International norms grow against nuclear weapons in spite of Obama

Yin Bogu/Zuma Press

Yin Bogu/Zuma Press

Despite having made nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament a centerpiece of his early foreign policy after coming to office six years ago, President Obama is now earning the wrath of anti-nuclear campaigners for simply paying lip service to his Prague 2009 pledge to “secure a world free of nuclear weapons” – what he once called “the world’s worst weapons” – while instead moving to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Rather than pushing for disarmament as once promised, the Obama administration is engaging in extensive atomic rebuilding and refurbishing of the U.S. nuclear force to the tune of an estimated trillion dollars in the coming decades, and Obama recently nominated as his new secretary of defense a man long committed to such a course of action.

As Boston Globe columnist James Carroll put it recently,

Mark these days. A long-dreaded transformation from hope to doom is taking place as the United States of America ushers the world onto the no-turning-back road of nuclear perdition. Once, we could believe there was another way to go. Indeed, we were invited to take that path by the man who is, even today, overseeing the blocking of it, probably forever.

Carroll went on to quote Obama’s historic 2009 address in Prague on nuclear abolition.

“As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon,” Obama said,

the United States has a moral responsibility to act… So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. I’m not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly – perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now, we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, ‘Yes, we can…’

“I know,” he continued,

that there are some who will question whether we can act on such a broad agenda. There are those who doubt whether true international cooperation is possible… and there are those who hear talk of a world without nuclear weapons and doubt whether it’s worth setting a goal that seems impossible to achieve. But make no mistake. We know where that road leads.

Indeed, it is all too clear where that road leads.

Graphic from the movie "Terminator 2" depicting a nuclear blast that wipes out L.A.

Graphic from the movie “Terminator 2” depicting a nuclear blast that wipes out L.A.

At the third Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons Conference held in Vienna, Austria last month, journalist Eric Schlosser emphasized that it’s a miracle there hasn’t yet been a catastrophic accident involving nuclear weapons, pointing out however that “The problem with luck is that eventually it runs out.”

He offered one mishap out of hundreds that have occurred over the years: the 1961 North Carolina incident in which a hydrogen bomb fell out of a disintegrating B-52 bomber, which nearly fully detonated a four-megaton hydrogen bomb.

The chances of a similar mishap taking place today are compounded by the fact that the U.S. nuclear arsenal is aging and the staff tasked with securing these weapons are poorly trained and reportedly suffering from major morale problems.

Warheads in the nation’s stockpile are an average of 27 years old, and military strategists are raising serious concerns about their reliability. As John Hamre, Deputy Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration and now president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, recently said, “We have the worst of all worlds: older weapons and large inventories that we are retaining because we are worried about their reliability.”

Further, the military has not prioritized the maintenance of these weapons, leading to even greater nuclear insecurity.

“The Air Force has not kept its ICBMs manned or maintained properly,” says Bruce Blair, a former missileer and cofounder of the anti-nuclear group Global Zero. Nuclear bases that were once the military’s crown jewels are now “little orphanages that get scraps for dinner,” he says. And morale is “abysmal.”

As a recent article in Mother Jones explained,

Blair’s organization wants to eliminate nukes, but he argues that while we still have them, it’s imperative that we invest in maintenance, training, and personnel to avoid catastrophe: An accident resulting from human error, he says, may be actually more likely today because the weapons are so unlikely to be used. Without the urgent sense of purpose the Cold War provided, the young men (and a handful of women) who work with the world’s most dangerous weapons are left logging their 24-hour shifts under subpar conditions—with all the dangers that follow.

In August 2013, Air Force commanders investigated two officers in the ICBM program suspected of using ecstasy and amphetamines. A search of the officers’ phones revealed more trouble: They and other missileers were sharing answers for the required monthly exams that test their knowledge of things like security procedures and the proper handling of classified launch codes. Ultimately, 98 missileers were implicated for cheating or failure to report it. Nine officers were stripped of their commands, and Colonel Robert Stanley, the commander of Malmstrom’s missile wing, resigned.

While these realities of poor training, test cheating and drug abuse scandals, lackluster maintenance and aging weapons make clear the need to do something to better prevent a nuclear catastrophe from taking place, campaigners take issue with the Obama administration’s proposal to inject billions of dollars into modernizing these facilities and retraining staff.

As Theresa Shaffer, the Security Outreach Associate for Physicians for Social Responsibility, points out in a recent column,

The 2015 “CRomnibus” appropriations bill which passed in the House of Representatives and which President Obama has backed ahead of the Senate vote, does not accomplish these things. President Obama has repeatedly stated the need to secure radiological material worldwide in order to prevent a terrorist or criminal from fabricating a dirty bomb. Yet in this 2015 omnibus bill, funding to combat the proliferation of nuclear materials to terrorists and criminals was cut by 17% from 2014, while at the same time spending on nuclear weapons increased by 5% from last year.

“A better idea,” she continues,

to resolve the safety issues affecting our nuclear arsenal could be to use those funds to actually secure and eliminate radiological materials worldwide and simply work on getting rid of nuclear weapons rather than injecting more money into making new ones. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that $355 billion will be spent on modernizing the nation’s nuclear forces from 2014-2023. Pressure should be placed on the new Congress come January to reduce spending on nuclear weapons in the 2016 budget, since these weapons pose more of a risk than an asset.

Dr-Strangelove-Obama-Riding-Bomb-DownMeanwhile, as Obama betrays his earlier pledges to work towards a nuclear arms-free world, many within the international community are doing just that, by building a global consensus and strengthening the international norm against these weapons.

The government of Austria hosted the third international conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons on December 8-9, 2014 in Vienna. The conference aimed to bolster the global nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime by contributing to the growing momentum to prioritize the humanitarian imperative in all international efforts on nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament.

The conference explored the impacts of nuclear weapon explosions, including nuclear testing; the risks of nuclear weapons use; challenges and capabilities regarding the use of nuclear weapons; and existing international norms and laws.

Nadja Schmidt, representing the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), pointed out that within the existing legal framework on nuclear weapons, there is currently a lack of an instrument that explicitly characterizes nuclear weapons as unacceptable under international law.

“Our next step as supporters of the humanitarian initiative should be to explore the best way to address this legal deficit,” she said, noting that “the time has come to start a diplomatic process to negotiate a legally-binding instrument prohibiting nuclear weapons.”

The ICAN statement continued:

This is not a radical proposal. Indiscriminate weapons get banned. We have done it before with other weapon systems, including biological and chemical weapons.

This should not be a controversial proposal. An international prohibition is the logical outcome of an examination of the risks and consequences of nuclear weapons detonation. A new legal instrument prohibiting nuclear weapons would constitute a long overdue implementation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Also participating in the conference was the global network of lawmakers known as the Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (PNND), an international cross-party network of over 800 parliamentarians from more than 80 countries.

The parliamentary roundtable during the Vienna conference was chaired by PNND Co-President Christine Muttonen, who noted in her opening remarks that parliamentarians are in a unique position to “interact and co-operate with civil society,” as well as to “influence and strengthen government positions” on nuclear disarmament.

“Parliaments worldwide are doing this already,” she said. “Now it is time to better connect ourselves, to exchange experiences and best practices and to discuss the possibilities of joint action.”

The weekend before this conference, the ICAN hosted a Civil Society Forum, which was open to NGO and governmental representatives. Campaigners, activists, experts, public figures, and survivors gathered to learn and to teach and to build momentum to end the era of nuclear weapons.

An issue discussed at length at the ICAN forum was the Marshall Islands’ ongoing lawsuit against the United States and eight other nuclear powers. The lawsuit, filed at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in April 2014, denounces the 60-plus nuclear tests that were conducted on the small island state’s territory between 1946 and 1958, and seeks to hold the U.S. accountable for violating the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by failing to disarm as agreed to in the treaty.

The Marshall Islands case has received support from many different organizations around the world. One supporter is the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (NAPF), whose president, David Krieger, said: “The Marshall Islands is a small, gutsy country. It is not a country that will be bullied, nor is it one that will give up.”

“It knows what is at stake with nuclear weapons,” he continued, “and is fighting in the courtroom for humanity’s survival. The people of the Marshall Islands deserve our support and appreciation for taking this fight into the U.S. Federal Court and to the International Court of Justice, the highest court in the world.”

Russia, which along with the United States retains the bulk of the world’s nuclear arsenal, recently offered a reminder of which country invented these heinous weapons and which is the only country to have used them. Sergey Naryshkin, the Russian Lower House speaker, told the Russian History Society last month that he wants to initiate an international investigation into the U.S.’s 1945 nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a possible crime against humanity.

“Next year we will have the 70th anniversary of the Nuremberg Trial and also the same anniversary of the first and only nuclear bombings of two civilian cities – Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” he said. “It is not incidental that I mention these events together. I think we should discuss this topic together with lawyers and specialists in international law – for crimes against humanity have no statute of limitation.”

Naryshkin recalled that the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not militarily justifiable, as the defeat of Japan was effectively decided after the Soviet Army’s victories in Manchuria.

“The nuclear bombing of two peaceful cities was a pure act of intimidation resulting in the deaths of several thousand Japanese civilians,” he said.

Hiroshima, Japan, following the dropping of an atomic bomb on the city by the United States in 1945.

Hiroshima, Japan, following the dropping of an atomic bomb on the city by the United States in 1945.

To join the international movement to eliminate nuclear weapons, visit Global Zero. To add your name to more than 5 million signatures from around the world calling for nuclear abolition, click here.

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