International Day for Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons highlights “deranged” nuclear policies and “irrational” nuclear spending

By Ray Acheson
28 September 2022

On 26 September 2022, the UN General Assembly marked the annual International Day for Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons with a high-level event, bringing officials from around the world together to critique the state of nuclear affairs. Only three nuclear-armed states participated—China, India, and Pakistan. Most members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), a self-described nuclear alliance, also kept their distance. Given that nuclear risks and rhetoric are at all-time high, the absence of those responsible for putting the world in peril speaks volumes about the genuineness of their alleged commitments to nuclear disarmament and international peace and security. The countries that did show up for disarmament were outspoken in their rejection of nuclear weapons and deterrence doctrine, and in their demand for all states to join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

Inherent insecurity of the bomb

“Nuclear weapons are the most destructive power ever created. They offer no security—just carnage and chaos,” said UN Secretary-General (UNSG) António Guterres in his remarks opening the event. This warning comes amidst renewed threats by the Russian government to use nuclear weapons in relation to its war in Ukraine. “Current geopolitical tensions have brought humankind to the brink of a nuclear mishap,” warned Trinidad and Tobago, while many other delegations cited heightened nuclear threats and rhetoric to be detrimental to international peace and security, and potentially to the survival of humanity.

While some political leaders and commentators have tried to normalise or diminish the impacts of the potential use of nuclear weapons in the context of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the reality is that the use of even a single nuclear weapon would have devasting immediate and long-term impacts. Furthermore, as the President of the General Assembly (PGA) noted in his opening remarks, “we all know that such a conflict would never stay at the tactical level.” The Organisation for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean (OPANAL) similarly argued that “tactical nuclear weapons” or “limited nuclear use” are absurd terms, as there is nothing tactical nor limited about the use of weapons of mass destruction. Any use risks a “spiral of escalation” that will endanger humanity itself, argued OPANAL—thus, the quest for security dominance by a few results in insecurity for all.

The UNSG called for the end to the “the era of nuclear blackmail.” He argued, “The idea that any country could fight and win a nuclear war is deranged. Any use of a nuclear weapon would incite a humanitarian Armageddon.” The vast majority of delegations participating in the event agreed. Almost all renounced the idea that nuclear weapons make anyone safer or the world more secure. “The doctrine of nuclear deterrence is a flawed approach to global peace and a major hindrance to our disarmament goals,” said Ghana, while the Philippines argued, “Nuclear deterrence is an obsolete security concept. Nuclear weapons do not promote security. They are instead a source of insecurity, posing humanitarian risks and existential threat to all mankind.” Lebanon noted that there seems to be a “belief that having nuclear weapons is a better deterrence than arms control agreements for state security.” But, it argued, nuclear weapons are not helping security. The deficit of trust and lack of communication undermines the nuclear-armed states’ rhetoric and is “putting the world on a dangerous path.”

Jamaica similarly highlighted the incongruity of the arguments that nuclear weapons both provide security and threaten mass destruction. “Objectively, it is clear that only the latter is true.” Colombia likewise articulated that the idea that nuclear weapons provide security is a disproven fallacy, while Costa Rica pointed out that the possession of nuclear weapons and threats to use them reduces incentives for nuclear disarmament and hinders the prevention of nuclear non-proliferation. “Clearly, the threat of the elimination of all of humanity is no stable foundation for international peace and security,” argued Austria, yet many states appear willing to just sit idly by and wait for a nuclear catastrophe.

Actions against disarmament

In this context, several delegations criticised the Russian delegation and the other nuclear-armed states for the failure to adopt an outcome document at the Tenth Review Conference of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in August 2022. But even while lamenting this failure, some delegations argued that the result would have been ineffective regardless of the outcome’s adoption. The adoption of the final draft “would have been a very disappointing result, in no way matching the urgency of the situation,” said Austria.

The key problem with the NPT remains the intransigence of all the nuclear-armed state parties, which have consistently refused to implement their nuclear disarmament obligations and commitments. They argue that the international security environment is not “ripe” for nuclear disarmament, which the Philippines and several other delegations rejected at the International Day event. Eliminating nuclear weapons “is neither optional nor conditional,” argued Palestine, and “the possession of nuclear weapons is neither a conferred legal right nor an entitlement.”

Venezuela urged the nuclear-armed states to overcome the mentality of the Cold War era and put an end to exceptionalist and supremacist notions that feed the politics of blocs and global confrontation, that increase differences, promote nuclear rearmament, and undermine the realisation of international peace and security. Trinidad and Tobago similarly noted that the rhetoric about the necessity and utility of nuclear weapons “inevitably provides fertile ground to justify a nuclear arms race and the modernization of such weapons.” It urged others to imagine “the benefits which would have been created had similar resources been directed to some of the crises facing our global community.”

Many other speakers lamented the colossal waste of resources on nuclear weapons. The PGA noted, “Investments in these weapons continue to increase, while too many people struggle to buy food, educate their children, and keep warm.” Several delegations condemned what Cuba described as “irrational spending to maintain and modernize nuclear weapons,” with Colombia arguing that this spending raises questions about the basic foundations of civilization.

Undeniable impacts

Furthermore, while billions are wasted on nuclear weapons now, very little money goes toward dealing with the impacts of the use and testing nuclear weapons of the past. “For over 60 years our people have terribly suffered from the trauma of nuclear testing on Kiritimati island and nothing has been done,” said Kiribati. “I watched and heard that the world bank was very swift in responding to Ukraine’s request by providing billions of dollars as cash grant or a form of debt. But what about our needs to address those who have suffered from nuclear weapons and testing?” Kiribati also expressed concern with the build-up and future use of “nuclear-powered war machines” in the Pacific region, arguing that it poses an ever-present risk of nuclear contamination.

Aotearoa New Zealand also spoke of the trauma of nuclear weapon use and testing, both on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and in the Pacific. The latter “still bears the scars of decades of nuclear testing,” it said, noting, “The tests dislocated communities and forced people from their lands and traditional ways, causing immense and inter-generational harm to human health and the environment.” Honduras, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and others highlighted the devasting effects that nuclear weapons have on humanity, biodiversity, and the environment, and many warned that a nuclear war could threaten the existence of all life on the planet.

As the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) explained, no state or international bodycould adequately address the immediate humanitarian emergency nor the long-term consequences of a nuclear weapon detonation. “Any use of nuclear weapons would be abhorrent to the principles of humanity and the dictates of public conscience…. Accepting nuclear weapons as an instrument of security is an indefensible, dangerous logic.”

Prohibiting nuclear weapons

The humanitarian and environmental impacts of nuclear weapons are part of the rationale behind the negotiation and adoption of the TPNW in 2017. The vast majority of delegations welcomed the TPNW’s entry into force in January 2021, as well as its First Meeting of States Parties in June 2022 and its adoption of a Declaration and Action Plan.

Among others, the African Group, the Arab Group, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), Algeria, Austria, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Chile, Costa Rica, Côte d’Ivoire, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Guyana, Holy See, Indonesia, Iraq, Ireland, Jamaica, Kazakhstan, Kiribati, Lebanon, Lesotho, Malaysia, Malta, Mexico, Mongolia, Morocco, Namibia, New Zealand, Nigeria, Palestine, Peru, Philippines, Qatar, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, Viet Nam, and Zimbabwe indicated their support for the Treaty and its contribution to nuclear disarmament. Most also called on all states—including the nuclear-armed states—to sign, ratify, or accede to the TPNW.

Belarus was the only delegation to speak against the TPNW’s importance or utility, arguing that it has not helped to achieve nuclear disarmament. Belarus recently changed its nuclear-free constitution in order to permit the potential stationing of Russian nuclear weapons on its territory. Other nuclear-armed states and some of their allies have made similar remarks about the TPNW in the past—comments that only serve to underscore their refusal to comply with their legal obligations to nuclear disarmament rather than providing any kind of meaningful critique of the TPNW itself.

In reality, as Peru noted, the TPNW provides the best framework for meeting this responsibility. While the NPT Review Conference saw the nuclear-armed states trying to prioritise their visions of power, Peru argued, the TPNW is about denuclearisation of all, for the benefit of all. This instrument will “end the long impasse in multilateral nuclear disarmament,” affirmed Sierra Leone, noting, “It is more important now than ever, that world leaders speak out against nuclear weapons, and work together to strengthen international legal norms against their development, retention, use and threat of use by any State.” Dialogue and diplomacy must prevail over stockpiles of nuclear weapons, said Nepal, so that mutually assured peace and prosperity can prevail over mutually assured destruction.