Hiroshima and the World: Toward a Nuclear Weapons Convention: Now or Never?

by Jody Williams, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate

Jody Williams
Jody Williams was born in the U.S. state of Vermont in 1950. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for her work to ban landmines through the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which shared the award with her that year. Ms. Williams is an outspoken peace activist seeking to reclaim the real meaning of peace--a concept which goes far beyond the absence of armed conflict and is defined by human security, not national security. Since January 2006, she has pursued efforts for peace through the Nobel Women’s Initiative, which she helped found and now chairs. By using the prestige and access afforded by the Nobel Peace Prize, the Nobel Women’s Initiative spotlights and promotes the efforts of women’s rights activists, researchers, and organizations working to advance peace, justice, and equality for women. Ms. Williams earned an M.A. in teaching Spanish and ESL from the School for International Training in 1974 and a second M.A. in International Relations from Johns Hopkins University in 1984.

Toward a Nuclear Weapons Convention: Now or Never?

When I was younger and thought about disarmament, it was only about nuclear disarmament. I was born in 1950, not long after the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War between then superpowers the United States and the Soviet Union. I was born too late to be in the celebratory mind-set at the end of the war but in time to be immersed in the fear engendered by the thought of nuclear war between the superpowers.

I was part of the “duck and cover” generation. Grade school children of the 1950s and 60s who had to practice how to protect ourselves in the event of nuclear attack. At the sound of a warning siren, we had to sit under our desks as quickly as possible, wrap our arms around our legs and curl our heads into our knees – a sitting fetal position. During other practice sessions, we’d all file into the gymnasium, line up around the walls of the gym and assume that same position. There were no windows in the gym, so the thinking was that we’d be even safer there so at least we wouldn’t have to worry about shattering glass flying around the room.

At some level I must have recognized the total absurdity of such exercises. When I’d sit and dream about things I really, really wanted, at the top of the list was my family’s own private bomb shelter. If it were built just right, surely it would save us if the “evil Communists” tried to eliminate the United States with nuclear bombs. But then I began to worry about what it would be like to finally dare to emerge from the bomb shelter. Everything would be in total ruin. Everybody we knew would be dead. Wouldn’t it have just been better to die along with them and the world as I knew it?

In short, like many people of my generation and since, I grew up in total fear of nuclear bombs and nuclear war. I marched in protest of the Vietnam War and I marched in protest of nuclear weapons. That war finally ended and the marches petered out, including those against nukes. While nuclear weapons didn’t disappear from my consciousness, it wasn’t until the break up of the Soviet Union that I began thinking about weapons again. But it wasn’t the end of nuclear weapons that I began to work on at the beginning of the 1990s, it was the elimination of antipersonnel landmines.

Even though many people at that time thought the end of the Cold War would bring “peace dividends” as global tensions dropped dramatically, I thought it was a pipe dream. President General Eisenhower had told the American people to beware of what he termed “the military-industrial complex” and I had more than taken him at his word. New enemies of global proportion would have to be found to justify the ongoing need for big and powerful weapons and maintaining my country’s position as the “sole remaining superpower.”

Attempting to get rid of nuclear weapons didn’t even cross my mind. Instead I was asked to try to create a global coalition of non-governmental organizations that would come together around the common goal of banning antipersonnel landmines. Even that seemed something of a long shot, but it also seemed manageable. And even if we didn’t achieve a treaty banning the weapon, we were pretty sure that our work would help alleviate the suffering of mine survivors around the world.

As anyone who has followed the issue at all would know, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines was successful beyond our wildest dreams. We took an issue that many at the time called a “utopian dream” and created enough political pressure around the world to result in governments beginning to take unilateral steps to deal with the landmine problem. Those individual actions provided the necessary momentum and built sufficient political will that governments that believed in the ban and civil society organizations became strong partners in the process that gave the world the Mine Ban Treaty.

For the first time in history, a conventional weapon used by fighting forces around the world for decades and decades was banned. The concept of citizen diplomacy was given new life and the work of those who made up the International Campaign to Ban Landmines provided solid evidence of citizen diplomacy’s importance in helping to resolve our common problems in today’s small world. Not only that, but the model of civil society partnering with governments to effectively deal with a problem inspired others to use the model to address other issues.

In the disarmament arena, the most successful example would be the work of the Cluster Munition Coalition, launched in late 2003. The pressure of that coalition helped push governments to coalesce around the leadership of Norway to begin negotiations of a treaty to ban cluster bombs. Again through the partnership of the non-governmental organizations and like-minded governments, the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions was accomplished. Again it has been demonstrated that citizen diplomacy is key to moving governments to take action that they otherwise would not take if left to their own devices.

The work on banning landmines and cluster munitions has been called “micro-disarmament” by some, and not always as a compliment. There is no question that abolishing nuclear weapons is a far more daunting enterprise. Yet it is far from an impossible goal. The majority of people in a twenty-one-nation poll in 2008 – including all nations with nuclear weapons (except North Korea) – overwhelmingly support a world free of those weapons.

Like many others, I believe we are at an historic crossroad. When we see Cold Warriors like Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn calling upon the U.S. to lead the world to abolish nuclear weapons in January 2007 and again in 2008, we know serious change is in the air. When presidential candidate Barack Obama campaigned on a platform that included the call for nuclear abolition, we were heartened. Now as President, he has made the abolition of nuclear weapons a centerpiece of his foreign policy efforts, and the United States and Russia have begun talks aimed at the reduction of the numbers of nuclear weapons that they each hold.

An important element that will be key to successful work to create a Nuclear Weapons Convention is the active, organized involvement of civil society in every part of the world. Without deep, broad and sustained work by civil society to seize upon this incipient momentum to ban nuclear weapons and increase its power and drive, political will can evaporate more quickly than it appeared. If we lose this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to stop the world’s nuclear arms race and start building sustainable peace and security in a world free of nuclear weapons, we could easily tip in the opposite direction and see a renewed and volatile arms race with an increasing number of players. If this were to happen, the probability of the use of a nuclear weapon would increase exponentially.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki have experienced the utter horror of nuclear attack. One Hiroshima was one Hiroshima too many. The second attack on Nagasaki was perhaps even more reprehensible and incomprehensible. We must strive to make sure that there will never again be a Hiroshima or a Nagasaki. Ever. Anywhere.

I visited Hiroshima one time, in August of 2006. At the epicenter of the nuclear attack, I swear I could feel the spirits of those whose lives were lost in an instant on August 6 so many decades ago beseeching all who came there to never let such a thing happen again. If not us, who? If not now, perhaps never. We simply cannot allow “never” to happen. We must join together and seize this historic moment and work to ensure that the opportunity to create a world free of nuclear weapons is not lost and the nations of the world move quickly toward the successful negotiation of an unambiguous, verifiable Nuclear Weapons Convention that is universally adhered to.

(Originally published on Sept. 14, 2009)

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