Seventy-five years ago today, the US dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. It came three days after Hiroshima suffered a similar fate on 6 August 1945. Between 110,000 and 210,000 people lost their lives across both events and thousands more would go on to die in the months and years after from the injuries sustained as a result of the explosion, as well as the ongoing effects of radiation.
Two bombs which began the nuclear age. Two bombs that are dwarfed by the almost 14,000 still possessed by US today. Two bombs whose modern counterparts have several thousand times their destructive power and which would, if ever used, have catastrophic consequences for the whole human race.
Seventy-five years later, the long-term goal of a nuclear weapon-free world remains a distant aspiration and there are several reasons to think that the level of nuclear weapons-related risk is rising.
There are growing tensions between global powers. Relations between Russia and the US, the two nuclear superpowers, are under significant strain and both are modernising their nuclear arsenals. Meanwhile, strategic competition between the US and China has sparked fears of a new cold war. There are a range of disputes between the two countries which could lead to a further deterioration in relations.
At the same time, international arms control and disarmament mechanisms have begun to unravel. In 2019, the US withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, which had banned nuclear-capable, land-launched missiles with a range between 500km and 5,500km, accusing Russia of non-compliance. The US also withdrew from the Open Skies Treaty, which allowed mutual surveillance of each country’s territories. The New Start agreement, the last remaining limit on US and Russia arsenals, is set to expire in February 2021. While it’s positive that negotiations have begun, it is not at all clear the treaty will be extended. There has been little progress on other arms control and global disarmament initiatives.
There have also been challenges to nuclear non-proliferation. The withdrawal of the US from the nuclear accord with Iran was a step backwards that has undermined efforts to avert nuclear proliferation in the region. Efforts to dissuade North Korea from pursuing nuclear weapons have failed, with the country having conducted six nuclear warhead tests since 2006.
More broadly, new technologies threaten to unbalance the status quo between nuclear states while there are rising concerns about the cybersecurity of nuclear weapons systems.
There is therefore an urgent need to re-energise the global nuclear non-proliferation agenda and reduce the risk of the use of nuclear weapons. This is why Labour will place arms control and non-proliferation efforts at the heart of its foreign policy commitment to peace-building.
Addressing rising nuclear risk requires the same political commitment and statecraft that achieved disarmament breakthroughs in the past. As one of the five nuclear weapons states under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Britain has a special responsibility to support non-proliferation and disarmament efforts. We need to make the case for dialogue and diplomacy over escalatory rhetoric. There are several areas where the UK could show leadership.
We must look to finally complete the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Any testing of nuclear weapons has the potential to undo much of the progress we have seen on arms control over the last 60 years. Under a Labour government, the UK ratified the CTBT but currently France and Russia are the only other nuclear-armed states to have ratified it. Britain should become a renewed advocate for the treaty.
In the same vein, we must look to strengthen the NPT. Turning 50 this year, the NPT is the most important treaty in the history of nuclear disarmament, but there are important non-signatories outside the agreement. The 2020 Review Conference for the Treaty, which has been postponed due to Covid-19 to 2021, is an important opportunity to reinvigorate the multilateral disarmament agenda and address the lack of progress on the commitments made in 2010.
The UK should consider new initiatives in the Conference on Disarmament and in the NPT, such as those on limiting fissile material or the US-led initiative on creating the environment for nuclear disarmament, as well as regional initiatives such as on a WMD-free zone for the Middle East. It is also important to turn global attention towards the potential destabilising effects of new technologies and their implications for nuclear weapons.
The nuclear non-proliferation and arms control agenda cannot be allowed to fall by the wayside as the world battles coronavirus. The pandemic should serve as a wake-up call for countries to work together in the interests of global peace and stability.
In 2017, the Japan Confederation of A-and H-Bomb Sufferers Organisation, known as Hibakusha, put out a statement on the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons at the UN. They said “Nuclear weapons were invented by humans. They were also used by humans. Then it should be humans that can abolish them.”
There are no easy solutions when it comes to arms control or multilateral nuclear disarmament. But, as we come out of the coronavirus pandemic and into a “new normal”, we should prioritise reducing the threat that these catastrophic weapons pose and we should work together to ensure that the destruction that was seen on the 6 and 9 August 1945 can never, ever be realised again.
Fabian Hamilton is Labour MP for Leeds North East and shadow minister for peace and disarmament