North Korea nuclear crisis
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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un presides over a target strike exercise conducted by the Korean People’s Army at an undisclosed location, in an undated photo released on August 26. North Korea fired three short-range ballistic missiles on the day, the US military said. Photo: AFP/ KCNA via KNS

Can the world come to its senses on nuclear weapons?

Bunny McDiarmid says a new UN treaty on banning nuclear weapons is an opportunity for all the world’s governments to ratify that missiles are a threat, not an avenue, to global security

As I stepped off a boat onto the main island at Rongelap, a small atoll in the Pacific ocean, on May 17, 1985, it was as if I had reached paradise.

Sandy beaches with coconut trees, crystal clear water; and yet nothing was as it should be.

Waiting for us on the beach, with flowers, was the local community. The women held a banner reading “we love the future of our children”.

I was there with the crew of the Greenpeace ship to help them relocate. Their beloved island was making them sick.

In March 1954, the atoll received a massive amount of radiation when the US tested its most powerful nuclear device. Radioactive fallout descended on the island. Falling for days, it dissolved into water supplies and contaminated the soil. The percentage of people contracting cancer skyrocketed, and children, what they called “jellyfish babies”, were born severely deformed.

They were left with no choice but to leave, with little hope of ever returning.

Women of Rongelap island welcome Bunny McDiarmid, as crew members from the Greenpeace ship “Rainbow Warrior” arrive on the atoll to assist in the evacuation of local residents, in May 1985. Photo: David Robie/Eyes of Fire
August 29 marks the International Day Against Nuclear Tests, and is a good day to reflect on the lessons we have learned. In 1996, major states signed the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. Although the treaty never entered into force, nuclear testing essentially halted with its adoption.
The only country to have performed nuclear tests in the 21st century is North Korea. However, nuclear war, it seems, is no longer inconceivable.
North Korea has threatened to attack the US territory of Guam, in the Pacific Ocean, and President Donald Trump has threatened North Korea with “fire and fury”.

Trump vows to rain ‘fire and fury’ upon North Korea

The threat of nuclear attack has become a bargaining chip, spoken about easily and lightly, both sides dangerously flirting with the idea.

The solution to the current crisis is clear: negotiation and diplomacy. In a historic milestone at the UN in New York in July, 122 countries voted in favour of a new treaty banning nuclear weapons. In September, the treaty will open for signature and is expected to enter into effect shortly after.

Nuclear-armed states and their allies boycotted the treaty, doing all they could to derail the talks. They failed, but their absence is significant. Unless a nation ratifies the treaty, it is not bound by it.

US atmospheric nuclear tests 1945-1962

Nevertheless, the importance of the treaty is enormous, and it will make it harder for the proponents of nuclear weapons to describe them as a legitimate and useful means to provide security.

The treaty sets the benchmark for a world where nuclear weapons are considered a threat to security, not an avenue to it.

World governments must use it as an impetus to come to their senses, and disarm.

Bunny McDiarmid is executive director of Greenpeace International

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: See sense on nuclear weapons