The UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will finally come into force after the 50th country (Honduras) ratified it over the weekend. The treaty will make the development, testing, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons illegal for those countries that have signed it.
This is an extraordinary achievement for those who have suffered the most from these weapons — including the hibakusha (survivors) of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the islanders who lived through nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific.
Since 1956, the hibakusha in Japan, South Korea, Brazil and elsewhere have been some of the most strident campaigners against the use of these weapons. Among them is a group of Japanese Catholics from Nagasaki whom I interviewed as part of my research collecting the oral histories of atomic bomb survivors.
A 92-year-old hibakusha of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki in 1945 and a brother in a Catholic order, Ozaki Tōmei, explained the significance of the treaty to survivors like him. He was orphaned from the bombing at 17 and never found his mother’s body.
The Germans made tools for war including poisonous gas, which was [eventually] banned […] However, when the USA made an atomic weapon, then they … wanted to try it out. It was a war […] they were human.
And so this is why we say we have to eliminate nuclear weapons […] They said they did it to end the war, but for the people who were struck, it was horrific […] there was no need to use it.
Treaty does not have support of nuclear powers
The treaty was adopted at the United Nations in 2017 by a vote of 122 nations in favour, one against and one abstention.
Sixty-nine nations, however, have not signed it, including all of the nuclear powers such as the US, UK, Russia, China, France, India, Pakistan and North Korea, as well as NATO member states (apart from the Netherlands who voted against), Japan and Australia.
Since the treaty was adopted, it needed ratification by 50 countries to come into force. This will now happen in 90 days.
The campaign for the treaty has relied heavily on civil society and organisations such as the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).
And from the beginning, it has exposed political fault lines. The United States has been particularly outspoken in its opposition to the treaty, warning last week the treaty “turns back the clock on verification and disarmament and is dangerous” to the 50-year-old Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).
The NPT sought to prevent the spread of nuclear arms beyond the five original weapons powers (the US, Russia, China, UK and France). It has been signed by 190 countries, including those five nations.
The head of ICAN, Beatrice Fihn, says the new treaty banning nuclear weapons merely builds on the nonproliferation treaty.
There’s no way you can undermine the nonproliferation treaty by banning nuclear weapons. It’s the end goal of the nonproliferation treaty.
States like Japan and Australia have opposed the treaty on the grounds their security is boosted by the US stockpile of nuclear weapons. Japan’s former prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has said the treaty
was created without taking into account the realities of security.
The efforts of hibakusha in advocating for a treaty
Making the bomb illegal turns an old US justification for the weapon on its head. Harry Stimson, the former US war secretary, argued in 1947 the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary to compel the Japanese to surrender at the end of the second world war.
The atomic bomb was more than a weapon of terrible destruction; it was a psychological weapon.
At the forefront of the campaign to support the nuclear weapons ban treaty have been the voices of hibakusha who experienced the carnage firsthand.
Another Catholic hibakusha, Nakamura Kazutoshi, told me the stockpiling of nuclear weapons enables states to carry out genocide.
In war, we are at a level below animals. Among monkeys, or chimpanzees, there are no animals who would carry out a genocide.
A third hibakusha, 90-year-old Jōji Fukahori, told me about how he lost his mother and three younger siblings in the Nagasaki bombing.
His younger brother, Kōji, died an excruciating death around a week after the bombing, walking in the hot ash with no shoes and complaining to his brother, “I’m so hot!”
At the site where Fukahori’s brother was exposed, the temperature was about 1,000 degrees Celsius. Fukahori said,
You would have thought everyone would have turned into charcoal.
For Fukahori, the lasting effects of radiation exposure is a major reason why nuclear weapons must be banned. He continued:
the terror of radiation has to be fully communicated … The atomic bomb is unacceptable. I still cannot get over it.
Since 2009, Fukahori has been speaking out at the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum and on the Peace Boat, a non-governmental organisation that organises cruises where passengers learn about the consequences of using nuclear weapons from hibakusha.
Pressure building on Japan
The Japanese government is now under mounting pressure to ratify the treaty. Major Japanese financial institutions and companies have said they will no longer fund the production of nuclear weapons and nearly a third of all local assemblies have adopted proposals calling on the government to act.
The government, however, has been unmoved. In August, Abe gave a speech at a memorial service in Nagasaki, in which he suggested the effects of the bombings had been overcome.
Seventy-five years ago today, Nagasaki was reduced to ashes, with not a single tree or blade of grass remaining. Yet through the efforts of its citizens, it achieved reconstruction beautifully as we see today. Mindful of this, we again feel strongly that there is no trial that cannot be overcome and feel acutely how precious peace is.
A Japanese atomic researcher, who knows how Fukahori and other hibakusha have not been able to move on, told me Abe’s words don’t go far enough:
Rather than placing a ‘full-stop’ at the end of damages such as this, we have a necessity to make our claim that the damages are not finished.
The nuclear weapons ban treaty offers a moment of hope for all the hibakusha of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still with us after 75 years. It is certainly their hope the ratification of the treaty now moves us one step closer to a world free of nuclear war.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has come in for its share of criticism for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. While some faults are the responsibility of the WHO, others were caused by member states, which did not always act as quickly as they should have.
In our opinion, the fundamental problem was that the WHO’s current information sharing, response and organisational structure to deal with infectious diseases that may spread across borders quickly and dangerously is out of date.
We argue the global population deserves a better model — one that delivers information about the risk of emergent infectious diseases faster and in a way that is transparent, verifiable and non-politicised.
Preparing for the next pandemic
COVID-19 is not the first pandemic, nor will it be the last. The WHO was also criticised after the 2014 Ebola epidemic.
Global responses to such threats have precedents dating back to 1851 and the development of stardardised quarantine regulations. The international initiatives that have since followed, punctuated by the formation of leading international bodies such as the WHO in 1946, represent incremental progress. The most recent iteration of work in this area is the International Health Regulations of 2005.
We suggest a new protocol should be added to the WHO. We have drafted a tentative discussion document, which is available upon request, based on the following six broad ideas.
1. The WHO remains the central decision-making body
We want to strengthen the collection and sharing of information related to infectious diseases, but we believe the WHO must remain the international entity that interprets the material, raises alerts for the global community and organises responses.
Despite retaining the centrality of the WHO, we suggest a new protocol to provide the basis for the independent collection, sharing and transfer of information between countries and with the WHO. Fundamentally, we want the early-warning science to be divorced from the policy responses.
2. Obligation to issue risk warning
A clear and binding legal principle needs to be explicitly written into international law: namely, that there is an obligation to pass on, as quickly as possible, information about a hazardous risk discovered in one country that could be dangerous to others.
The international community first saw this thinking in the 1986 Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident, developed after the Chernobyl incident. We believe the same thinking should be carried over to the early notification of infectious disease threats, as they are just as great.
3. Independence in science
We need legally binding rules for the collection and sharing of information related to infectious diseases. These rules must be detailed, but have the capacity to evolve. This principle is already developing, beginning with innovative solutions to problems like regional air pollution, which separates scientists from decision-makers and removes any potential for partisan advice.
The core of this idea needs to be adapted for infectious diseases and placed within its own self-contained protocol. Signatories can then continually refine the scientific needs, whereby scientists can update what information should be collected and shared, so decision-makers can react in good time, with the best and most independent information at their fingertips.
4. Objectivity and openness
We must articulate the principle that shared scientific information should be as comprehensive, objective, open and transparent as possible. We have borrowed this idea from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) but it needs to be supplemented by the particular requirement to tackle emergent infectious disease risks.
This may include clinical and genetic information and the sharing of biological samples to allow rapid laboratory, medical and public health developments. Incomplete information should not be a reason to delay and all information should be open source. It will also be important to add a principle from international environmental law of acting in a precautionary manner.
In the case of early notification about infectious diseases, we contend that even if there is a lack of scientific certainty over an issue, it is not a reason to hold back from sharing the information.
5. Deployment to other countries
We realise information sometimes needs to be verified independently and quickly. Our thinking here has been guided by the Chemical Weapons Convention and the use of challenge inspections. This mechanism, in times of urgency, allows inspectors to go anywhere at any time, without the right of refusal, to provide independent third-party verification.
In the case of infectious diseases, a solution might be that in times of urgency, if 75% of the members of the new protocol agree, specialist teams are deployed quickly to any country to examine all areas (except military spaces) from where further information is required. This information would then be quickly fed back into the mechanisms of the protocol.
6. Autonomy and independent funding
We suggest such a protocol must be self-governing and largely separate from the WHO, and it is essential it has its own budget and office.
This will increase the autonomy of the early-warning system and reduce the risks of being reliant on the WHO for funding (with all the vagaries that entails). If well designed, the protocol should provide a better way for state and non-state actors to contribute.
The goodwill and financial capacity of international philanthropy, transnational corporations and civil society will need to be mobilised to a much greater degree to fund the new protocol.
The authors worked with Sir Jim McLay, whose leadership contribution and input on the proposed protocol has been integral to the project.
As the General Assembly’s 75th session wraps up on Wednesday, it’s been a dramatic time at the United Nations.
Instead, due to COVID, we saw most leaders address the assembly by video link.
The session also opened with UN Secretary-General António Guterres warning, “today, we face our own 1945 moment”, speaking not just of COVID-19 but “the world of challenges to come”.
China vs US on the global stage
Guterres specifically spoke of his fear of a “great fracture” between the US and China. This was quickly on display as the US and Chinese leaders delivered contrasting speeches.
United States President Donald Trump used his address to blame China for coronavirus, calling it, “the nation which unleashed this plague onto the world”.
We should see each other as members of the same big family, pursue win-win cooperation, and rise above ideological disputes.
We have been here before
The good news is, the UN has weathered dramatic moments and challenges before.
Indeed, in the history of fiery UN speeches, Trump’s tirade — largely aimed at the US audience — wouldn’t rate that highly.
In 1960, USSR General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev called a Philippine delegate a “toady of American imperialism” and famously brandished (but did not bang) his shoe.
In 2006, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called then US President George W Bush “the devil” and complained of the smell of sulphur. There was also a mass walkout in 2011, during Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s attack on Western “slave masters and colonial powers”.
What does the UN actually do?
When considering the future of the UN, we also need to think about what it is there for.
The role of the UN is to provide a space for countries which often don’t agree to take limited collective action. The UN’s main bodies include the General Assembly, with a seat for each member country, and the smaller Security Council for responding to threats to peace and security.
Alongside these are a range of specialised agencies that do mostly non-controversial work. These include the International Civil Aviation Organization, World Meteorological Organization, UNICEF and the World Food Programme.
Countries approach the various parts of the UN differently. They use the bully pit of the General Assembly for rhetoric and bombast but cooperate in the Security Council, where it’s in their interests. For the most part, they let specialised agencies get on with their practical work.
During the Cold War, debate in the General Assembly was heated and the Security Council could not act due to the Soviet and US veto. But the UN survived.
As many, including former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright have noted, “if [the UN] didn’t exist, we would invent it”.
Expectations are key
The key to understanding the UN is having realistic expectations. At the height of the Cold War, then UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld famously said,
[The UN] was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell.
What the UN can do, even when key members are at loggerheads, is keep the basics of international cooperation going. It has shown great resilience, even during the height of the Cold War, progressing important issues such as decolonisation, arms control, peacekeeping, racial discrimination and the rights of the child.
At other times, they don’t. For example, COVID-19 has seen individual national responses more than coordinated action. But the continuing existence of mechanisms for information-sharing, like the World Health Organization, remains important.
What happens next?
What are we likely to see at the UN from now on?
We can safely assume there will be more combative rhetoric. The US and China didn’t have brilliant relations before this meeting and it is likely things will continue to deteriorate.
International organisations will be one of the many battlegrounds for China-US competition, where they will take different approaches.
Trump’s speech last week exemplifies the US turn away from multilateralism. During his administration, the US has withdrawn from the UN Human Rights Council, World Health Organization, the Paris Agreement on climate change and UNESCO (for the second time). If Joe Biden wins the presidential election in November, this may moderate the US approach, but American exceptionalism runs deep.
In contrast, China doesn’t question the legitimacy of the UN as the peak universal institution. Its approach is to redefine the UN’s conception of world order to its liking and to push for more influence within it.
Neither strategy is necessarily welcomed by other members. As International Crisis Group’s UN director Richard Gowan observes,
a lot of the UN’s members think the US is destructive and China is power-hungry. They don’t find either very appealing.
The UN’s job is to keep China and the US talking
In Guterres’ address this week, he warned the world cannot afford a future where “the two largest economies split the globe in a great fracture” — each with their own trade, financial rules, internet and artificial intelligence capacities.
Make no mistake, the conflict between China and the US is a significant challenge for the UN. But it has 75 years’ of experience to handle it.
It now has to work to keep two contending great powers engaged in the international system, while progressing its mission to promote peace, dignity and equality on a healthy planet — at least as much as its members allow.
Maybe it’s always a 1945 moment.