ibakusha in Japanese means bomb-affected persons and the word is exclusively used to refer to the survivors of atomic explosions at Hiroshima or Nagasaki in August 1945. Today, there are about 170,000 Hibakusha and they are fast becoming extinct. In 20 years or so, there may be none.
The Hibakusha live with the horrid memory of the devastation that visited them in the form of atomic bombs which the United States dropped on the two cities, killing more than 350,000 people, mostly civilians, in a war crime that remains unaddressed and unpunished. While the perpetrator justified the use of the atomic bombs on the basis it was necessary to end the war that had killed some 60-80 millions of people, the victims wondered what sins they had committed other than being the citizen of a country that had dragged them into a war. The Hibakusha, sometimes, wished they had been dead – for they are still traumatised not only by what happened seven decades ago, but also by discrimination their descendants face, particularly with regard to marriage. But they are happy to be alive mainly for one reason: they could relate the horror and be peace messengers to eliminate nuclear weapons. Their stories are etched in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. They were so touching that only an evil-incarnate would come out of it and say that nuclear weapons should stay.
In May 2016, then US President Barack Obama made a historic visit to Hiroshima Peace Memorial. Becoming the first sitting US president to visit Hiroshima, Obama called for a “moral revolution” to counter the evil the technology of today churned out in the form of weapons of mass destruction.
“Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us,” Obama said.
Shorn of any compunction to stockpile nuclear weapons, what we see today is moral decadence, instead of progress in human institutions. It was only last month that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (BAS), an advocacy group seeking to eliminate the threat of nuclear weapons, decided to keep the Doomsday Clock at two minutes to midnight.
The time on the hypothetical clock symbolises how close the Earth is to destruction from nuclear war and other threats such as global warming.
With some de-escalation in global tensions after talks between the US and North Korea in May last year, it was expected that the clock’s time would be put back by a few more minutes. Alas, it was not to be. The reason: Nuclear powers, especially the US, Russia and China are now on an open arms race, which has seen a major escalation in recent weeks and months.
The clock’s present position indicates that the situation is much graver than what the world faced during the Cuban missile crisis. The 13-day crisis, from October 12 to October 26, 1963, over the deployment of Russian missiles in Cuba, did not warrant the Doomsday Clock keepers to bring the minute hand closer to 12 and warn the world of a likely catastrophe. Instead, they put back the clock from 7 to 12 to 12 to 12. This was because the crisis became a catalyst for several positive developments. Significant among them was the setting up of a hotline between US and Soviet leaders. Within months, they also signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty outlawing underground nuclear weapons testing. It was the first treaty addressing the nuclear weapons threat. This led to several bilateral arms treaties such as the Anti-Ballistic Missiles (ABM) Treaty of 1972, the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty of 1987 and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) of 1991, in addition to the international treaties such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. But today, the big powers, especially the US and Russia, are moving in the opposite direction. Instead of disarmament, they are ditching key treaties and moving towards rearmament, deployment and enhancement. What is also alarming is that the very designs of their modern weapons could become an inadvertent trigger for a nuclear holocaust that will make the Earth uninhabitable.
On February 1, less than two weeks after Doomsday Clock scientists warned of the danger the world faced from nuclear weapons, President Trump withdrew from the INF treaty, citing Russia’s non-compliance. Since October last year, the Trump administration had been threatening to pull out of the INF treaty, claiming Russia had, in a clear breach of the treaty, deployed land-based cruise missiles capable of reaching countries in Europe.
On February 2, Russia did the same, and accused the US of violating the provisions of the INF treaty, which required the two countries to eliminate their nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers.
Next year, the START treaty which limits the number of nuclear weapons the two nations could hold comes up for renewal. Given the present one-upmanship mode in US-Russia relations, the prospect of a renewal is beset by uncertainty. Besides, there is also an arms race amid a blame game. In March last year, addressing the Federal Assembly, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin made a computer animation presentation that showcased Russia’s latest weapons to counter the US threat, which he said was arising from Washington’s 2002 withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Putin bragged that no anti-ballistic missile system – Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars -- would be able to detect or stop Russia’s weapons. He warned Russia was ready to “annihilate” any attacker who would use nuclear weapons against it.
One need not be a rocket scientist to know that a nuclear arms race only guarantees MAD -- Mutually Assured Destruction. Apart from the US and Russia, the race also involves China, with six other nations with nuclear weapons running at some distance behind. China, not bound by a bilateral nuclear weapons agreement with the US, feels it has been surrounded by US bases and has armed itself with intermediate-range nuclear weapons to face any challenge.
The world’s disarmament community has another worry – the dual-purpose design of modern missiles. They can carry nuclear or conventional payload and it is difficult to say what it carries. This poses a danger of an accidental nuclear war. It is likely that an incoming Russian or Chinese missile carrying conventional payload could be misunderstood by the US to be a nuclear missile and provoke it to launch a nuclear attack in response.
Sadly, life goes on for many people who are unaware of the dangers the current arms race and nuclear weapons pose. The people, especially from nuclear weapons states, must pressurise their leaders to enter into a comprehensive nuclear disarmament treaty aimed at eliminating not only nuclear weapons, but also any miscalculations that could trigger an accidental nuclear holocaust prior to that.