By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS (IDN) — Speaking during a ceremony marking the 77th anniversary of the devastating atomic bombing of Hiroshima, UN Secretary-General António Guterres remarked on August 6 that it is totally unacceptable for states in possession of nuclear weapons to admit the possibility of nuclear war.
The recent nuclear threats from Russia and North Korea have underlined the significance of the four-week-long Tenth Review Conference on the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), where one of the issues under discussion was “No First Use” of nuclear weapons.
The conference is scheduled to conclude on August 26.
In an interview with IDN, Hirotsugu Terasaki, Director General of Peace and Global Issues at Soka Gakkai International (SGI), said the risk that nuclear weapons will actually be used has risen to the highest level since the end of the Cold War.
“The future of humankind rests on disarmament and the abolition of nuclear weapons. This is a matter that concerns all people everywhere. That is why I firmly believe we cannot leave this to the political, diplomatic and military experts.”
“That’s not to say that expert debate doesn’t play a vital part in the process”, he argued, “but there is the risk of remaining deadlocked should discussions take place within these circles alone”, said Terasaki, whose SGI represents a diverse Buddhist community of 12 million people that promotes peace, culture and education, and is also an NGO in consultative status with the United Nations.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q: Last February, SGI President Daisaku Ikeda highlighted the fact that there are more than 13,000 nuclear warheads in current stockpiles while the modernization of nuclear arsenals continues with no end in sight. In view of recent nuclear threats from Russia and North Korea, do you think the situation could get worse before it gets better?
A: Unfortunately, as you point out, there is a possibility the situation could get worse. European experts I have exchanged views with, on the recent developments in Ukraine, have expressed a real sense of urgency and concern regarding nuclear weapons in this context. At the ongoing NPT Review Conference, many states have also expressed deep concern regarding North Korea. The modernization of nuclear arsenals, spurred by rapid technological development, has resulted in expansion into new spheres such as cyberspace and outer space, which are as yet insufficiently regulated. It is urgent that these concerns be integrated into multilateral discussions.
We face the very real danger that the progress humankind has made in nuclear disarmament and nuclear nonproliferation could be reversed. I believe that, at times like these, solidarity of the international community is all the more important. The voices and actions of civil society carry a special significance when diplomatic negotiations have stalled.
What is essential is to find a way to prevent further escalation of tensions.
It is for this reason that SGI President Daisaku Ikeda issued an emergency proposal immediately before the opening of the NPT Review Conference. In it, he strongly called for the Final Document to include commitments to a policy of “No First Use” by the nuclear-weapon states—the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and China—and support for this principle by all states parties.
Needless to say, the ultimate goal of the NPT is a world without nuclear weapons. To that end, we must do whatever we can to resolve the current crisis and scale back risks. To preclude the possibility that mutual suspicion will cause confrontation to escalate to the level of the unthinkable, we must secure lines of communication that will provide time and space to talk and de-escalate. Adopting policies of “No First Use” would be instrumental in this regard.
We must resolutely open the way to fulfil the vow in the preamble of the NPT: to make every effort to avert the danger of a nuclear war and the devastation it would visit upon all humankind.
Q: Speaking during the opening day of the NPT Review Conference, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said humanity was “just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation.” The growing crisis extends from the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula, he warned, to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. How can we make it a reality to obliterate the threat of nuclear weapons?
A: The risk that nuclear weapons will actually be used has risen to the highest level since the end of the Cold War. In light of this, in his address to the NPT Review Conference, UN Secretary-General António Guterres proposed action in the following five areas:
To reinforce and reaffirm the 77-year-old norm against the use of nuclear weapons.
To reinvigorate our multilateral agreements and frameworks around disarmament and nonproliferation toward the elimination of nuclear weapons.
To redouble our support for dialogue and negotiation to ease the simmering tensions in the Middle East and Asia and forge new bonds of trust.
To promote the peaceful use of nuclear technology as a catalyst to advance the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including for medical and other uses.
To fulfill all outstanding commitments in the NPT itself, and keep it fit-for-purpose in these trying times.
Good faith efforts to implement these action areas are crucial, and we trust that states parties will deliver on these commitments. Reaching consensus will be an arduous and complex process, and will require tenacious negotiation. Relentless perseverance and the courage to never give up will be indispensable. The darker the night, the closer the dawn: this is the lesson of history.
It is also extremely vital to embark upon a fresh round of diplomatic negotiations toward medium- and long-term goals. At the panel discussion, that the SGI co-sponsored with the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Kazakhstan to the UN and other organizations during the NPT Review Conference, Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association, said:
“It is important for the conference to be pointing to steps that nuclear-armed states, particularly the US, NATO and Russia, can take to maintain direct lines of communication—military and political and diplomatic—to resume the US-Russian dialogue on strategic stability issues and on the negotiation of follow-on agreements to the only remaining treaty (New START)”.
We reveal our true strength as human beings when we go beyond simply resolving the immediate crisis and use that experience to create something entirely new. As an Eastern maxim states: “A person who falls to the ground rises back up by pushing against that very ground.”
We are standing at a crucial juncture: Do we progress toward the original purpose of the NPT, or do we regress? We must make this the starting point for a paradigm shift to new security stances in which the role of nuclear weapons is reduced. I believe that a keen awareness of the real dangers we face can serve as a springboard for this kind of transition from the nuclear arms race to nuclear disarmament.
On August 6, the 77th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Secretary-General Guterres stated in Hiroshima: “It is totally unacceptable for states in possession of nuclear weapons to admit the possibility of nuclear war.” He asserted that the elimination of nuclear weapons is the only guarantee that the atrocities of Hiroshima will never be repeated.
As a member of civil society, the SGI will continue to promote the message that nuclear weapons are inhumane, an absolute evil that violates humankind’s right to live; they can never ensure the peace and stability of the world.
Q: How effective is the global campaign by religious and faith-based organizations—and by anti-nuclear activists—in raising public awareness of the threat of an impending nuclear disaster? What are the SGI’s plans in this regard?
A: The future of humankind rests on disarmament and the abolition of nuclear weapons. This is a matter that concerns all people everywhere. That is why I firmly believe we cannot leave this to the political, diplomatic and military experts. That’s not to say that expert debate doesn’t play a vital part in the process, but there is the risk of remaining deadlocked should discussions take place within these circles alone.
When we do find ourselves at an impasse, it is important to return to our starting point. What is that starting point, that initial point of departure, when it comes to the issue of nuclear abolition? Surely it is the lived reality of a nuclear catastrophe as experienced by hibakusha in Hiroshima, Nagasaki and throughout the world, and the human spirit that enables us to empathize with the suffering they have endured. There is a danger that if deliberations are conducted without this acute awareness they will come to a standstill or become irrelevant.
The educational community, the media and civil society must use all tools available to communicate just how inhumane nuclear weapons are, ensuring this understanding is transmitted to future generations. While the effects of such efforts may not be immediately apparent, I am confident that raising public awareness on this issue, especially now, at a time when there is a heightened risk that nuclear weapons will actually be used, will, in the long run serve as a powerful driving force for progress.
Proof of this can be found in the path to realizing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), in which the Humanitarian Initiative worked to focus attention on the inhumane nature of nuclear weapons, thus helping to shift global public opinion and ultimately leading to the adoption of the treaty at the United Nations in 2017.
Following the TPNW’s entry into force in January 2021, the First Meeting of States Parties to the TPNW was held this June and produced a powerful declaration and action plan that provides a clear roadmap for nuclear abolition.
I believe the meeting was also significant in that it reaffirmed the complementarity of the TPNW with the NPT and outlined concrete steps for international cooperation to address the human and environmental harm caused by nuclear weapons through victim assistance and environmental remediation.
Solidarity can be a great strength, especially in times of global crisis. If civil society and faith communities continue to unite their voices toward the achievement of a grand objective, they can be an unstoppable force for change in the world.
On the occasion of the current NPT Review Conference, the SGI joined more than 100 organizations—Faith Communities Concerned about Nuclear Weapons—in issuing a joint statement which was read at the session allocated for NGO presentations. Allow me to introduce a portion of it here, which lays out, in plain language, the approach taken by civil society and faith communities:
As people of faith, we are here to remind you, delegates of the NPT Review Conference, of our shared humanity. . . . We know that nuclear weapons, whether used by design or accident, will destroy the world as we know it and cause tremendous suffering of many people, as testified by the hibakusha and those from affected communities. Nuclear weapons are incompatible with our fundamental values of respect for human dignity; their continued role in so-called national security should not be tolerated.
All of us, as leaders, delegates, civil society, and faith communities, share the moral and ethical responsibility of realizing a world without nuclear weapons, knowing that the possibility lies in our hands. It is up to each of us to enact this mission, and history will surely show that we took the right course.
This year marks 65 years since second Soka Gakkai president Josei Toda (1900–58) made a declaration calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons, entrusting this task to the youth of the time and to subsequent generations.
In the spirit of making this year, this moment now, a crucial milestone toward the realization of a world without nuclear weapons, we are committed to redoubling our efforts to promote grassroots educational activities, broaden networks of solidarity and bring the voices of civil society to the United Nations. We want to ensure that members of the next generation throughout the world inherit the vow for nuclear abolition.
To that end, we are engaging in various initiatives including: promoting digital tools to advance the universalization of the TPNW, holding exhibitions to expand solidarity of action for a nuclear-weapon-free-world, organizing venues for hibakusha testimonies and peace lectures, arranging online film showings and raising awareness among younger generations through social media.
Q: Do you think the United Nations has played an effective role in averting a nuclear war since the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
While I can’t answer that question with an unqualified yes, the UN has played an important role in averting a nuclear war. Nevertheless, more must be done, including reform of the Security Council system, which is often paralyzed and prevented from taking meaningful action.
The horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki bear testament to the fact that humankind was unable to avert the catastrophe of World War II and its dire humanitarian consequences. The United Nations emerged from a process of profound reflection and remorse regarding this history. It was established with the aim of preventing the scourge of war, maintaining global peace and security and realizing international cooperation in such spheres as economics, society and culture.
History has shown that there will inevitably be conflicts among the national interests of states. The UN was conceived and created as a multilateral system for harmonizing the actions and interests of states. Toward this aim, it is vital that we make use of and further strengthen the various bodies that comprise the UN.
I strongly feel that the times increasingly require a UN which reflects the voices of civil society, which enjoys the backing of civil society and in which civil society plays an active role. Civil society participation—especially the engagement of youth, women, indigenous peoples and those in more vulnerable positions who have been denied the opportunity to be heard—is more important than ever. It is the power of diversity that will surely galvanize international opinion and help steer intergovernmental interactions in the right direction.
The world’s hibakusha—victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as those affected by the production and testing of nuclear weapons throughout the globe—have more to say. There are realities they want people everywhere to know about. Many had their lives taken from them before they had a chance to speak their truth, while others who did survive were unable to speak of the bombings or the harm that was caused because of social stigma or other factors. This is also an aspect of how the inhumane nature of these weapons continues to impact people to this day.
In the hearts of hibakusha who are now in their 70s and 80s and who have finally been able to share their stories and release some of the weight they have been carrying is the determination that future generations never suffer the horrific tragedy, the living hell, that they themselves experienced. And it is here that education can make a significant contribution.
In his Agenda for Disarmament, Secretary-General Guterres stresses the important role of younger generations in the disarmament process and the need to enhance disarmament and nonproliferation education in order to provide more opportunities for them to participate. Peace and disarmament education can also play a key role in advancing the SDGs.
This June, I had the opportunity to attend the ICAN Nuclear Ban Forum, which took place in advance of the First Meeting of the States Parties to the TPNW in Vienna. It was inspiring and moving to witness the active engagement of the young people, women and victims of nuclear testing from various regions who had gathered. I felt the same way during the session allocated for NGO presentations at the current NPT Review Conference.
Creating opportunities at various venues for members of the younger generations to interact at the international level, deepening mutual understanding and envisioning peace together, is a vital investment in the future. I truly hope the UN will redouble its efforts and exercise leadership toward this endeavor. [IDN-InDepthNews – 17 August 2022]
Photo: Hirotsugu Terasaki, Director General of Peace and Global Issues, Soka Gakkai International. Credit: Seikyo Shimbun.