Commemorating the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

In Japan, turning seventy is a milestone called "Koki", referring to an ancient poem about reaching an age that was rare in those times. This Thursday and Sunday, August 6 and 9, mark the seventy-year commemoration of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and with it the advent of the nuclear age. Rather than a cause for celebration, the nuclear era reaching this old age serves as a shameful testament to our inability to remove one of the existential threats of our time.

Remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki invites a mix of emotions. Predominantly, there is solemn reflection on the widespread death, destruction and suffering caused by these attacks, the only two instances of use of nuclear weapons during warfare. By the end of 1945, the death toll had risen to 145,000 people in Hiroshima and 75,000 people in Nagasaki. Many more have suffered from the intergenerational effects of radiation exposure since. Such reflection is accompanied by disquiet about how these attacks signified the onset of a period characterized by our unprecedented ability to destroy ourselves and other life on this planet. As the years have gone by, another emotion has gained in strength -- outrage. Outrage that the call of the hibakusha -- the survivors of the attacks -- for a world free of nuclear weapons has gone unanswered and that instead decades of nuclear testing has made the number of victims of nuclear explosions swell further. Outrage that, at present, over 16,000 nuclear weapons remain in the arsenals of the nuclear-armed states, the majority of which are many times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Outrage that we are condemning future generations to live under the threat of nuclear weapons.

In a recent speech, Right Livelihood Award laureate Daniel Ellsberg reflected on the fifty seconds it took the 15-kiloton Hiroshima bomb "Little Boy" to explode after being released from the "Enola Gay" bomber. He came to this observation after noting a slight discrepancy between the commonly accepted time of detonation of 08:15AM and the clock dials displayed in the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima showing a time closer to 08:16AM (the blast made the clocks stop ticking). It is a startling observation. Fifty seconds is enough time to engage in a host of human behavior, ranging from the deeply meaningful to the utterly trivial. That morning, the predominantly civilian population of Hiroshima used those fifty seconds to finish homework, get dressed, finish breakfast, to kiss a loved one or hug a partner leaving for work, unaware of the doom unleashed on them, getting closer with every passing second.

Today, the nuclear threat is still with us. Around 1,800 nuclear weapons remain on "hair-trigger alert", a policy relic of the Cold War that will launch these weapons at a moment's notice. Recent studies have revealed how often miscalculation or accidents led to the brink of nuclear use. The steady increase in cyber attacks on nuclear forces has put further risks on the table. There is general consensus among experts that it is not a matter of if but rather when nuclear weapons will be used. We thus go about our lives oblivious to when our last fifty seconds might be up.

It is discouraging to see that the international architecture erected to achieve nuclear disarmament has proven insufficient. At the heart of this failure lies the lack of political will among the nuclear-armed states to implement their disarmament obligations. However, a few recent initiatives and signs give cause for cautious hope. Spurred on by a reinvigorated civil society, and inspired by past efforts of the international community to prohibit chemical weapons, biological weapons, land mines and cluster munitions, an increasing number of states have put humanitarian concerns about the effects of nuclear weapons and risks inherent to their existence at the heart of the debate. Importantly, these efforts have been accompanied by a deepened examination of practical proposals for eliminating nuclear weapons.

Another hopeful development lies in the increased role parliamentarians and mayors have taken in advancing nuclear disarmament. A joint statement of parliamentarians, mayors and religious leaders released on the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing supports "the common good of nuclear abolition" and urges "states to advance a nuclear weapons convention or framework of agreements that eliminate nuclear weapons." Another initiative worth mentioning is the legal action that the Republic of the Marshall Islands has taken against the nine nuclear-armed states in the International Court of Justice for failing to comply with their nuclear disarmament obligations. This brave action by a country that continues to suffer from the effects of nuclear testing has served to underline the legal obligation for nuclear disarmament.

The message of the hibakusha is that no one should ever suffer in the same way they have. But this can only be achieved through the global elimination of nuclear weapons, a goal enshrined in the first ever resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly and shared by the vast majority of the peoples of the world. So, as we commemorate the horrors of the past we must also reaffirm our commitment to creating a safer and more secure future without nuclear weapons.