122 countries vote yes to adopt the treaty banning nuclear weapons. Netherlands voted against. Singapore abstained. Photos by Ari Beser
United Nations — For the first time in history, a majority of the world’s nations have crafted a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. Hundreds of NGOs united under the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) to push the majority of the world’s countries at the United Nations to create a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons. The resolution was adopted by consensus on July 7. An international treaty banning nuclear weapons will be created if at least 50 of these countries’ governments ratify it, as they are expected to do in coming months.
The notable exception will be those countries that did not vote for the UN resolution and which will not ratify a treaty to outlaw nuclear weapons, which includes all the countries that currently have nuclear arsenals, which they have stated that they intend to maintain as a deterrent against others using nuclear weapons. But still, the fact that more than a hundred other countries are determined to ban nuclear weapons by international treaty marks a very important step forward in the struggle to remove these horrific weapons from our planet.
According to ICAN’s press release, “We are on the cusp of a truly historic moment – when the international community declares, unambiguously, for the first time, that nuclear weapons are not only immoral, but also illegal. There should be no doubt that the draft before us establishes a clear, categorical ban on the worst weapons of mass destruction.”
This is not just a human story, this is the human story. As a species we have emerged from the caves to build weapons that destroy the entire planet. Why do we call nuclear weapons a deterrent if they can’t stop North Korea from building their own, ISIS terrorists from blowing themselves up, or Russia from hacking the US election? What exactly are nuclear weapons deterring? These are questions that need to be explored as the treaty is adopted, by those who live in countries who choose to live outside of international norm and laws.
My own grandfather, Jacob Beser, had a small but unique role at the dawn of the nuclear age. His job was to build the fuse of the bomb, and to make sure it detonated in the middle of the air to cause the maximum amount of destruction. He was the only man aboard both planes that dropped the atomic bombs on Japan.
In 1985, at the height of the nuclear arms race, he returned to Hiroshima with ABC’s Good Morning America, where he met a survivor of the bomb. He listened to Tazu Shibama explain to him what happened when his mission succeeded. She was eating breakfast and, after a tremendous flash, she was blown into what became the rubble of her neighbor’s house. She survived to tell my grandfather her story. He never felt guilt for his role, but after listening to her story, he returned home to campaign against nuclear weapons until his eventual death in 1992 from exposure to radiation. Weapons that kill and continue to kill long after their use should be illegal. In Japan they call the exposed people Hibakusha. The only man in the world to fly on both planes that dropped the atomic bombs was a Hibakusha, too. I am third-generation Hibakusha.
Currently, nine states possess nearly 16,000 nuclear weapons. They, along with their strongest allies, stand at odds with 120 Nations who, this week, voted to create a treaty that will prohibit nuclear weapons. Ironically, in the background of these negotiations, the UN Security Council, the permanent members of which all boycotted the negotiations, met in emergency meetings to discuss North Korea’s successful test of a long-range missile capable of delivering a nuclear weapon as far as Alaska. Both meetings had the same goal, a world without nuclear weapons. “But is there anyone who thinks that North Korea is ready to give them up,” asked the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, at a staged walkout of the ban treaty negotiations in March.
This may not be the end of the nuclear weapons age, but, as Winston Churchill might have said, it is the end of the beginning of the battle to rid Earth of this terrible scourge. Fifty member states will now return to their capitals and ratify the treaty in their own governments before it is considered international law.
“We have a long way to go until we rid ourselves of that last nuclear weapon, but this treaty certainly makes it possible,” said Susi Snyder from PAX. She helped ICAN produce a report called “Don’t Bank On The Bomb,” which exposed the private companies like Boeing, Honeywell and Lockheed Martin who invest in nuclear weapons. Soon, their businesses will have to contend with a new treaty that binds perhaps more than a hundred countries against the production and possession of nuclear weapons.
In Hiroshima, Barack Obama became the first sitting President to visit the city one of his predecessor’s destroyed with the first combat use of nuclear weapons. He used his speech to reflect on the duality of man…”in the image of a mushroom cloud that rose into these skies, we are most starkly reminded of humanity’s core contradiction. How the very spark that marks us as a species, our thoughts, our imagination, our language, our toolmaking, our ability to set ourselves apart from nature and bend it to our will — those very things also give us the capacity for unmatched destruction.”
Now there exists a perhaps unstoppable mechanism to create a treaty to answer this destruction. A treaty that will address the victims of the bombs, including the indigenous peoples exposed to testing in the Marshall Islands, and the species that remain on the still unlivable Bikini Atoll. The treaty will be signed on September 20, 2017. The treaty that will not be a quick fix, but it does represent a good start.
Ari Beser is the author of The Nuclear Family and filmmaker who used his Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship (2015-2016) to give voice to the hundreds of thousands of people directly affected by nuclear technology today. He is the grandson of Lt. Jacob Beser, the only U.S. serviceman aboard both B-29s that dropped atomic bombs on Japan during World War II.