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Nuclear weapons the biggest threat to our security


Hiroshima Peace Park

While little can compete for national attention and outpouring of sentiment with the landings at Gallipoli a century ago, two events in the closing days of last century’s second conflagration could legitimately claim a far greater significance, for they warned of humanity’s capacity to self-destruct. 

They were the atomic bombings of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima on 6 August and Nagasaki on 9 August, 1945. Despite the sense of euphoria that, within days, the war in the Pacific was finally over (due much more to Russia’s declaration of war against Japan on 9 August than to the atomic bombs, according to a number of scholars), there was a dark sense that the world had entered a new and even more perilous era where warfare knew no limits.  

Condemnation of the attacks, from many quarters, was swift. From the survivors however, the message that emerged was a simple plea: Never again. Their experiences have been told and re-told for seventy years, and yet still the world retains around 16,300 nuclear weapons in the hands of nine nations, with thousands of those in the US and Russia being on high alert still. 

One of the very few certainties we have is that unless they are abolished, one or more (probably many more) will be used again. To quote the 1996 Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, whose report remains a stark warning still, ‘The proposition that nuclear weapons can be retained in perpetuity and never used – accidentally or be decision – defies credibility.’

However in this bleak landscape there is a fundamental shift occurring. Many governments are listening with fresh clarity to the words ‘never again’, and there have opened up the strongest signs in several decades that nuclear disarmament is possible. 

Over the past two years there has been a series of three government conferences – in Norway in 2013, in Mexico in February 2014, and in Austria in December 2014, the latter attracting 158 governments - examining the catastrophic humanitarian impacts of any use of nuclear weapons. 

The human suffering and sheer destruction caused by a single nuclear weapons attack is on a scale far beyond any capacity to respond. In addition, new evidence has been presented that even a nuclear war involving a very small fraction of the world’s arsenals would result in the atmospheric accumulation of so much particulate matter from burning cities that there would be reduced sunlight, agricultural decline and famine affecting possibly two billion people.  

In Mexico, the conference chair’s summary stated that ‘the mere existence of these weapons [is] absurd…[and] contrary to human dignity’. Pope Francis sent a message of strong support to the Vienna conference. An additional paper prepared by the Vatican declared that ‘Now is the time to affirm not only the immorality of the use of nuclear weapons, but the immorality of their possession, thereby clearing the road to nuclear abolition.’ This is highly relevant for Australia, which has long supported the notion of extended nuclear deterrence, whereby US nuclear weapons are claimed to ‘protect’ us from nuclear attack. Our support for threats of mass destruction is as morally flawed as it is strategically so.  

At the conclusion of the Vienna conference, the Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz issued the ‘Austrian pledge’ inviting all states to work to ‘fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons’. In other words, these weapons must be banned by treaty, in the same way that both chemical and biological weapons have been for decades. 

The growing list of nations that support a ban treaty, and the growing unease of the nuclear armed states and their supporters such as Australia at the very notion, affirm the vulnerability of the latter group to international pressure and affirmation of the global norm against all weapons of mass destruction. 

A nuclear weapons ban treaty will not automatically eliminate the weapons, of course, but its value lies in its enormous capacity to delegitimise and stigmatise them. Changing our thinking about the bomb is the very start that’s needed.

Voices of conscience are needed now as much as ever, to grasp the current opportunity and counter the efforts of those nations, including Australia, for whom the current glacial pace of action on nuclear weapons is satisfactory. 

At the Peace Park Memorial in Hiroshima, the following words stand as a reminder of one of the world’s most grave responsibilities: ‘Let all the souls here rest in peace, for we shall not repeat the evil’. The total abolition of the most horrific devices ever created is our only option if we are to honour this undertaking. The commencement this year of negotiations for a nuclear weapons ban treaty would be the best possible form of commemoration. 

Sue WarehamSue Wareham OAM is a Canberra GP who is a member of the board in Australia for ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

Topic tags: Sue Wareham, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Gallipoli, nuclear weapons, atomic warfare



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Existing comments

I'm wondering if the next world war won't be over scarcity as a result of global warming, but anyway, what about small countries like Israel, who think they need nuclear weapons to even up the threat against much bigger neighbours? A treaty against nuclear weapons won't appeal to them.

Russell | 11 March 2015  

Statement by H.E. Archbishop Silvano M. Tomasi Permanent Representative of the Holy See to the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Geneva at the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons (Vienna, 9 December 2014) http://www.bmeia.gv.at/fileadmin/user_upload/Zentrale/Aussenpolitik/Abruestung/HINW14/Statements/HINW14_Statement_Holy_See.pdf

Father John George | 11 March 2015  

One scholar who supports the view that Russia's declaration of war on Japan had more effect than the atomic bombs is Paul Ham. His "Hiroshima Nagasaki" is an excellent read in this 70th anniversary year

John Wotherspoon | 11 March 2015  

Terrible banner, great story, measured and thought provoking. I almost didn't read the article though as I hate such statements as 'biggest threat to national security'. There are all sorts of major threats to national security. This is one of many, albeit a significant one. The author didn't make such a claim in the article so why was it made in the banner?

Carol | 12 March 2015  

Thanks Sue. Your timely article emphasises to me the irresponsibility of current NATO sabre-rattling in countries along Russia's Western border - Estonia, Latvia, and especially Lithania and Ukraine. This should not be happening.

Tony kevin | 12 March 2015  

'Nuclear weapons the biggest threat to our security'? The biggest threat to our security is not the possession and development of nuclear weapons but the lack of trust between those countries which possess those weapons. At the height of the Cold War in 1950s the USSR through its World Peace Council affiliates was calling for nuclear disarmament Fulton Sheen told a parable about two little boys having a snowball fight. They both had piled a stack of snowballs about twenty feet apart. One was a little Soviet boy who said: 'This is cold work, let's build a fire between our two piles of snowballs.' 'Okay,' said the other little boy, an American as it happened. 'It's not much fun if we're both freezing to death.' ' Well then,' said the little Soviet boy, 'I'll be a sport and help you build the fire closer to your end. What could be more sporting than that?' Let them who have ears to hear, let them hear.

Uncle Pat | 12 March 2015  

An interesting and thoughtful article. In 1957 Neville Shutes doomsday novel "On the Beach" was published. Even back then it was understood that the detonation of atomic weapons would destroy the atmosphere. In the novel (which I highly recommend as a great and still relevant read) Victoria in Australia is one of the last places on earth to have life. A fantastic if controversial movie was made of the book starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardiner and a host of others. Neville Shute was a typical British boffin of his ere and his knowledge of the science of nuclear energy, aircraft, weaponry and meteorology gave him a high intellect and the premise of his novel is as you note today Sue highly plausible if not probable.

PatrickC | 12 March 2015  

This is a terrific article. The abolition of the horrific atom bomb is waht the world should work for and honour. I am not sure what the commemoration of Gallipoli is all about. We are commemorating a huge British failure into which the Australians were lured.Is that to be proud of? What about Kokoda - that was Australia's war.Hiroshima and Nagasaki were an abomination caused by the western forces. We should hang our heads in shame..

Mira Zeimer | 12 March 2015  

It's terrific that the Vatican has so clearly denounced nuclear weapons -- not just their use, but their possession. The doctrine of "nuclear deterrence", to which Australia subscribes, is patently immoral and must be rejected by all decent people. Bravo to Sue for so compellingly articulating the urgency of achieving a global ban on nuclear weapons!

Tim Wright | 12 March 2015  

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