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Tuesday 26 September 2023 Dublin: 16°C
# global ban
'The future of humanity hangs in the balance': Why the world could not handle a nuclear attack
An expert explains how we could be “headed for a nuclear arms race”.

NUCLEAR WEAPONS ARE probably talked about more nowadays that at any stage since the Cold War.

There are about 14,500 such weapons in the world, with nine countries owning them. The vast majority of the weapons are owned by the US (about 6,500) and Russia (about 6,800).

Tense relations between these two countries, as well as North Korea trying to increase its nuclear capability, has increased fears about a potential nuclear race.

During the week, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) launched a campaign calling for a global ban on nuclear weapons.

International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) / YouTube

The campaign is encouraging people to urge their governments to sign and ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which 122 states backed at a United Nations conference in New York in 2017.

The treaty was led by Ireland, Austria, Brazil, Mexico, Nigeria and South Africa, on foot of years of talks between UN members and civil society groups.

Kathleen Lawand, Head of the Arms Unit at the ICRC, works closely with governments, including the Irish government, on issues relating to weapons.

Speaking to, Lawand said the treaty is “historic and unique” as it is the first legally-binding international instrument that aims to ban nuclear weapons.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney signed the treaty on Ireland’s behalf and described it as “groundbreaking” at the time.

“I am happy that today, finally, the international community is taking this important step in implementing the NPT’s disarmament commitments – there is no place for weapons of mass destruction in the 21st century,” he said in a statement.

However, Nato (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization), which consists of 29 member states from North America and Europe, was critical of the treaty.

Seeking to ban nuclear weapons through a treaty that will not engage any state actually possessing nuclear weapons will not be effective, will not reduce nuclear arsenals, and will neither enhance any country’s security, nor international peace and stability.

“The ban treaty, in our view, disregards the realities of the increasingly challenging international security environment,” Nato said in a statement. 

Lawand admits that states with nuclear weapons have, unsurprisingly, “been hostile to the treaty”. However, she said more states are likely to sign up to it over time.

“Not all states will join it in the first instance, but once a new norm is established at international level, more will follow suit.”

Lawand said the treaty “stigmatises” nuclear weapons and “creates an expectation of behaviour”. She said it’s clear states with nuclear weapons are “nervous” about the treaty as they and their allies “have been pressuring other states to not join it”.

International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) / YouTube

Lawand said, at the very least, such countries should “work to reduce the risk of nuclear weapons” given their potential “catastrophic impact”. She acknowledged that as long as such weapons “exist in the hands of the few, others will want to get their hands on them”.

It’s critical that nuclear-armed states take significant steps firstly to reduce nuclear risks, then more concrete steps towards disarmament. We’re hopeful and optimistic they will agree to join the treaty.

“Some people say we are naive but a few years ago people said we were naive to believe there would ever be a treaty and now there is. We have to dare to dream and more than that we have to keep working on it…

“The future of our children and grandchildren depends on it, the future of humanity hangs in the balance.”

Nuclear arms race

Lawand said there are “increasing indiations we’re headed for a nuclear arms race”, something that has been spurred on by “incendiary rhetoric” by certain world leaders.

When asked about somewhat aggressive statements made in recent times by US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un about nuclear weapons, she said she “can’t comment on particular world leaders or what they’re saying”.

Trump and Kim are due to meet for a second time at a summit next month, when nuclear weapons will be on the agenda. 

nk Ahn Young-joon / AP/Press Association Images A man watches a TV screen showing images of US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at Seoul Railway Station this month. Ahn Young-joon / AP/Press Association Images / AP/Press Association Images

However, she noted that “signalling is extremely important” when it comes to international relations and security. She said if such signalling “can be perceived or interpreted as a threat” states become “much more alert to possible threats to their security and therefore more trigger happy”.

“In terms of the more aggressive posturing and signalling and amendments to existing military policy or statements by certain leaders, indeed the first countries that come to mind are the US and Russia, but they are far from being the only ones,” she said.

Lawand said it is of great concern that states with nuclear weapons are “modernising their arsenals and lowering the threshold for their use” as this is “creating greater insecurity for the world”.

She said the fact the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 is “very positive” and indicates a global desire to ban such weapons.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki

The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in August 1945 showed both the immediate and long-term catastrophic consequences that nuclear weapons can have on humanity, society and the environment.

Lawand noted that doctors from the ICRC were among the first medics to respond to the aftermath of the bombs, providing “relief to the dying and wounded” in “absolutely impossible conditions”.

More than 200,000 people were killed in the attacks and countless more were injured, some horrifically.

download (3) Keystone Press Agency / Zuma Press/PA Images Destruction in Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped. Keystone Press Agency / Zuma Press/PA Images / Zuma Press/PA Images

Lawand said in the seven decades since the attacks, doctors have been treating people who were exposed to radiation, noting: “Those who didn’t die from radiation poisoning at the time or in the years after, suffered all their lives with cancer and other conditions.”

Lawand said studies by the ICRC and others have shown that the world does not “have the capacity to deal with” another nuclear attack.

“The magnitude of the needs and the suffering – no first responders, non-government or government, would be able to respond to it. The only answer then is prevention.”

Lawand said making progress in terms of banning nuclear weapons would be a fitting tribute to the victims as we approach the 75th anniversary of the attacks in Japan. She said it’s “high time” world leaders “step back from the brink and work together to reduce nuclear risks”.

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