations of Planet Earth are the ones who are lost and spiritually underdeveloped.

Compare their contempt for true global security — and their desperate clutching of the power they think they possess but hardly understand — to the actions of South Africa, a treaty signatory and the only country on the planet that once possessed, with full control, its own stockpile of nuclear weapons, and voluntarily gave them up. It did so after it transitioned beyond apartheid to a country of racial equality. The link between the two actions is impossible not to notice. This is called growing up.

And even though nuclear weapons are now illegal, the terms of the treaty apply only to the countries that have signed and ratified it. Nuclear-armed nations get to go on possessing their ability to inflict Armageddon on themselves and everyone else. They get to remain impervious to the insanity of this and regard their values and their will as moral, but they will also unavoidably begin noticing that a moral isolation is enveloping them, both geopolitically and internally.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is “a potential breaking point for nuclear weapons,” according to Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, known as ICAN, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017. The treaty has “mobilized a new movement against these weapons.”

She goes on to point out, in an interview with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, that nukes simply aren’t the “invisible” entities they once were. The global anti-nuclear movement is taking a number of different forms, including financial divestment, as banks and other institutions are starting to react to the uneasiness of their consciences and stop funding military-industrialism.

She adds: “We’ve been working on the local cities initiative as well. . . . Cities are taking sort of international action and seeing themselves as almost actors on an international stage. We have over 400 cities around the world now, including I think something like 30 cities with over a million people, that have joined this call to action and that are supporting the treaty and calling on their national governments to join.”

The declaration that nukes are illegal is a form of global consciousness shift. Everyone has a life-or-death stake in nuclear disarmament, and this awareness is growing. All of which makes me certain that change is possible. It begins with awareness, not simply that nukes are dangerous, that Armageddon is illegal, but that cynicism is just a form of helplessness and everyone is a global player. Then comes political traction.