In the morning of August 6, 1945, the world witnessed the devastating impact of nuclear weapons for the very first time, when a U.S. plane dropped the atomic bomb “Little Boy” on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.
Around 140,000 people died as a consequence of the bombing—both in the immediate aftermath and because of the long-term effects of radiation—and another 74,000 were killed when another U.S. plane bombed the city of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.
A rare opportunity to prevent the horror of a nuclear attack from ever happening again has emerged 72 years since the threat of a nuclear war started hanging over humanity. On July 7, 122 of the 193 members of the United Nations General Assembly agreed on a draft treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons.
“As a schoolgirl, I witnessed my city of Hiroshima blinded by the flash, flattened by the hurricane-like blast, burned in the heat of 4000 degrees Celsius and contaminated by the radiation of one atomic bomb,” said Setsuko Thurlow, peace activist and survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima—she was only 13 at the time—who spoke to the delegates of the treaty negotiations.
“These weapons have always been immoral and I am now overjoyed that the majority of the world [is] about to make them illegal,” she added, quoted in a press release by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).
The treaty bans the deployment, development, testing, production, manufacturing, and possession of nuclear weapons, as well as forbidding assistance to other states in nuclear weapons development and setting compensation to victims and environment remediation.
At least 50 states need to ratify the treaty—which opens for signatures on September 20— before it comes into effect. Notably, none of the nine countries known to possess the world's 15,000 nuclear warheads (the U.S., the U.K., Russia, Israel, France, Pakistan, India, China and North Korea) participated in the process or adopted the convention. Regardless, ICAN and other campaigning groups are encouraging world governments to sign on.
“As has been true with previous weapon prohibition treaties, changing international norms leads to concrete changes in policies and behaviors, even in states not party to the treaty,” ICAN executive director Beatrice Fihn wrote in the release.
Greenpeace Japan executive director Yuko Yoneda agreed. “The Treaty is a long lasting legacy of their testimonies, protests and actions of the past decades, and keeps a hope alive for realization of the nuclear free world,” she wrote in an entry on Greenpeace’s website on Friday.
The mayor of Hiroshima also vocally supported the treaty, to honor the wishes of the atomic bomb survivors to see the prohibition of nuclear weapons in their lifetime. “I am speaking today as mayor of Hiroshima—the first city (in the world) attacked by a nuclear weapon—to share the earnest wishes of hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) for the elimination of nuclear weapons,” Mayor Kazumi Matsui told the General Assembly in June.
But support for the treaty is far from assured. In a joint statement released immediately after the adoption of the treaty, the U.S., France and the U.K. expressed their opposition to the treaty which, according to them, “disregards the realities of the international security environments".
The three countries, who all produce and stockpile nuclear weapons, say the treaty makes it impossible to enforce a policy of nuclear deterrence—the idea that the possibility of nuclear retaliation for a nuclear attack prevents the attack from occurring in the first place. Referring to North Korea’s rapidly advancing nuclear weapons development, the three powers described nuclear deterrence as “essential to keeping the peace” in Europe and North Asia for over 70 years.
“France, the United Kingdom and the United States have not taken part in the negotiation of the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. We do not intend to sign, ratify or ever become party to it,” the statement read. “This treaty offers no solution to the grave threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear program, nor does it address other security challenges that make nuclear deterrence necessary.”
Even during the presidency of Barack Obama, who made history as the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima since the atomic bomb attack, the U.S. strongly opposed the treaty. Obama however expressed his wish for a nuclear weapons-free world in a message he wrote in the guest book of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.
“We have known the agony of war, let us now find the courage, together, to spread peace and pursue a world without nuclear weapons,” he wrote.