Using nuclear armaments would be a crime against humanity.
The term “crimes against humanity” was first used in 1915 by the Allied governments (France, Great Britain, and Russia) when they issued a declaration condemning the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. But it was only after World War II in 1945 that crimes against humanity were prosecuted in Nuremberg.
The 1998 Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court offers the most extensive list of acts that may constitute crimes against humanity. Under this Statute, a “crime against humanity” is an act committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population – including intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.
By any standards, a nuclear attack constitutes a crime against humanity – although it didn’t in 1945 when at least 129,000 people were killed outright by the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Around 1,900 cancer deaths were later attributed to the after-effects of the bombing and some 650,000 people lived on as hibakusha or “explosion-affected people”. Despite being part of a nation aggressively at war, these were not military casualties, but civilians. They were not “collateral damage” – in the nasty euphemism for people unintentionally killed – but direct targets.
Since 1945, the potential devastation caused by nuclear arms has trebled. In an expert paper recently published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, it was stated that nuclear weapons have been “modernised” to increase their destructive power by a factor of three. This fact also strengthens a “first strike mentality” since that might seem the best if not the only option faced with an enemy that also has nuclear warheads.
Nuclear weapons are capable of destroying entire cities and nations. They are biological time bombs, leaving deadly radioactive residues that are dispersed indiscriminately over time and space to kill, sicken, and cause mutations in future generations. They are instruments of genocide: their initial effect is to kill hundreds of thousands and their long-term radiological and environmental impact threatens the continued existence of humans and most complex life-forms on Earth.
Now, a global treaty has been approved to ban nuclear bombs. It is a move that supporters hope will lead to the eventual elimination of all nuclear arms. The treaty was endorsed by 122 countries at the United Nations headquarters on 14 July 2017, but the nine countries generally recognized as possessing nuclear weapons – the USA, Russia, Britain, China, France, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel – were noticeably absent from the negotiations, as were most members of NATO.
Under the new UN treaty, signatory states must agree not to develop, test, manufacture or possess nuclear weapons, or threaten to use them, or allow any nuclear arms to be stationed on their territory. But, since the only way to eliminate the nuclear threat is to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, it is still necessary to eliminate all nuclear materials and weapons and to achieve what is termed “global zero”. No insurmountable technical or financial barriers stand in the way of this goal – and there would be immense savings since nuclear weapons currently cost some one trillion dollars globally every decade. The only real barrier is political.
Tadatoshi Akiba was Mayor of the City of Hiroshima from 1999 to 2011 and for much of that time President of Mayors for Peace, a global network striving to achieve nuclear disarmament. He is deeply committed to ensuring that the world never again experiences the horror that reduced his city to rubble and killed hundreds of thousands of people:
“We cannot and must not allow ourselves to have the message of Hiroshima and Nagasaki fade completely from our minds, and we cannot allow our vision or ideals to fade either. For if we do, we have but one course left for us. And that flash of light will not only rob us of our vision, but it will rob us of our lives, our progeny, and our very existence.”