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The bad and the good at crunch time for humanity

November 11, 2021
Members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board, Robert Rosner and Suzet McKinney, reveal the 2021 setting of the Doomsday Clock: It is still 100 seconds to midnight. (Photo: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists / Thomas Gaulkin)

“The international security situation is now more dangerous than it has ever been, even at the height of the Cold War” stated the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in setting the Doomsday Clock in 2020 at 100 seconds to midnight, further forward than it has ever been before.  This year, the clock remains at 100 seconds to midnight. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ Our Common Agenda report to the UN General Assembly in September makes clear: “humanity faces a stark and urgent choice: a breakdown or a breakthrough. …  The choice is ours to make; but we will not have this chance again.”

The goal of this year’s COP26 UN climate change conference is clear: “The world needs to halve emissions over the next decade and reach net zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century if we are to limit global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees.” Yet the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions is still upward. The COVID-19 pandemic, of moderate severity by historical standards, has caused about 5 million recorded deaths to date and exposed deep faultlines of inequity in vaccine access, which by mid-2021 saw only 3% of people in Africa having received any dose of a vaccine. Associated with the pandemic, in 2020 an estimated 124 million people were pushed into extreme poverty, and the number of people worldwide who did not have access to adequate food increased by 320 million to 2.37 billion, almost one in three people in the world. Early estimates suggest a possible increase of up to 45% in child mortality because of health service shortfalls and reduced access to food.

In an increasingly climate stressed world, since 2010, the number of non-state armed conflicts has increased more than fourfold, as has and the number of armed conflicts involving nations outside the area of conflict – many nuclear-armed – with attendant risks of nuclear escalation. If ever there was a time for nations to collaborate to address the urgent complex global challenges that require cooperative solutions, that time is now.

Yet in relation to the most acute existential threat humanity and the biosphere face, from nuclear weapons, our current predicament is not only dire but being made worse. Nuclear weapons modernisation continues apace in nuclear armed states, with conservatively estimated expenditures of US$72.6 billion in 2020, an increase of $1.4 billion during the pandemic. Destabilising development and deployment of faster, stealthier, more accurate and low yield nuclear weapons accompany explicit nuclear threats as new arms races pitching the US and its allies against Russia and China escalate, repeating many of the mistakes and exacerbating many of the dangers of the first Cold War. The number of operational nuclear weapons worldwide and the number of weapons on high alert are again rising. Tensions continue to simmer and frequently boil over along India and Pakistan’s disputed border in Kashmir that saw the spectre of a fifth outright war erupt two years ago, with great danger of nuclear escalation between the two nations with the world’s fastest growing nuclear arsenals and policies for their early use in a war. Cyber warfare now offensively prosecuted by multiple states, and non-state actors, puts nuclear command and control systems at risk.

The incoming Biden administration thankfully agreed with Russia in early February to extend the New START treaty for another five years, just two days before it would otherwise have expired and with it the last remaining treaty constraint on US and Russian nuclear weapons. Thankfully also, talks on nuclear weapons between senior Russian and US officials have survived the first few rounds, but with no discernible positive outcomes yet in prospect.  The Biden administration’s first military budget request at US$753 billion includes an unconscionable increase and continuation of funding for new nuclear weapons initiated by the previous administration. The recently announced plan by the US, UK and Australian governments to partner in the procurement of nuclear-powered submarines for Australia, expected to be powered by directly weapons-usable highly enriched uranium, represents an expansion of nuclear health and environmental hazards, would exacerbate an arms race and the risk of armed conflict with nuclear escalation in Northeast Asia, sets a precedent likely to be followed by others, and undermines the global nuclear non-proliferation regime.

The US Nuclear Posture Review currently underway provides an important opportunity for the Biden administration to change course and set a new direction, reducing the role of nuclear weapons in security policy, reducing the risks of nuclear war, and mapping a path through negotiating with other nuclear-armed states to verifiably fulfil the obligations of all states to negotiate and achieve nuclear disarmament, enshrined in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) more than half a century ago. Like the COP26 meeting which precedes it, the repeatedly postponed review conference of the NPT scheduled for January 2022 provides a key opportunity to set a different course to enhance and protect human health and security that is based  firmly in the incontrovertible evidence that any use of nuclear weapons would have catastrophic consequences for which no effective response is possible, risk rapid nuclear escalation, could result in no winners, and would be without legitimate military justification.

This darkening landscape makes all the more vital the bright light of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which entered into legal force on 22 Jan 2021. The next major step in its implementation is the first meeting of States parties (MSP1), to be held in Vienna 22 – 24 March 2022. The UN Secretary-General, the depositary of the treaty,  as well as the Austrian government hosting the meeting, have invited all governments to join.  The Secretary General recently called “on all states to recognise the nuclear ban treaty’s goals and recognise its place in the global disarmament architecture”. The fact that the TPNW is now international law and here to stay was recognised by US Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, recently indicating that the US is no longer “telling countries that they shouldn’t sign” the treaty. Newly installed Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who hails from Hiroshima, said on 4 October: “I believe that the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is a very important treaty for a world without nuclear weapons.” Governments which have not yet joined the treaty but signalled their intention to join MSP1 as observers include Finland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the Marshall Islands. The treaty currently has 86 signatories and 56 ratifications, with an additional number expected to ratify before MSP1.

The Austrian government initiated consultations with other treaty-supporting states, experts and civil society in April this year, and are keen for an inclusive gathering broadly involving civil society organisations, experts, survivors of nuclear weapons use and testing, and for updated evidence on the health and humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons and the dangers of their use—the rationale for the TPNW—to feature prominently. The president designate of the meeting is Alexander Kmentt, Director for Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-proliferation for the Austrian government. Mr Kmentt was the chief architect of the third intergovernmental Conference on the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons in Vienna in December 2014 and of the Humanitarian Pledge launched at this conference, a key initiative in the genesis of the TPNW. The meeting could hardly be in better hands.

At MSP1, IPPNW is looking to continue its fertile collaboration with international health partners, the International Council of Nurses, International Federation of Medical Student Associations, World Federation of Public Health Associations and World Medical Association, as well as the international Red Cross Red Crescent movement through the International Committee of the Red Cross.  We plan both a joint statement and an authoritative update on the health and humanitarian dimensions of nuclear weapons dangers to inform and motivate government delegations with the extreme urgency of effective action to reduce the risk of nuclear war.

In May, IPPNW formulated recommendations for MSP1 which were welcomed by its organisers. These include:

  • Further development of the productive collaboration between governments, international organisations, people affected by nuclear use and testing, civil society organisations and experts developed during the Humanitarian Initiative which gave rise to the TPNW.
  • Inclusion of people affected by nuclear weapons use and testing in all TPNW meetings.
  • Live-streaming and recording TPNW meetings including MSP1 to enhance global engagement with the TPNW, accountability and transparency.
  • Bringing to the attention of participating states at each TPNW meeting, new evidence and developments on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons and the risks of their use.
  • Setting up bodies and processes that can continue the work of treaty implementation and promotion between meetings, in synergy with the UN Secretary-General, and the UN Offices of Disarmament Affairs and Legal Affairs. These processes could usefully include an intersessional work program, working groups in different areas, preparatory and intersessional meetings.
  • Establishing on-going or defined-term expert advisory bodies addressing key topics such as new evidence on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons and the risks of their use;  the competent international authority required under the treaty to negotiate and verify the irreversible elimination of nuclear weapons programs; technical advice on the implementation of Article 6 obligations on victim assistance and environmental remediation; legal and technical support to states parties to assist the development of strong national implementation measures and promote and share good practice.
  • Consider how the TPNW might be utilised to progress the implementation of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation measures which are languishing, such as strongly encouraging all States Parties and signatories to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and for those which have not yet done so, to conclude and bring into force an Additional Protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
  • MSP1 should strongly encourage all States Parties and signatories to advance the control and elimination of fissile materials by ceasing any production of highly-enriched uranium, ending any reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel to extract plutonium, and eliminating or submitting to secure international custody any stockpiles of separated plutonium.
  • States Parties promoting divestment from companies building nuclear weapons, including in their domestic implementing legislation.
  • Encouraging States Parties and signatories to widely share and promote why they believe joining the TPNW enhances the security of their people and country, how it is complementary and synergistic with other nuclear-related treaties they have joined, such as the NPT, and any additional steps they have taken/are taking to implement their treaty commitments in national law, policy and practice.
  • Urging all states that have not supported or joined the TPNW yet to participate in MSP1 and subsequent TPNW meetings as observers, and engage constructively with the treaty and the evidence and concerns that underpin it.

Dr. Ruff is IPPNW Co-President and led IPPNW’s delegation to the negotiations on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

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