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The Future Of Humanity Depends On Banning Nuclear Weapons

Right now, the best chance is the United Nations-led negotiations in New York.

30/03/2017 9:57 AM AEDT | Updated 30/03/2017 9:57 AM AEDT
Zhenikeyev via Getty Images
"A 21st century nuclear war could see more than one billion people facing starvation."

This week in New York, Governments are meeting to negotiate a global treaty banning nuclear weapons. This time it's much more than talk, it's a real opportunity to prohibit nuclear weapons and take an important step towards their elimination.

As the negotiations get underway, there will be several empty chairs at the table. Nuclear-armed States and most of those under the US nuclear-umbrella, including Australia, are among those choosing not to participate in these historic talks.

However, a growing majority of the world's nations have made their intentions clear. They want a treaty to clearly prohibit nuclear weapons, leading to their total elimination. By year's end, there is a good chance that such a treaty at the global level will become a reality.

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has called for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons since 1945 and we welcome that such negotiations are now taking place in the framework of the United Nations.

We urge Australia and all States to back the efforts to ban nuclear weapons. It's not too late for Australia and the nuclear-armed States to get on board. Australia can continue its long and proud history of working towards a safer world by participating in these negotiations.

Today, there are more than 1,800 nuclear weapons on high-alert, ready to be launched in minutes and there is a real danger that these could be detonated by accident or miscalculation. There is also growing potential for non-State groups to acquire these weapons. The risk of nuclear weapon use is greater now than it was during the cold war.

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has called for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons since 1945 and we welcome that such negotiations are now taking place in the framework of the United Nations.

Nuclear-armed States and those under their security umbrella, including Australia, argue that a treaty to ban nuclear weapons does not provide a practical path to effective disarmament or security. So what is this practical path? And how can States help reduce the risk that nuclear weapons will ever be used again and that they are eliminated once and for all?

Right now, the best chance is the United Nations-led negotiations in New York. Only this must not be a gamble; the future of humanity depends on it.

The use of nuclear weapons would cause death and injury on a massive scale. Even as some States are spending billions on modernising their nuclear arsenals and investing in 'smarter' missiles to deliver them, the vast majority of nations recognise that even a 'limited' nuclear war would have horrific and unacceptable consequences.

Medical infrastructure would be completely destroyed. Doctors and nurses would be counted among the casualties. There would be no effective means to provide life-saving medical and humanitarian assistance to the millions of potential survivors in the aftermath of a nuclear attack.

We know, too, that the horror of a nuclear attack would reverberate for years to come. Health impacts of these weapons can last for decades. Tragically, they can also affect children of survivors. When the atomic bombs were dropped in Japan nearly 72 years ago, we could not have imagined that Japanese Red Cross hospitals would still be treating victims of cancer and leukaemia caused by the radiation that lay waste to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Alarmingly, this was merely a preview of the destruction that modern nuclear weapons could wreak.

Mark Stevenson/Stocktrek Images
The Enola Gay B-29 Superfortress dropping Little Boy atomic bomb over Hiroshima during World War II.

A 21st century nuclear war could see more than one billion people facing starvation as food and agricultural production would be severely reduced by climate disruption caused by a limited nuclear exchange.

Right now the world is struggling to help 20 million people at risk of famine in four countries, from Nigeria and South Sudan to Somalia and Yemen. Can we imagine how Governments and the humanitarian system would cope with one billion at risk of starvation?

Of course, adopting a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons will not make them immediately disappear. But banning nuclear weapons is a key step towards eventual disarmament. A new treaty banning nuclear weapons will reinforce the stigma against their use, support commitments to nuclear risk reduction, and be a disincentive for their proliferation. This was the approach taken for chemical and biological arms: their prohibition preceded adoption of agreements requiring their elimination.

A ban treaty will also be a concrete step towards fulfilling existing commitments for nuclear disarmament, notably those of Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty; a treaty that in our view remains crucially important for global disarmament efforts.

The existence of nuclear weapons is a threat to us all. Their elimination must be of global concern. We have a historic opportunity to rid the world of these weapons once and for all. It's urgent that we all jump on board.


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