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Nuclear Weapons Are Issue Zero

On International Human Rights Day, the US should take a page from Eleanor Roosevelt and stand up to the threat.

Words: Akshai Vikram

Today is the 71st International Human Rights Day, so commemorated for the day the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. That document, famously championed by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, recognized that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and consciousness and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” If we are to live up to that standard in the years to come, the United States must recommit itself to combatting the world’s most acute threat to global human rights: nuclear weapons.

Avoiding nuclear war is foundational to all other human rights goals. As Tristan Guyette of Beyond the Bomb put it in a recent interview, this is: “issue zero. Because if nuclear war breaks out tomorrow, all of our work on other social issues ends.” The interconnectedness of nuclear weapons policy has too long been relegated only to certain insightful pockets of activists. But continued reliance on these weapons makes progress on all other fronts more difficult.

Nuclear weapons are the ultimate indiscriminate killer. As such, there is no human rights issue, whether inequities of race and gender to economic inequality, that would not be made more intractable were a nuclear weapon to be used. And even as they approach their 75th birthday, nuclear weapons retain a lethality that puts them in a destructive class of their own. No other weapon has the power to effectively end the United States in an afternoon.

Yet a nuclear weapon need not be used in anger to pose a threat to human rights. Even its mere existence threatens to impede human rights progress on adjacent issues. Take just one example: the Los Angeles Times recently highlighted the threat climate change poses to a US-made dome in the Marshall Islands. That dome contains 3.1 million cubic feet of radioactive debris from US nuclear testing. As sea levels rise, the structural integrity of that dome is increasingly at risk. It is not unlikely that thousands will be exposed to heightened levels of carcinogenic radiation as a result. As climate change unravels security assumptions worldwide, the legacy of nuclear weapons has only made a dire problem worse.

There are numerous steps the United States could take to lead on the issue of nuclear weapons. As we head into an election year, three in particular merit specific attention.

In the US, a recent study found that in New Mexico, the site of intensive Cold War uranium mining, one in four Navajo women and their newborn babies have frighteningly high levels of uranium in their bodies.

First, because the United States is one of only two nuclear superpowers, was the first country to create nuclear weapons, and remains the only country to have used nuclear weapons in war, it has a unique obligation to ensure that nuclear weapons are never used in combat again. As such, it should immediately adopt a No First Use policy, guaranteeing that the US will never again be the first to use a nuclear weapon. Various options for such a policy exist, including one bill by Sen. Elizabeth Warren and House Armed Services Chair Adam Smith and a second similar bill by Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Ted Lieu. Such a move would eliminate the risk of a mad US president triggering an unprovoked nuclear war (which is a real possibility) and drastically cut down the risks of miscalculation and accident, as well as provide a deterrent against mutually assured destruction during war with another nuclear-armed state. Moreover, as Sen. Warren has argued, a No First Use policy would help the United States maintain its “moral and diplomatic leadership.”

Second, the United States must work to stop the collapse of international arms control regimes and then work towards creative solutions to new problems. The task is urgent – under the Trump administration, the United States has withdrawn from numerous arms control agreements. More seem to be on the chopping block, the removal of which would set us diplomatically further behind on nuclear legislation than in the cold war. This trend must be stopped and reversed. Today, emerging technological advances threaten to destabilize the world’s already-precarious nuclear balance. The US must adapt to move toward solving these new problems of tomorrow, rather than bring back the problems of yesteryear by jettisoning good arms control agreements.

Finally, leaders must recognize that the production of nuclear weapons comes with both a financial and ethical price tag. As Pope Francis argued in Nagasaki last month, “In a world where millions of children and families live in inhumane conditions, the money that is squandered and the fortunes made [on nuclear weapons]… are an affront crying out to heaven.” Rather than spend money to alleviate the suffering of the most vulnerable among us, we throw dollar after dollar at weapons of mass destruction. That alone is unacceptable. But to make matters worse, in addition to taking resources away from communities that need them, the production of nuclear weapons has nearly always involved degrading the physical health of those same communities. In the Soviet Union, it was the minority Central Asian Kazakhs who bore the brunt of nuclear testing; hundreds of thousands were exposed to dangerous radiation levels, sometimes deliberately, resulting in birth defects and cancer. In the US, a recent study found that in New Mexico, the site of intensive Cold War uranium mining, one in four Navajo women and their newborn babies have frighteningly high levels of uranium in their bodies. Clearly, the economic and human costs of nuclear weapons production should alarm us all.

Yet inexplicably, they do not. Leaders in both Washington and Moscow keep adding to their already indefensibly large arsenals. Over the next three decades, the United States alone is slated to spend almost $2 trillion on nuclear weapons, including on a ground-based missile force that the US no longer needs and on a new, lower-yield and more usable nuclear weapon. For Russia, the failures of so-called nuclear modernization should have been made obvious this summer, when a botched weapons test killed five scientists. Furthermore, such spending is manifestly redundant. Just last year, a scientific study indicated that a nuclear exchange of one hundred nuclear weapons could result in the deaths of over two billion people. The US and Russia each possess over 6,000.

It is not a coincidence that Eleanor Roosevelt was both a tireless advocate for the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and tireless opponent of nuclear weapons. If the 21st century is to continue to be more peaceful that the 20th, the United States must build on her legacy by moving away from nuclear folly.

Akshai Vikram is the Roger L. Hale Fellow at the Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation.

Akshai Vikram

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