Just last month, Japan commemorated the twin nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the height of World War Two. There was a belief that this massive carnage would lead to the elimination of nuclear weapons. In fact, there are more nuclear weapons today than ever before – around 12,500. And this is the official count of the five traditional nuclear powers – US, Russia, UK, France and China. India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea are known to possess nuclear weapons and several other countries are believed to be working on perfecting nuclear weapons despite scrutiny by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Countries possessing such weapons have well-funded, long-term plans to modernize their nuclear arsenals. More than half of the world’s population still lives in countries that either have such weapons or are members of nuclear alliances. While the number of deployed nuclear weapons has appreciably declined since the height of the Cold War, not one nuclear weapon has been physically destroyed pursuant to a treaty. In addition, no nuclear disarmament negotiations are currently underway.
It is in such a backdrop that the world will mark the International Day for the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons on Tuesday, September 26. This Day provides an occasion for the world community to reaffirm its commitment to global nuclear disarmament as a priority. It provides an opportunity to educate the public – and their leaders – about the real benefits of eliminating such weapons, and the social and economic costs of perpetuating them.
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) are the two mechanisms through which a measure of control is achieved on the spread of nuclear weapons. Sri Lanka has been a firm supporter of these global instruments.
Sri Lanka recently reaffirmed its unwavering commitment to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation by announcing its ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Sri Lanka’s ratification was officially made in July of the current year.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Sabry, PC, who participated in a press briefing in this regard at the UN revealed that Sri Lanka’s ratification of the CTBT aligns with the country’s long-standing and consistent policy on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.
Notably, Sri Lanka was among the first signatories of the CTBT in October 1996, mere days after the treaty was opened for signature. The nation was also the 13th to sign a facility agreement with the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) in 1996, leading to the establishment of an auxiliary seismic station in Pallekele, Kandy.
Frustration has been growing among Member States regarding what is perceived as the slow pace of nuclear disarmament. This frustration has been put into sharper focus with growing concerns about the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of the use of even a single nuclear weapon, let alone a regional or global nuclear war. But these fears have been heightened by the Ukraine War, where the warring parties have suggested that nuclear weapons could be deployed at some stage.
Forget the 12,500, even 200 high-powered nuclear weapons should be able to blow the entire planet to smithereens. It is now commonly believed that there will be no winners in a nuclear war, because nearly all of humankind could perish. Hence the tacit understanding among the nuclear-armed States that a nuclear war should never be fought in the first place.
“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones,” said Albert Einstein, implying that civilisation as we know it could come to an untimely end after a nuclear war. The late US President John F. Kennedy once warned that “every man, woman, and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment.”
Last President of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev, in an opinion piece wrote: “Critics present nuclear disarmament as unrealistic at best, a risky utopian dream at worst. They point to the Cold War’s “long peace” as proof that nuclear deterrence is the only means of staving off a major war. As someone who has commanded these weapons, I strongly disagree. Nuclear deterrence has always been a hard and brittle guarantor of peace. By failing to propose a compelling plan for nuclear disarmament, the US, Russia and the other nuclear powers are promoting a future in which nuclear weapons will inevitably be used. That catastrophe must be forestalled.”
But even with this knowledge, nuclear weapons are still being developed or tested. Moreover, some third party countries host nuclear weapons from the five declared nuclear powers. And it is not only nations who could have access to weapons – terrorist groups or even organised crime groups may get hold of and try to use chemical, biological and worse, nuclear weapons as depicted in many Hollywood movies. But it could happen in real life too and would be an unimaginable nightmare.
Since nuclear weapons testing began on July 16, 1945, over 2,000 tests have taken place. But less than a month later from this date, two nuclear bombs were detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, instantly vapourising the two cities and most of their residents. Above-ground nuclear testing continued till around 1960 in remote islands and atolls around the world, though it is only later that their impact on human populations and the marine ecosystems in the respective areas became apparent.
On December 2, 2009, the 64th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) declared August 29 the International Day against Nuclear Tests by unanimously adopting resolution 64/35. The resolution calls for increasing awareness and education “about the effects of nuclear weapon test explosions or any other nuclear explosions and the need for their cessation as one of the means of achieving the goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world.”
The Resolution was initiated by the Republic of Kazakhstan, together with a large number of sponsors and cosponsors to commemorate the closure of the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test site on August 29, 1991.
The year 2010 marked the inaugural commemoration of the International Day against Nuclear Tests. In each subsequent year, the day has been observed by coordinating various activities throughout the world, such as symposia, conferences, exhibits, competitions, publications, lectures, media broadcasts and other initiatives.
The international instrument to put an end to all forms of nuclear testing is the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). This is yet to enter into force completely.
Securing our Common Future”
As the UN Secretary-General recognized in his disarmament agenda “Securing our Common Future” launched on 24 May 2018, the norm against testing is an example of a measure that serves both disarmament and non-proliferation objectives. By constraining the development of advanced new types of nuclear weapons, the CTBT puts a brake on the arms race. It also serves as a powerful barrier against any States that might seek to develop, manufacture and subsequently acquire nuclear weapons in violation of their non-proliferation commitments.
All countries must make efforts to ensure the entry into force of the CTBT and to preserve its place in the international architecture. The UN Secretary-General has appealed to all remaining States whose ratifications are required for the CTBT to enter into force to commit to sign the Treaty at an early date and to accelerate the completion of their ratification processes.
While the general consensus within the international community is that nuclear weapons tests pose life-threatening risks, there still exists to some degree a lingering suspicion of the possibility of clandestine nuclear weapons testing. There is also a concern that if nuclear weapons cannot be tested their reliability may be in jeopardy. However, over the years, advances in science and technology have exponentially boosted the capacity to monitor and verify compliance mechanisms and nuclear weapons proliferation detection.
Nothing can play as crucial a role in avoiding a nuclear war or nuclear terrorist threat as the total elimination of nuclear weapons. Bringing an irreversible end to nuclear explosions – even those used for testing – will prevent the further development of nuclear weapons.
But nuclear power – in the other sense of the term – that of energy – can also sometimes prove to be dangerous. Three major incidents come to mind – Three Mile Island (USA, 1979), Chernobyl (Ukraine, 1986) and Fukushima (Japan, 2011). Some of these areas are still off-limits after all these years due to radiation fears. Concerns have been raised over the safety and fate of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine, one of the world’s largest.
However, one has to accept that there are peaceful and legitimate uses of nuclear power and all countries have the right to access such technology. But this should be done under tightly controlled conditions under IAEA supervision. Sri Lanka too has taken preliminary steps in this regard. In fact, Russia has agreed in principle to explore the possibility of building nuclear power plants here, possibly of the Small Modular Reactor (SMR) type. Several recent breakthroughs have also been reported with regard to Nuclear Fusion, the same process that powers the Sun. This is much less dangerous than Nuclear Fission, used in conventional reactors and even some submarines.
Another perspective on the weapons race is that if the superpowers and other powerful nations cut their defence spending even by a fraction, there will be enough funds to address most of the problems faced by developing nations. A weapon-free world, especially a nuclear weapon-free world, is thus an ideal ingredient for world peace and harmony.
In fact, the biggest reason for cutting down on nuclear and other weapons is the sheer expenditure on arms. The total world expenditure on major armaments in 2022 was estimated at US$ 2.2 trillion (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute). Just imagine what could be done to build a better world with these enormous resources now spent on defence. From schooling for all the world’s children to better drinking water for around one-third of the world’s population, nothing will be out of reach. That is the kind of race we can be proud of, not a race where everyone on the planet dies in the end, leaving a barren world devoid of life.