Sunday, January 24, 2021

Nuclear weapons banned from today:
welcome to the era of responsibility
(but also of uncertainty)

by Silvia Peppoloni*

This article was published in ReWriters Magazine, in Italian and English:

* Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia, Rome (Italy); Secretary General of the IAPG - International Association for Promoting Geoethics; Councillor of the IUGS - International Union of Geological Sciences; Member of the Nominating Committee of the CIPSH - International Council for Philosophy and Human Sciences. Email:

Silvia Peppoloni
The Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, announces that humanity is in front of "an important step towards a world free from nuclear weapons", after the fiftieth ratification, at the end of last October, of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

The international agreement of 2017 was initially approved by more than 120 nations, but the signatories do not include the major nuclear powers on the planet, including their allies. Therefore, the United States, Russia, China, India, France, United Kingdom, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea, as well as Italy, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Turkey are not among the signatory countries of the agreement and therefore are not subject to the sanctions imposed on the signatories of the treaty in case of non-compliance with its clauses. In fact, nothing changes in the global geopolitical status quo, which is based on deterrence through the construction and maintenance of the most fearsome military arsenals of all time. Few States, and among them some with dictatorial regimes of uncertain political and economic stability, responsible for a constant violation of the most basic human rights, keep the entire planet in a balance of fear, on the edge of a nuclear apocalypse.

Russia’s 2020 declassification of the video recording of a nuclear experiment with a hydrogen bomb (the so-called "Tsar Bomb") conducted in 1961, at the time of the Soviet Union, sketches a possible future. The video shows the mushroom cloud of the largest explosion ever produced by the human hands, with a power equal to 3000 times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima in the Second World War and which reached 61 km in height.

However, this treaty nonetheless represents an ethical turning point in the life of the international community. First, the agreement is the result of a major international mobilization led by ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear weapons), Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2017, and promoted through the slogan "Ban the Bomb", which demonstrates once again how the bottom-up mobilization (for example the Italian campaign "Senzatomica") is able to concretely affect the immediate and long-term prospects of the States. And this is always a sign of hope and encouragement for everyone to take action for the good of themselves and others, including future generations.

Secondly, the treaty highlights that a part of the world has decided to legally bind itself with a pact to deter the use of nuclear weapons, which also implies the prohibition of stationing these explosive devices on its sovereign territories, despite any agreements of military cooperation with existing nuclear powers. Indeed, it is established that ratifying countries must “never under any circumstances develop, test, produce, manufacture or otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices”. It is evident that the signing of this agreement is possible when the national ruling classes assume, even with all the limits of human coherence, a higher political responsibility and a more conscious decision-making autonomy, freeing themselves from the logic of power and domination exercised by more powerful nations.

Finally, there is no doubt that adherence to this treaty will affect the national policies of the signatory States, supporting the citizens who are part of it in forming their own sensitivity towards the issues of disarmament, the abolition of the use of force and the abandonment of violent prevarication in the relations between States.

In any case, there remains scepticism regarding the fact that the world can move faster towards a reduction of the permanent state of tension between the various economic-military blocs, since it does not seem that the major nuclear powers on the planet have included the adhesion to the treaty in their political horizon. The reasons are obvious and not just ideological: giving up one’s nuclear arsenal would represent a weakening towards competitors and, paradoxically, could lead to an increase in instability and regional tensions in critical areas of the planet.

Therefore, the risk of a nuclear war always remains possible, as indicated in the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report 2021, both as a result of an accident that triggers a rapid and automatic retaliation, and for the triggering of an escalation fuelled by a regional conflict that escapes the control of the belligerents. Of course, we are no longer in the ’60s, when in the United States there were even “tales”, but not too much fairy, about the use of atomic devices to quickly carry out long excavations in the ground, accelerating the construction of infrastructures in the Mojave desert in California (Project Carryall).

In any case, the United Nations has set a point of arrival for everyone. The treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons is a signal of peace and cooperation between all volentes, of the same value and perspective as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which although its limitations, criticisms and weaknesses in its widespread and constant implementation, continues to constitute a stellar point for the ethical and legal development of States.

But as history teaches, nothing is forever. There are historical phases of acceleration of the processes that determine effective social progress, other ones in which the achievements of civilization are questioned, deconstructed, overshadowed, sometimes even totally erased like footprints on the sand.

Certainly, one can agree with Daisaku Ikeda: no nuclear disarmament will be achieved if it is not accompanied by the inner disarmament of every human being. It can also be argued along with Pope Francis that even the mere possession, in addition to the use, of nuclear weapons is a crime against the human being and his/her dignity, and against any possibility of the future, and that peace cannot be achieved through the threat of total annihilation, but with the main international legal instruments of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, including the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

However, never take it for granted that the world has changed its way towards the better, as well as towards the worse. Uncertainty is the trait that connotes contemporaneity, but it is also a great discovery for each individual, the discovery of being able to influence the directions to take with one’s choices. And perhaps from this responsibility, the best creative qualities of the human being will be able to find historical accomplishment.


Other articles published in the IAPG Blog:

IAPG - International Association for Promoting Geoethics

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