Looking below and beyond the mushroom cloud

5 November 2020 – Mukesh Kapila

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

A frisson of pride went down my youthful spine in 1974 when India conducted its first nuclear detonation. My grandfather’s walking stick – a deadly instrument familiar to naughty children – had an extra swagger as he went to the bazaar to fetch our favourite sweet rasgoolas – to share with neighbours as congratulations rang from rooftop to rooftop. 

“Why should India not have nuclear weapons, if America did?” reasoned my patriotic friends.  Are we not the world’s biggest democracy?  Besides, China had them as would  Pakistan, sooner or later. Our childhood had already been punctuated by wars with them. I had mixed feelings: a poor nation could not be blamed for wanting to boost its pride but, in the land of Gandhi, annihilating others was not a Mahatma-like thought.

More than two decades  later, a nuclear shadow hung over my trip to North Korea when, as a UK government official by then, I led an EU humanitarian mission. Ostensibly a trip to consider lifesaving assistance after reports of starvation, the underlying politics were about pushing back against US manipulation of the World Food Programme to turn the food aid tap on-and-off as leverage over DPRK’s nuclear ambitions.  

Earlier, I had been to Tehran to examine the burnt and blinded victims of Saddam’s chemical weapons during the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s.  “You can see why we need nuclear weapons,” said my Foreign Ministry minder. “We have to protect ourselves. We are a great ancient civilisation”. Sensing my unspoken retort that Iran’s despotic rulers could not be trusted, he reminded me that it was the democratic US that had first used the atomic bomb.  

I saw the consequences of that on a subsequent visit to Hiroshima during a chapter of my United Nations career.  A senior Japanese colleague was my personal guide. He was a hibakusha. Just three years old in 1945, he remembered  little except for the searing brightness of the bomb burst.  But he got thyroid disease – a complication of high-dose radiation. He was part of a long-term study of survivors, many of whom had already died from cancers.

“People only think of the mushroom cloud. But forget what was underneath…”, he said, leading me gently around the museum. Hundreds of photos captured the maimed bodies and devastated landscape. The incinerated remains of someone’s lunch, the twisted frame of a child’s tricycle, a watch stopped at 0816, a charred shirt blown off a back – the artefacts of ordinary lives bore mute testimony to the “banality of evil”, recalling  Hannah Arendt’s words in another context of mass slaughter, but equally applicable here.  

“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” was quoted from the Hindu scripture, Bhagavad-Gita, by Robert Oppenheimer, the atomic bomb’s father, on witnessing the first thermonuclear test in New Mexico.  Visiting ground zero in Hiroshima is a similar spiritual experience for anyone with or without faith.  It should be on the itinerary of modern pilgrims, on par with the holy places of any religion.

Understandably, the good citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have become the high priests for a nuclear-free world. They have an ingenious way to preserve the legacy of the fast-expiring A-bomb survivors. Young volunteer denshosha  twin with  hibakusha to ‘inherit’ their personal memories and emotions- to transmit to a new generation. Listening to them is like having been present at time zero.  Visiting the holy site of Hiroshima certainly converted me to the nuclear-weapon-free cause.

Earlier, in London,  my portfolio covering global humanitarian, conflict, and security issues at what is now the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office had indoctrinated me into believing that nuclear weapons were God’s gift to quarrelsome mankind. This doctrine held that the nuclear deterrent had kept world peace during the Cold War.  However, the more one examined this claim, the more nonsensical it appeared.

For starters, I learnt from my extensive travels doling out humanitarian aid to the world’s poorest countries that there was no world peace. Numerous countries in all continents were engulfed by internal conflicts fed by external interference. The superpowers had checkmated themselves in terms of the nuclear option but progressed their rivalry – at  low cost and even profitably, thanks to arms sales – through proxy wars that inflicted incalculable misery on millions.   

Meanwhile, it was clear from international security dialogue that no sane policy maker – even in authoritarian states – really thought that nuclear weapons could be ever used.  So, why keep them? National pride was one thing as I understood from India and Iran, and attention-seeking was another, as I learnt in North Korea.  And then fear of their neighbours  understandably drove Pakistan and Israel to join the nuclear race.   As to the original nuclear powers (US, UK, France, China, and Soviet Union’s successor Russia), how else to justify permanent membership of the UN Security Council in the face of mounting criticism of this body’s legitimacy?

Paradoxically, as the wider world became more peaceful through colonial and Cold War legacies fading away, helped by development and democratisation (despite setbacks here and there), the world’s nuclear arsenal of an estimated 14 – 28,000 weapons posed increasing threat.  There have been at least 22 (and probably more) ‘narrow misses’ with accidental weapon activations.  As we also know from civilian nuclear accidents in Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima, no mechanism can guarantee absolute safety. Such concerns are even greater in the current age of cyber warfare.  Furthermore, advances with miniaturisation and portability pose further risks if tactical-level nuclear weapons get into the wrong or terrorist hands.

In short, with no use for nuclear weapons and increasing accidental risks from possession, why not get rid of them?  The original nuclear powers have tried to restrict the spread of offensive nuclear technology. This started with the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1996. But mutual suspicions mean that the treaty is still not in force 25 years later as key nuclear actors have not signed or ratified. This is understandable: why should a nation renounce its right to nuclear testing – even if it has no serious intent to conduct such tests – just in case its enemy becomes nuclear-dominant in the future? 

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was an improvement supported by nearly all countries, and became effective in 1970. Its popularity came from its three-pillar structure which balanced stopping weapon spread and moving towards total nuclear disarmament with the right to access peaceful uses of nuclear technology.  But arguments continue as the recognised nuclear powers are blamed for bad faith over disarmament. In any case, the nuclear genie has left the bottle: there is little to stop non-nuclear states using permitted nuclear reactors to produce weapons even as they play cat-and-mouse with international verification arrangements. Also, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea remain non-parties.  The principal argument of many states is that the NPT is unfair: “a conspiracy of the nuclear haves to keep the nuclear have-nots in their place”.

An unequal world where some are allowed to retain offensive nuclear capabilities while others can’t acquire them,  is bound to be inherently unstable. My long-deceased grandfather knew this by instinct and this is ever more true in our century where geopolitics have already been turned upside down  by countries refusing to accept inferior status, and where there is worse to come from added stresses such as pandemics and climate change.  

That is why we should cheer the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty which has just passed the milestone of 50 state ratifications to come into effect on 22 January 2021. This is a comprehensive prohibition on all aspects of nuclear weaponry for the whole world. Although the nuclear weapon states and other countries hosting nuclear weapons have not signed, and some such as the US have even bullied small countries not to do so, the new treaty is a binding universal legal instrument to advance the verified and irreversible elimination of all nuclear weapons. 

There is, of course, some way to go before there is universal adherence to the treaty but the global mood has decisively shifted in a way that was not achieved by previous nuclear  treaties. Even if a non-ratifying state is bad or mad to use a nuclear weapon, they are much more vulnerable to having a charge of crimes against humanity (a universal jurisdiction crime) being upheld against them. The norms of humanity have indeed shifted compared to 1945 when the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki could occur with impunity. 

The Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty owes much inspiration to the 1997 Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, in the adoption of which I was privileged to play a small role. That Convention has also been ratified by only 50 states to date and key countries such as US, Russia, and China are not signed-up. But it has had profound moral impact that has also fundamentally changed military doctrine in terms of reliance on landmines to provide security or conduct warfare.  Around 50 million stockpiled landmines have already been destroyed although usage is still prevalent in places such as Myanmar, Syria, and Libya, and many innocents still die from historically-placed landmines.  But, at least, the end of landmines is a real prospect.

That is also very possible for nuclear weapons and the new treaty to ban them is a fitting way to commemorate the  75th anniversary of the atomic bombings. And what else could be a better 75th birthday present for the United Nations – imperfect as it is – but still a better umbrella for humanity’s hopes for a secure world, than the mushroom cloud that smothered Hiroshima and Nagasaki?    

Published by Mukesh Kapila

See http://mukeshkapila.org

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