2020 International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons

By Ray Acheson
5 October 2020

On 2 October, the UN General Assembly convened a high-level meeting to commemorate the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, an annual observance that takes place each year on 26 September. Due to COVID-19-related restrictions, most remarks were made virtually through pre-recorded video statements. Due to time constraints not all of the messages were aired.

The pandemic of nuclear weapons

With the COVID-19 pandemic as a backdrop to this year’s event, several governments highlighted relevant lessons to be learned—including that transnational solidarity and investments in care, rather than in harm, are necessary pre-requisites for any hope for our survival. “COVID-19 should be a reminder that protecting humankind can’t happen through nuclear weapons but through global solidarity,” noted Indonesia.

Among others, Bangladesh, Austria, Côte d’Ivoire, Cuba, Ecuador, Iran, Ireland, Jamaica, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, Mexico, Mozambique, Nicaragua, and Panama highlighted the relationship between the global pandemic and the global conflagration that would accompany nuclear war and critiqued the ways in which nuclear-armed states are investing in mass destruction instead of working to prevent this human-made disaster-in-waiting. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) warned that just as it was difficult to prevent COVID-19 from entering our counties, the same will be the case with a nuclear explosion. “No one is safe if the world isn’t safe,” the DRC said, while Nepal noted that no vaccine will save us from a nuclear catastrophe.

The vanity of the bomb

Almost every country speaking at the event condemned the possession of nuclear weapons, seeing them, as Costa Rica eloquently described, as “contrary to the survival instinct of our species.” In a nuclear war, Equatorial Guinea noted, there are no winners—all of humanity will lose. The theory of nuclear deterrence is a fallacy, one that gives a false sense of security and superiority to the nuclear-armed armed. “Let’s finally lay this myth to rest,” urged Austria, pointing out that nuclear deterrence does not increase security but instead perpetuates a constant threat to peace and security. Congo underscored the irrationality of developing nuclear arsenals “just to satisfy the irrepressible ego and vanity of the all-powerful,” while the Philippines described the current nuclear order as “madness personified,” pointing out that nuclear annihilation will be entirely our fault, like leaving a loaded revolver in a child’s room.

Speaker after speaker demanded the nuclear-armed states fulfil their nuclear disarmament obligations and commitments, calling for urgent action to prevent the catastrophe that can happen in an instant. The world is conflict weary, said Seychelles, exclaiming that we do not need another threat, yet nuclear weapons can destroy everything in a moment: “our presence erased, our right to existence—and that of future generations—denied. Nuclear weapons threaten everyone we love and value.” Many Pacific Island representatives spoke about the impacts their populations have suffered from years of relentless nuclear bombing—some of which, as the Marshall Islands pointed out, were even sanctioned by the United Nations under UN trusteeship resolutions.

Even without being detonated, nuclear weapons are catastrophic. The resources invested in nuclear weapons take away from not just mitigating the impacts of the current pandemic, but also of the climate crisis, poverty, and conflicts that ravage our world. Quoting from recent statistics calculated by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, Costa Rica noted that every minute a total of $138,699 dollars is spent on the production and modernisation of nuclear weapons. “In a world of finite resources, these numbers are immoral and unacceptable.” Several others urged the nuclear-armed states to redirect this money toward social and environmental goods, and to redirect away from violent competition towards peaceful cooperation.

“The world doesn’t need nuclear weapons,” pointed out the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS). “It needs a strengthened multilateral system.” Many speakers expressed concern with rising tensions among the nuclear-armed and their active dismantling of nuclear arms control agreements. This path, several argued, is inconsistent with any credible claims to being responsible states. As Antigua and Barbuda noted, it is disingenuous to promote multilateralism and international peace and security while concurrently stockpiling tools of mass destruction.

Prohibition to elimination

This is why the vast majority of states participating in the commemorative event welcomed the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Among others, the President of the General Assembly, African Group, Arab Group, Colombia, Comoros, Equatorial Guinea, Kazakhstan, Mauritania, Mauritius, Nepal, Peru, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and South Africa highlighted the importance of the TPNW, with some explaining how it complements other international law on nuclear weapons. Bangladesh, Bolivia, Botswana, Ghana, Ireland, Kiribati, Lesotho, Malaysia, Malta, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay, and Viet Nam highlighted that they have signed and ratified this Treaty, while the African Group, Antigua and Barbuda, Austria, Costa Rica, Cuba, DRC, Ecuador, Ghana, Maldives, Namibia, Nicaragua, Palau, PSIDS, Thailand, and Trinidad and Tobago urged all states to join it. Algeria, Cambodia, Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica, Liechtenstein, and Timor Leste all announced that they are currently in the process of securing ratification of the TPNW.

As Liechtenstein said, elimination of nuclear weapons isn’t a policy choice, it's a moral necessity. The TPNW is an essential part of achieving a nuclear weapon free world—and the creation of that world is essential to our survival. The pandemic has been described as a portal, through which we can create a new world; several governments picked up on that theme at the commemoration. Mexico, for example, said that it wants to help create a different world after the pandemic, not revert to the world we had a year ago. “Prohibiting and eradicating nuclear weapons” must be part of this new world, it said, while Jamaica agreed that nuclear weapons have no role in the future we need.

It feels, increasingly, like the world is crumbling around us. Like what we have built is falling down—not from natural erosion but because of deliberate, violent chipping away at the structures of peace, solidarity, and diplomacy that most of the world has worked painstakingly to create over decades. But those holding the axes are in the minority. We must remember this. They may appear imposing, they may be the most violent, have the most money, the most weapons, and be the most frightful. But the majority of us—with compassion, care, and credibility—can stand together and build something new.