In 1947, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the newspaper that deals with topics of international security, conceived the Clock of the Apocalypse, a sort of timer that evaluates those threats which, may, hypothetically, lead to the end of the world, identifying the midnight with a possible catastrophe. From the date of creation of this instrument, the hands of the clock have been moved several times, and, in view of both global warming and the massive presence of nuclear weapons in the world, the last estimate concludes that it would be “two minutes” to midnight.
In the past we have already witnessed and confronted an arms race, but, due to the scale of the threat and the exponents in question, the current circumstances seem particularly sensitive. It is in this context that ICAN, the non-governmental organization awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and promoter of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons approved by the United Nations General Assembly, inscribes its mission.
Despite the good wishes contained in the agreement, we are far from nuclear demilitarization. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has repeatedly reaffirmed the military power of his country, and the latest Nuclear Posture Review, the report by the US Department of Defense on nuclear policy, reaffirms the determination to develop new and more modern forms of employment of nuclear weapons. In this context, we asked ICAN which are the challenges that the international community is facing.
Which countries rest their own safety on nuclear weapons and where does a concrete threat come from?
“Nine countries together possess around 15 000 nuclear weapons, of which some 1 800 are ready to be launched within minutes. These countries are United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. All nine of these, and those allies that rely on these weapons for their protection, present a dangerously concrete threat. Furthermore, there are many nations with nuclear power or research reactors capable of being diverted for weapons production. The spread of nuclear know-how has increased the risk that more nations will develop the bomb.”
What purposes are the US and North Korea currently pursuing?
“The fact that Kim or Trump has control over nuclear weapons is certain. But this is not the real fear; the real fear is the weapons themselves. A single nuclear warhead, if detonated on a large city, could kill millions of people, with the effects persisting for decades. The risk that one will be employed is definitely greater than zero. That means they will be used sooner or later so we have to get rid of these weapons, as fast as possible!”
Most countries participated in the negotiation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, but none of them was a nuclear power. What is the effective potential of the Treaty?
“A ban on nuclear weapons will establish an international norm against the possession of nuclear weapons, which will help to reduce the perceived value of such weapons. It will draw the line between those states that believe nuclear weapons are unacceptable and illegitimate, and those states that believe nuclear weapons are legitimate and able to provide security. If nuclear weapons continue to be portrayed as a legitimate and a useful mean to provide security, non-nuclear weapon states might aim to develop such weapons themselves.”
This year ICAN met Pope Francis; what does the Vatican’s ratification of the Treaty represent?
“Religious leaders’ contribution to a world free of nuclear weapons is recognized in the preamble of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The involvement of faith communities, through reference to their holy books and teachings, provide a moral and ethical argument for the total elimination of nuclear weapons. In particular, Pope Francis’ exhortation to hundreds of listeners around the world has been a great inspiration for all communities to build further on the momentum toward the elimination of nuclear weapons.”
As of today, is stopping proliferation of mass destruction weapons a priority for the so-called superpowers? What is the attitude of western countries towards their own arsenals?
“Stopping proliferation of mass destruction weapons should certainly be a priority for superpowers. Nuclear weapons have always been a symbol of power. Some leaders feel they need them to show strength. That’s kind of pathetic – you could also see it as a sign of weakness. Other nations grab on to something they think is strength and safety, whereas in reality nuclear weapons bring an increased risk and more unsafely.”
The sale of weapons, technology and the relative know-how is very lucrative. What are the dissuading factors against this business? And what deterrence instruments do the international community and countries in favor of disarmament have?
“States will not disarm until it is in their interest to do so. It has been comfortable to just keep nuclear weapons. Therefore, we have to put pressure on them, so they want to disarm, and the rest of the world has a lot of power to do that. To make them stigmatized, to make these weapons unacceptable in public opinion, and to make the companies building these bombs suffer financial losses. That is going to make it easier to take a decision to disarm and to stop investing in modernization programs.”
Samuel Huntington wrote that, since World War II, the weak have resorted to nuclear weapons to compensate their conventional inferiority. What would you reply to those who claim that they need them for their own security?
“Most of the nuclear weapons circulating today are much bigger than those used in Hiroshima or Nagasaki. At the moment, there are ten US-submarines patrolling the seas, each of them carrying nuclear weapons with the explosive power of seven second world wars combined. 60 million people died in World War Two, and I guess that Russia, China or the UK have the same nuclear capabilities. That should freak people out! If we keep nuclear weapons forever they will go off one day.”
The supporters of nuclear weapons claim that they work as a “bugbear”; therefore, they’d be useful even if utilized. Besides, if a country did use the atomic bomb, it’d be consequently annihilated. Is it likely that the nuclear threat goes beyond the mere deterrence?
“If our security should be based on nuclear deterrence, that strategy must work perfectly forever. It won’t. If nuclear weapons are kept, sooner or later the world will see a nuclear detonation, either by intent or accident. The utility of nuclear weapons is at best doubtful, but what we know for sure is that nuclear weapons put us at risk of facing a humanitarian catastrophe – they are built to slaughter hundreds of thousands of civilians and impact generations to come. If you start the conversation by outlining the humanitarian impact, the debate goes a whole other way.”
Is there a concrete danger that terroristic groups may access mass destruction weapons?
“It is indisputable that the longer nuclear weapons are around the more likely they are going to be used. Nuclear risks are taking on a new face with the rise of cyberterrorism. The technology used to command nuclear weapons will never keep up with the pace of cyber-technologies, which will inevitably be used to try to take control of nuclear weapons systems. The threat is real and people are justified in feeling scared.”
In addition to the Nobel, ICAN has received the Colombe D’Oro Per La Pace award, which the Archivio Disarmo gives to individuals and organization committed to peace and coexistence among nations. What does this prize represent for you?
“ICAN is extremely proud to be chosen to receive the Colombe D’Oro Per La Pace award in recognition of our efforts to outlaw nuclear weapons because of their indiscriminate and inhumane effects. The timing with the Nobel Peace Prize announcement is a great surprise, and all this attention on our campaign is useful to show that a solution to the nuclear weapons challenge is possible.”
What is peace for you? Something that goes beyond the absence of conflict? And how do we “win peace”?
“Although the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is no magic bullet for world peace, it goes a long way in ensuring that destruction of the highest magnitude is averted. Humanity will be a big step closer to instilling world peace the day all nuclear weapons cease to exist.”