It was not long ago when supporters of nuclear weapons confidently claimed that, while the destruction they could cause would be catastrophic, their possession was actually preserving peace on Earth. It was an argument based on deterrence and the belief that no rational leadership would ever sanction their use knowing that it would inevitably unleash unimaginable devastation on their own countries and the world.
It was always a morally questionable argument. It left out, for example, the possibility of their use being triggered accidentally or by misjudgement. We now know that our world came perilously close on occasions in the past to nuclear war precisely for these reasons.
Nor, of course, was it an argument which had much resonance in a country like Kazakhstan. As a country which was the reluctant setting for nearly 500 nuclear weapon tests in the second half of the 20th Century, we have seen for ourselves the horrific and lasting impact of nuclear explosions on the health of our citizens and our environment. It was why we had no hesitation, when we had the power, to shut the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site and to renounce the nuclear weapons we inherited from the Soviet Union.
But whatever the balance of arguments in the past, the emergence of a new threat has made the case against nuclear weapons undeniable. The question we now repeatedly hear is how to prevent nuclear weapons falling into the hands of the new breed of terrorists and extremists who pose such a danger to global safety and security.
We already know from bitter experience how these groups glory in mass destruction and death. For them and their perverted supporters, the slaughter and long-term economic and environmental damage that the detonation of a nuclear device would cause would be a cause for jubilation not regret. Even more worrying is the evidence that these violent extremists are actively seeking weapons of mass destruction. We have, in fact, been lucky that their ambitions have up to now been thwarted.
It is why it is absolutely critical that strengthening nuclear security so that these weapons do not fall into the hands of terrorists has been made such a priority by the international community. While there is a long way to go, significant progress has been made in recent years.
But in the end, it is nuclear disarmament which is the only rational solution to this threat and is in the interests of all countries. It must be, as Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev said in his Manifest “The World. The 21st Century”, the cause of our time.
It is against this background that President Barack Obama’s visit to Hiroshima in May – the first by a serving U.S. President since the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945 – is so important. During a visit steeped in emotion, the President spoke eloquently about the dangers to humanity of nuclear weapons. There is a “shared responsibility” to look into the “eye of history” and ask what must be done to prevent another nuclear weapon from being used, he said.
As we could not eliminate man’s capacity to do evil, nations had a duty to defend their citizens, he added. But he went on to challenge countries, including his own, which hold nuclear stockpiles to show “the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them. We may not realise this goal in my lifetime, but persistent effort can roll back the possibility of catastrophe,” he said.
His visit and his words will strengthen international efforts towards nuclear disarmament. There is now a growing recognition that in an era where the main threat to peace is from violent extremism, a doctrine based on a balance of terror or the threat of retaliation can’t guarantee security.
President Obama is right, as well, that nuclear disarmament will not be achieved overnight but in a series of small but important steps. One such milestone would be the universal signing, ratification and the entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).
Twenty years after the Treaty was open for signature, this has still not happened. While it has been signed by 183 countries and ratified by 164 countries, the Treaty has not still entered into force. Its future depends on actions by eight specific countries with nuclear weapons or nuclear capabilities, listed in the so-called Annex 2 to the Treaty. India, Pakistan and North Korea have still to sign the CTBT. China, Egypt, Iran, Israel and the United States have yet to ratify it. Each country which takes that step puts more pressure on the others to follow and brings the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons closer.
As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon put it earlier this year, “The eight countries that must ratify for entry-into-force have a special responsibility. They can advance us on the road to a nuclear-weapon-free world.”
Progress toward universal ratification and signing in this 20th anniversary year is the aim of current CTBT co-chairs, Kazakhstan and Japan, and a special high level event dedicated to this anniversary is rightly being planned by the CTBT Organisation Preparatory Commission in Vienna on June 13.
Another important initiative would be to see the current regional nuclear weapon-free zones extended and new ones created. They can provide the building blocks towards the ultimate goal of global nuclear disarmament.
The leadership of countries such as Japan and Kazakhstan, which have suffered so much from nuclear weapons, is vital for this ambition. But so too is the pressure for action on governments from their citizens.
The ATOM (Abolish Testing. Our Mission) Project, whose goal is to share the tragic and continuing legacy of nuclear weapon testing with the global community, is one vehicle to harness global public opinion for a new urgency to see the CTBT in operation. Time and time again in history we have seen the impact of popular pressure in improving our world.
President Obama deserves credit both for his visit to Hiroshima and for his appeal to step up global efforts to lift the shadow of nuclear weapons from our world. As President Nazarbayev said, it is rightly the cause of our time.