by Kathie Malley-Morrison
Every nuke we make, every vow we break, every life at stake, they’ll be watching us. Be grateful for their attention because “they” are the United Nations Human Rights Council, and “we” are citizens of the country with the largest stock of nuclear weapons in the world—many of them on hair-trigger alert. They watch because making, storing, testing, and selling nuclear weapons, not just using them, all violate international human rights agreements. And the United States has been doing all of those things since the 1940s.
Emerging from the bloodbaths of two world wars and the horrors inherent in the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a death-weary multinational group created the United Nations. Its purposes were admirable: maintain international peace and security, provide humanitarian assistance where needed, protect human rights, and uphold international law. In pursuit of these purposes, the very first resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1946 established a commission with the task of making proposals for the “elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction.”
Despite the post-war arms race and a Cold War that saw an increase rather than a decrease in the number of nations rattling their nuclear sabers, committees within the United Nations undertook the mission of uniting member nations in agreements to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons and eliminate them totally. One of the first major achievements in this quest was the Treaty on the non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which was ratified by a large group of member nations, including the U.S., and entered into force in March of 1970. As the dominant power in nuclear weaponry, might the United States have had reasons other than humanitarian and respect for human rights in supporting non-proliferation? A much more far-reaching treaty, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), entered into force in January 2021. This treaty prohibits all activities related to nuclear weapons, such as developing, testing, producing, acquiring, possessing, stockpiling, using or threatening to use nuclear weapons. The United States has not signed or ratified that treaty but rather has actively rejected it and encouraged its allies to reject it as well—perhaps again for reasons other than respect for human rights.
In its efforts to foreclose on repeats of the horrific violence of World War II, the United Nations has focused much of its work on protecting human rights. The United States has signed and ratified some of the U.N. treaties (e.g., the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights), but rejected others (e.g., International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and Convention on the Rights of the Child). Do you see any connection between the country’s shoddy record concerning human and political rights and its refusal to ratify the long-overdue treaty aimed at ridding the world of nuclear weapons? If a government won’t protect the rights of its own women and children, its impoverished masses longing to be free, its indigenous people, its people of color, and others outside the power elite, would we really expect it to respect the lives of people elsewhere?
The link between lack of respect for human rights and investment in nuclear weapons is quite apparent to some observers. In its annual reviews of human rights violations, the UN Human Rights Council has argued that the very existence of nuclear weapons violates the fundamental right to life as codified In paragraph 66 of General Comment No. 361 in Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) (not ratified by the United States). In several reports, the Council has noted that “The threat or use of weapons of mass destruction, in particular nuclear weapons, which are indiscriminate in effect and are of a nature to cause destruction of human life on a catastrophic scale, is incompatible with respect for the right to life and may amount to a crime under international law.” On the basis of this argument, the Human Rights Council has concluded that the United States is violating the fundamental right to life (and probably other human rights) through their nuclear programs. So also are France, Canada, Denmark, the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, either through their own nuclear programs or, in some cases, through their membership in NATO, which includes nuclear weapons as part of preparedness for “deterrence and defense.”
Although the United States has for years disregarded, rejected, and violated the provisions of human rights conventions and anti-nuclear weapons treaties, most people in this country are unaware of the risks to which governmental noncompliance is exposing them. Although there appears to be increasing public awareness regarding racism, climate change, and poverty, how many people do you know who take the inherent threat in nuclear weapons seriously, who mourn the lives lost at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and U.S. nuclear testing sites?
This is where you come in. Speak out, reach out, search out allies to help restrain a military-industrial-Congressional complex pursuing profits at all costs—including costs to you, to a viable future, to a living planet. The United Nations has virtually no enforcement power in regard to treaty violations and has a terrible human rights record of its own in relation to interventions in countries such as Haiti, and it has disappointed many in its failure to bring the world closer to peace, security, and protection of human rights; however, it has a loud voice that speaks in many languages, a voice that echoes internationally, a voice carries moral authority in regard to its human rights and nuclear review documents. Appeal to that voice when engaging in nuclear weapons-related activism. While you’re writing letters to Congressional representatives, signing anti-nuclear petitions, joining peace action groups, and demonstrating outside Raytheon and other war profiteer sites, remember that the United Nations Human Rights Council is on the right side on this issue and that’s one more tool in your anti-nuclear weapons toolkit.