International virtual webinars call for ending all nuclear weapons
Soldiers observing a nuclear explosion at the Nevada Test Site, 1951. The UN recently sponsored a world-wide webinar on ending proliferation of all nuclear weapons. | U.S. government

On Sept. 26, the United Nations International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, two remarkable events spanning 10 hours of virtual programming by activists, legislators, artists and leaders of struggles around the world were presented by UNFOLD ZERO and We The Peoples 2020.

The programs, divided into two five-hour segments, were timed for viewing by audiences in the Americas/Europe/Africa, and in the Asia/Pacific Area, just days before the General Assembly is to hold its own high-level event on Oct. 2.

On the minds of all the speakers was the intertwined relationship of the world’s major crises – ending nuclear weapons and other struggles for military dominance, defeating the pandemic, curbing climate change, the struggle for racial and economic justice – and the importance of emerging leadership in these struggles by youth around the globe.

Setting the stage for the events was the Hon. Izumi Nakamitsu, UN Under-Secretary General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs. In a video presentation, she emphasized that the total abolition of nuclear weapons “has been the UN’s highest disarmament priority” since its founding, a goal she said “remains more relevant than ever” as growing tensions between nuclear-armed states are increasing the danger of nuclear war.

Warning that the impending February 2021 expiration of the New START nuclear reduction treaty between the U.S. and Russia, between them possessing by far the majority of the world’s nuclear weapons, “raises the alarming possibility of a return to unrestrained strategic competition,” Nakamitsu said the dangers posed by nuclear arms are now higher than since the end of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War nearly three decades ago.

The COVID-19 pandemic is bringing home the lesson that global threats require a global response, she said, and civil society around the world has an essential role in motivating governments to take these dangers seriously.

Weaving together the need to end the U.S. role as the world’s supplier of lethal equipment including nuclear weapons with today’s struggles for economic equity, racial justice and an end to militarized policing, the Rev. Emma Jordan-Simpson, executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation USA, addressed the event most U.S. viewers watched.

Jordan-Simpson called for an end to “investing in structures of violence and inequity,” and across-the-boards investment instead “in that which nourishes life for all people.”

“I call on us to care that what happens to one person on one continent matters absolutely to everyone in the world,” she said. “If we’ve learned nothing else in these last six months, we have to learn that our weapons, no matter how powerful, are nothing compared to a virus that will attack us all.”

As she spoke of today’s “unprecedented, dystopian times” of deadly pandemic, economic collapse, massive racial justice uprisings and the rise of authoritarian nationalist leaders around the world, Jacqueline Cabasso, executive director of the Western States Legal Foundation and North American Coordinator for Mayors for Peace, emphasized civil society’s essential role in the struggle to end nuclear weapons once and for all, and the urgency of building broad, diverse, multi-issue coalitions “based on shared commitments to universal, indivisible human security.”

Cabasso cited the Abolition 2000 Global Network to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons, of which she is a co-founder, which was established at the 1995 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review and Extension Conference. She said Abolition 2000’s primary goal is moving governments to negotiate a convention banning nuclear weapons and provide a time-bound framework for verified elimination of the weapons.

The international organization Mayors for Peace was also founded at a United Nations function, the 1982 UN Special Session on Disarmament, by the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese cities devastated by the U.S. atomic bombings in August 1945. Here, Mayors for Peace works closely with the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which for many years has adopted Mayors for Peace resolutions, last year calling on all presidential candidates to make their positions on nuclear weapons known and to pledge U.S. global leadership in preventing nuclear war and eliminating nuclear arms.

Former Canadian Senator and Disarmament Ambassador Douglas Roche said the “triple emergency” of climate change, nuclear weapons and the COVID-19 pandemic is bringing “a renewed imperative” to step up actions on all three fronts.

“On nuclear weapons,” Roche said, “not only do we still have more than 13,000 remaining” worldwide, but all nine of the nuclear-weapons states are modernizing their arsenals at an enormous cost he called “an insult to our civilization.”

With the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty now in effect for half a century, and a review conference to take place virtually early next year, Roche said the failure of the nuclear weapons countries to fulfill the NPT’s requirement that they negotiate seriously to totally eliminate the weapons led to the General Assembly’s 2017 decision to establish the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, now signed by 44 states and slated to become international law when 50 countries have signed.

The new treaty is “a distinct advance,” Roche said, though nuclear weapons states are strongly resisting. He said a Sept. 21 open letter from 56 former high-level officials from 20 NATO countries calling the new treaty an important reinforcement of the NPT “shows our work is beginning to be effective.” Roche urged stepping up efforts to get the nuclear powers to meet their obligations.

Another important treaty is the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, adopted by a large majority in the UN General Assembly in 1996. Though it has been ratified by some 168 countries and another 17, including the U.S. and China, have signed but not yet ratified, the CTBT is not yet in force.

The United Kingdom’s Labor Party Shadow Minister for Peace and Disarmament, Fabian Hamilton, said pressing the U.S. and China to ratify the test ban treaty would be a big step toward ending once and for all the possibility of nuclear weapons tests and their damage to wildlife, environment and local populations.

Yasmeen Silva, partnerships director for Beyond the Bomb, emphasized the links between nuclear weapons, the pandemic, and the uprisings for racial justice. She pointed out that western communities devastated decades ago by nuclear weapons testing – largely low income indigenous people and other communities of color who now suffer intergenerational radiation damage and lack essential health care – face even more serious consequences from the pandemic because of their earlier suffering.

“The beautiful thing,” Silva said, “is that young people in the U.S. have really understood those connections. What we’re seeing now with the Movement for Black Lives is this understanding that there’s police violence, but where are police getting these military outfits? Oh, from the military! Hmm. The U.S. military has the largest budget in the U.S., and what’s part of that budget? Nuclear weapons!”

Highlighting the role of youth in building and mobilizing the movement to end nuclear weapons, Silva added, “As much as legislators can help us get there, it is people calling for this change that will make that change lasting and real around the world.”

As the program drew to a close, the audience was invited to send messages calling on government leaders to use Oct. 2 – the day the UN General Assembly is honoring the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons – as a time “to make concrete progress in preventing nuclear war and achieving a nuclear-weapon-free world.”


Marilyn Bechtel
Marilyn Bechtel

Marilyn Bechtel writes from the San Francisco Bay Area. She joined the PW staff in 1986 and currently participates as a volunteer. Marilyn Bechtel escribe desde el Área de la Bahía de San Francisco. Se unió al personal de PW en 1986 y actualmente participa como voluntaria.