Hiroshima and the World: Hiroshima’s Message to the World

by Judge Christopher Gregory Weeramantry

Judge Christopher Gregory Weeramantry
Born in 1926 in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Judge Weeramantry served as Vice-President of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) from 1997-2000 and was a Judge of the ICJ from 1991-2000. Previously, he was a Justice of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka from 1967-1972. Judge Weeramantry is President of the International Association of Lawyers against Nuclear Arms and has received such honours as the UNESCO Peace Education Laureate of 2006 and the Right Livelihood Award of 2007 (known as the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize). He is also Founder-Chairman of the Weeramantry International Centre for Peace Education and Research. His educational background includes an LLD and D. Lit., both from the University of London.

Hiroshima's Message to the World

It is with much pleasure that I address a few words to the readers of Chugoku Shimbun under the topic of "Hiroshima and the World."

The topic just mentioned has a wide variety of connotations relating to the human future.

Human beings may have disputes among themselves. That will always be the case since no two people think identically. At the same time we need to recognise the fact that differences and disputes need to have a civilised method of solution rather than a barbaric resort to physical force. Indeed the most barbaric of all actions which any living beings can resort to is the action of exterminating whole cities and whole groups of people as a means towards the solution of their disputes.

Indeed we carry it further today through evolving weapons which leave the Hiroshima and Nagasaki weapons in the shade for their brutality and destructiveness. Today we have weapons dozens of times as powerful as those used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and we keep improving them and increasing their fire power and destructiveness as though we have learnt nothing from the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

We need to ask ourselves why this pursuit of weapons of ultimate destruction is being pursued by rational human beings, regardless of the fact that they imperil all civilisation, all humanity and indeed all life on the planet.

The answer is clearly that we have not given enough thought to dispute resolution, to our obligations to the environment, to our obligations towards future generations, and to our obligations as inheritors of a vast corpus of traditional and religious wisdom, which has taught us for centuries that he who lives by the sword will die by the sword.

The nuclear danger grows from day to day and one can advance at least ten different reasons why the peril is steadily on the increase. The number of powers with nuclear weapons keeps growing, terrorist organisations are proliferating, nuclear material is freely available, conflicts are raging all over the world, differences between nations and cultures are not being resolved, international law is being disregarded, conflict resolution mechanisms are not brought into operation.

It is no wonder that the world is becoming an ever more dangerous place to live in and that we are leaving to future generations a world far more dangerous than the world we inherited.

I see this particularly clearly after my several years as a judge of the International Court of Justice, which was created with a view to solving by peaceful means the disputes that arise between nations. We have resolved dozens of disputes which in earlier years might have led to wars. There is no reason why all disputes of an international nature should not be settled in this peaceful fashion through international law rather than through a resort to force. Yet in the area most dangerous to the human future, the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons, international law tends to be disregarded.

Hiroshima conveys to all the world in the starkest possible terms that we must learn how to consign this weapon to oblivion or resign ourselves to the extinction of all civilisation and all humanity. This message should go out loud and clear from Hiroshima for we cannot wait for another Hiroshima to bring the rulers of the world to their senses.

My message to all is that the principles for the solution of all disputes however grievous and long standing exists in the form of international law, which all nations are bound to obey. There can not be one law for the powerful and one law for the weak. If law and order are to prevail in any society from the village level to the international, all members of that society must obey the law. We have the strange situation in the world today, that nuclear powers while clinging to their weapons are telling the rest of the world, that they have no right to nuclear weapons. What would anybody think of a society where the policeman who is trying to enforce the law is himself grievously violating the very law which he seeks to enforce?

A visitor from outer space or even a little child would wonder at the absurdity of this situation. Yet that is the very absurdity which the nuclear powers are creating and expecting the rest of the world to ignore.

The nuclear weapon is absolutely illegal under international law. The creation, storage, stock piling, research, threat of use and actual use are all illegal under many heads of international law. I said so quite categorically in my Dissenting Opinion in the nuclear weapons case thirteen years ago. Nothing that has happened since then has caused me to change that view even in the slightest degree and I believe international lawyers throughout the world are in agreement with that opinion.

Furthermore, even though the judges disagreed among themselves on the question whether the weapon could be used in extreme self defence when the very survival of a nation was at stake, all the judges agreed unanimously that "there exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control."

Here was a pronouncement by the highest international tribunal of the world, unanimously agreed upon by every single judge, placing an obligation on every single nuclear state to commence forthwith the process of getting rid of its nuclear arsenal.

One would have thought that they would obey this categorical principle, so authoritatively pronounced, within a period of two or three years on the outside, if one were generous in allocating a reasonable time for performing this imperative task.

Thirteen years and more have passed, and what have those nations done? They have paid lip service to this principle but not taken the meaningful steps towards their abolition which one would expect of countries with responsible leadership. In the result these countries, every single one of them, are under an imperative obligation to do their best to make the forthcoming Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty Review conference a resounding success and to initiate meaningful steps immediately to rid themselves of their nuclear arsenals.

It should be stressed that the act of law breaking involved in the manufacture, storage, threat of use or use of nuclear weapons is not a simple one, like theft or assault, for which the law sends offenders to prison. It relates to the most horrendous act that could ever be imagined – the act of destroying everything we have held dear. This could mean the extermination of every human being on the planet and every species of life that has been created – for such would be the result of a multiple nuclear exchange which would inevitably follow the next use of a nuclear weapon.

The next nuclear attack, should it occur, would not be an attack upon a sitting target such as defenceless Hiroshima or Nagasaki, but would be an attack which in this nuclear age would provoke a nuclear retaliation and the weapons flying in both directions would trigger off a nuclear winter which could exterminate or endanger all life on earth.

I recall vividly the evidence given by the Mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the nuclear weapons hearing at the ICJ regarding the terrible consequences of the weapons used in their cities. If only this were better known to citizens in other countries they would certainly clamour for the abolition of nuclear weapons which could impose a similar catastrophe on themselves.

Moreover such an event would produce its environmental devastation for several multiples of 24,000 years (24,000 years is the half life of Plutonium 239). Can we seriously suggest that in order to resolve our disputes, however great our grievances may be, we have the right to imperil all creatures for the next 24,000 years and more. We obviously have a disproportionate sense of our importance if we can contemplate the use of such a mechanism for the resolution of our disputes.

If Stone Age man had the power thousands of years ago to act in such a manner as to endanger the environment in our time we would have said of them, "What savages! What brutes! What barbarians!"

Do we want to go into history as savages, brutes, and barbarians who do not care a rap for the interests of generations yet to come? Yet we are in a sense worse than Stone Age man if he had been able to do such a brutal thing, because Stone Age man would have done it without knowing its long term consequences. We would be doing it with full knowledge of these long term consequences, for the scientists have made this clear beyond the shadow of a doubt.

I believe that in the light of the preceding observation, there is a duty incumbent on every thoughtful inhabitant of the planet to pursue actively in whatever way he or she can, every means of persuading their governments to discard all nuclear weapons, discard all research on them and discard all reliance on them in any form whatsoever. The principle is clear, the obligation is clear, the damage to be avoided is clear, the path dictated by ethics, morality, religious obligation and law is clear. The question to be asked is why we are waiting and why we are permitting our rulers to ignore an obligation which is so patently clear that any child could perceive it.

Hiroshima has a message for all humanity. Let us heed it now.

We need to act now.

(Originally published on Nov. 23, 2009)

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