Comment: UN nuclear weapons ban is a small step toward sanity

No nuclear nations have joined, but pressure can now but put on leaders to sign and ratify it.

By David C. Hall / For The Herald

It’s one small step for global sanity! Nuclear weapons have now joined chemical and biological weapons and land mines as internationally banned weapons.

On Jan. 22, the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons entered into force to cement a categorical ban on nuclear weapons for the 50 nations signing and ratifying the treaty, 75 years after the United States became the first and only nation to use nuclear weapons in wartime.

Despite this huge step for the safety and survivability of human civilization, supporters of this treaty face a mountain of opposition led by the United States.

Our country has waged an aggressive campaign to thwart this prohibition with its immense power and resources while maintaining an ever-present threat to use nuclear weapons whenever we say “All options are on the table.”

Up until now we have pressured potential signers and kept all NATO allies from signing. The other eight nuclear weapon states have also refused to sign. Austria, Ireland and Lichtenstein are the only European nations to sign. The other nuclear nations — Russia, China, Great Britain, France, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea — have boycotted the treaty process. Kazakhstan and South Africa are former nuclear weapon states to sign and ratify the TPNW. Brazil dismantled its nuclear weapons program and has signed but not yet ratified it.

None of the nuclear states or NATO countries are bound by this treaty.

What this treaty does, however, is establish a first-ever international precedent for outlawing nuclear weapons. Hopefully this will pressure the nuclear weapon states and their allies to finally negotiate the elimination of these horrific weapons. The United States, Russia and China all agreed to do so when they signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1970. Nonetheless nuclear-armed arsenals keep getting faster, more accurate, more usable and more deadly despite fewer warheads.

Going forward, conventional war-fighting capabilities will need to be included in these negotiations. Nuclear weapons have helped less powerful countries fend off the conventional military and nuclear threats from their more powerful adversaries. North Korea will not give up its nuclear deterrents unless the overwhelming conventional war-fighting capabilities of China and United States are on the table. Negotiations to replace nuclear weapons will require credible safeguards for survival of less powerful countries.

This treaty is so important. Nuclear weapons violate international laws that protect innocent civilians and the environment. Even a small nuclear exchange could blacken the skies and starve billions of people.

The U.S. still has nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, hypersonic missiles are coming, nuclear command and control systems are vulnerable to cyber attacks, retaliatory responses are disseminated down the chain of command, and under current U.S. law the president of the United States has absolute power to order the launch of nuclear weapons even if he or she has only minutes to distinguish a real attack from a false alarm. Our military chain of command is built to follow the president’s orders or to launch if the president is incapacitated.

We have a new U.S. administration. President Trump had sole authority to start a nuclear war. Now is the time to seriously push to eliminate these ecologically devastating weapons of mass murder. Call President Biden to sign and our senators to ratify the TPNW. Nuclear weapons are repugnant to the values of decency, democracy and the sacredness of life.

Dr. David C. Hall is past president, of Physicians for Social Responsibility and Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility.

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