Happy New Era?

“Nuclear weapons are like a rifle hanging on the wall in a play. We did not write the play, we are not staging it and we do not know what the author intends. Anyone could take the rifle from the wall at any time.” — Mikhail Gorbachev, What Is at Stake Now: My Appeal for Peace and Freedom (2020)


Later this month, the most devastating and indiscriminate weapons on Earth will be banned.

Article 15 of the United Nations’ Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW or ‘The Ban Treaty’) — adopted by 122 states on 7 July 2017 – declares the accord will enter into force (become binding international law) 90 days after the “deposit of the fiftieth instrument of ratification.” These things take time, but as early as October 24 last year, Honduras became the 50th state to ratify, meaning the Ban will be ‘born’ on January 22. At which point we can officially declare, as Hiroshima-survivor Setsuko Thurlow exulted when the Treaty was first approved:

Nuclear weapons have always been immoral. Now they are also illegal.

But how hale and healthy will the ‘newborn’ be, and what might it grow up to achieve?

By striking coincidence, its birth will come almost exactly 75 years since its conception: the unanimous adoption on 24 January 1946 of the first UN General Assembly resolution, UNGA 1, calling for “the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other weapons adaptable to mass destruction.”

The First Session of the United Nations General Assembly opened on the 10th January 1946 at Central Hall in London.

The First Session of the United Nations General Assembly opened on 10 January 1946 at Central Hall in London. UN Photo.

Those “other weapons,” chemical and biological, have already been banned, and though chemical weapons have recently been used in Syria, and though both the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and 1975 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) stand in urgent need of strengthening, neither the immorality nor illegality of mass-murder by poison or disease is disputed. The Ban Treaty will thus fill the obscenely yawning “legal gap” in international humanitarian law by prohibiting and stigmatizing by far the worst weapon of mass destruction of all.

The TPNW refers briefly to UNGA 1 “and subsequent resolutions which call for the elimination of nuclear weapons,” as well as the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and its call for negotiations leading to a nuclear-weapon-free world. But is worth pausing to revisit UNGA 1 more closely, for clues on how the Ban Treaty might now be enabled to live long and prosper.


UNGA 1 is entitled ‘Establishment of a Commission to Deal with the Problems Raised by the Discovery of Atomic Energy.’ The Commission was to be “composed of one representative from each of those states represented on the Security Council, and Canada when that state is not a member of the Security Council.” Why the special role for Canada? In part, alas, because of its contribution to creating those “Problems” — the decisive importance of Canadian expertise, facilities, technology and, most crucially, uranium (from colonized Dene territory), in the development of the ‘American’ superweapon. Also, more positively, because, as a significant military power in 1946, Canada’s decision not to build its own Bomb lent it authority in efforts to avert the grave danger it had helped create.

The Commission’s mandate was to “proceed with the utmost despatch” to “enquire into all phases of the problem,” making “specific proposals” to the Security Council on ways to “control…atomic energy to the extent necessary to ensure its use only for peaceful purposes,” and thus achieve not the limitation but “elimination” of atomic weapons. What is difficult to appreciate now is the extent to which the mandate of the Security Council was to work, in the words of the Charter, to “free succeeding generations” not just from the new “scourge” of the Bomb but the old curse of war itself: to ensure that “national armaments” would be sufficient solely for self-defense.

This was more than aspirational; Article 26 of the Charter charges the Council with responsibility for establishing – with the assistance of a Military Staff Committee (MSC) established in Article 47 – “a system for the regulation of armaments” such that “the maintenance of international peace and security” can be achieved “with the least diversion for armaments of the world’s human and economic resources.”

As the ‘Reaching Critical Will’ program of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) observes, Article 26 “demands disarmament and reduced military expenditures as a precondition for increased security, development, and peace,” placing “the Security Council at the centre of enforcing disarmament” in a transition “from military security…towards human security” which “directly challenges…the concept that international relations and national security can only be determined through the threat of military force, as well as continuous preparation and readiness for armed conflict.”

First meeting of UN Security Council

First meeting of UN Security Council, January 1946. L to R: Norman J.O. Makin (Australia); Mr. de Freitas Valle (Brazil); Wellington Koo (China); Badawi Pasha (Egypt); Vincent Auriol (France); Mr. de Rozenweig Diaz (Mexico); and Mr. Van Kleffens (Netherlands). UN photo.

The vision, in sum, is akin to Isaiah’s: not only shall nation no longer “lift up sword against nation;” “neither shall they learn war any more.” Yet the MSC soon fell victim to Cold War animosity, ceasing its ineffectual work in July 1948, by which time the Commission envisaged in UNGA 1 had yet to materialize! The dream lived on in the form of the once-prominent, now-peripheral UN agenda item ‘General and Complete Disarmament’ (GCD), but with the death-in-infancy of Article 26 and the MSC, the Permanent-Five (P5) members of the Security Council (the US, Soviet Union, UK, France and China, all by the mid-1960s nuclear-weapon states) came to constitute the biggest obstacle to progress on the path they were entrusted to pave!

In 1978, an exasperated General Assembly established three institutions designed to revive the frozen promise of the Charter: a Conference on Disarmament, a Disarmament Commission, and a ‘First Committee on Disarmament and International Security’ with the power – exercised, for example, in the case of the Ban Treaty – to initiate negotiations. But both before and after the Cold War – with the notable exception of the deep détente of the late 1980s – the ruinous, military-industrial habits of the P5 and their allies have continually frustrated the hopes of the vast majority of the world’s states and peoples.

This addiction to weapons and war explains the otherwise odd fact that, while both the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Ban Treaty espouse the goal of general and complete disarmament, the P5 heaps praise on the former and scorn on the latter. All five cite the lack of GCD – for which they themselves are principally responsible – as a reason they dare not renounce nuclear weapons: something they know the venerable NPT can never compel them to do, but which a Ban obviously can.


Politically, of course, this (to be kind) awkward argument – that the ‘conditions’ for nuclear disarmament have yet to be created, at least not by the P5 – is regarded as cant and hypocrisy by most NPT states, as well as those three nuclear-armed states (India, Israel, Pakistan) which refuse to sign the NPT, or the one (North Korea) that left it to ‘go nuclear.’ But given the evident, intimate linkage between nuclear and conventional disarmament, why not try to bridge the NPT-TPNW divide by revisiting both the letter and spirit of Article 26 and UNGA 1? Why not adopt a new resolution to establish, well, a ‘Commission to Deal with the Problems Raised by the Discovery of Atomic Energy,’ empowered to make recommendations on achieving, let’s see, “elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons?” Why not reconstitute the Military Staff Committee – perhaps renamed as a Demilitarization Coordination Committee – to report to both the Security Council and General Assembly on efforts to coordinate the conventional and nuclear disarmament required by Article 23?

Gustave Doré illustration of Beatrice appearing to Dante.

Gustave Doré’s illustration to Dante’s Inferno. Plate VII: Canto II: “Beatrice am I, who do bid thee go” (Longfellow’s translation) Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

On December 10, analyst Victor Gilinsky argued that “fear of losing control of nuclear weapons policy explains the [US] State Department’s almost hysterical reaction” to the TPNW. “As all nuclear weapon states and their allies,” Gilinsky wrote, have rejected the Ban, “its only foreseeable practical effect could be to provoke worldwide discussion on eliminating nuclear weapons,” yet “even this” prospect is “apparently…too threatening to things-as-they-are.”

Actually, the TPNW has already made a difference, raising public and political awareness of all-too-real risks of nuclear use by accident, miscalculation or design, and persuading major investment funds to divest from the nuclear-weapons complex . The Treaty also contains far-reaching provisions on international cooperation and assistance for states and individuals “affected by nuclear-weapons use or testing;” seeks to enhance the role of “peace and disarmament education;” and is committed to “strengthening the effective participation of women in nuclear disarmament.” But American and other apologists for the status quo may well be right to fear where such a ‘worldwide discussion’ might lead. As Beatrice sagely advised Dante:

We have digressed enough. Turn your mind’s eye

back to the road of truth; we must adjust

discussion to what time is left us here.

Beatrice was leading the Pilgrim to the supreme peace of Paradise; our task, on an Earth that can turn to Hell any day, is to finally stop the nuclear shockwave, rolling since 1945, in its tracks . To do so, I believe we need to more fully appreciate the extent to which nuclear weapons and nuclear disarmament are, on both sides, matters of the deepest faith and conviction.



James Mattis

James Mattis

A ‘triptych,’ an innovation of medieval Christianity, is a three-paneled painting, an aid to meditation dominated by a central scene and amplified by flanking pictures. In the center of my ‘Ban Treaty Triptych,’ we see US Defense Secretary General Jim ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis deep in prayer in Washington National Cathedral. It is late 2017, and with the Commander-in-Chief threatening ‘fire and fury’ against North Korea, Mattis (as recounted in Bob Woodward’s book Rage) is asking himself and his Lord:

What do you do if you’ve got to do it? You’re going to incinerate a couple million people. No person has the right to kill a million people as far as I’m concerned, yet that’s what I have to confront.

At the height of the War Scare, Mattis – who in October that year had candidly reminded all Department of Defense personnel that “we are a department of war” – would sleep in his gym clothes, in case ‘the call’ he dreaded came. (I picture him, sleepless, working on the Nuclear Posture Review he would release in 2018, lowering the threshold, and expanding the range of scenarios, for nuclear use!) In August 2017, Mattis visited another ‘sacred’ space, where the Thing ‘no one has the right’ to do is routinely, solemnly pondered. The scene was drawn in an extraordinary article in Der Spiegel:

When NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group assembles, the highest level of classification is required: ‘Cosmic Top Secret.’ Even defense ministers from the alliance are required to turn in their mobile phones before entering the small, windowless meeting room at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels. … A frequent participant describes the atmosphere in the nuclear meetings as reverential. It’s ‘almost like a church,’ he says. There’s no chumminess on display and no jokes are made. ‘The focus is on nuclear deterrence, the holy grail of the alliance, in a manner of speaking,’ says another military man. ‘Everybody keeps a straight face and sits up straight.’ Such was the atmosphere four weeks ago when the group gathered to hear carefully prepared remarks from the US Secretary of Defense…

Contemplating Mattis in the Cathedral, contemplating mass-murder, evokes for me the scene in Hamlet where the usurper Claudius, murderer of his brother, is praying for relief from his guilt – without renouncing his Crown:

But, O, what form of prayer

Can serve my turn? Forgive me my foul murder!

That cannot be; since I am still possess’d

Of those effects for which I did the murder…

“May one be pardon’d,” Claudius asks, “and retain the offence?” No, one may not; and though Mattis had not personally committed the crime he abhors, the ‘effects’ of the original atomic sin – the ‘foul murder’ of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – remain at the rotten, radioactive core of the American war state.


To Mattis’ left, a surreal scene from October 2020: a ‘COVID-secure’ nuclear war game, the 21st iteration of the Pentagon’s annual Global Thunder simulation. (Yes, the ‘show’ premiered in 1999, the end of the decade in which NATO broke its word to Russia not to expand “an inch eastward.”) For the head of US Strategic Command (STRATCOM), Admiral Charles Richard, nuclear exercises such as ‘GT21’ – and there are others, such as the recent ‘Steadfast Noon’ in Europe, when German planes practiced dropping American bombs – are necessary because “we are back in the midst of great power competition” in which “it is imperative…to credibly convey the readiness and lethality of our forces.”

Senior Airman Enrique Cabrera, 509th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron weapons load crew member, prepares a training munition in support of Exercise Global Thunder 21 at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, Oct. 20. (Staff Sgt. Dylan Nuckolls/Air Force)

Senior Airman Enrique Cabrera, 509th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron weapons load crew member, prepares a training munition in support of Exercise Global Thunder 21 at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, Oct. 20. (Staff Sgt. Dylan Nuckolls/Air Force)

In a publicity shot, three high-ranking members of a ‘Crisis Action Team’ are glued to their computers, all wearing masks, as, in another shot, are two members of a “weapons load crew.” As Captain Kevin Elardo of March Air Force Base in California explained, in a press release titled ‘Global Thunder Over The Empire’:

COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of taking care of each other by making sure everyone is healthy, feeling well and encouraging those who are not feeling well to speak up. We’ve proved to be flexible and adapt to Global Thunder’s ever-changing circumstances…


To Mattis’ right, a woman is praying in a ‘small, windowless room’: a prison cell. She is Martha Hennessey, 64, and in essence her ‘crime’ – for which she has just been jailed for 10 months – was having the courage to ‘speak up’ about the sickening state of her nation. On 4 April 2018 (the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) Hennessey was one of seven Catholic Plowshares protesters to ‘symbolically disarm’ the Kings Bay naval base in Georgia, home port to six ludicrously-expensive submarines armed with ‘strategic’ nuclear weapons “the mere building and possession” of which, as the ‘Kings Bay Plowshares Seven’ wrote to Pope Francis, “represent not only a direct and immeasurable theft from the poor” but “an idolatrous blasphemy against God and all of creation.” (The Pope, a vocal supporter of the Ban Treaty, agrees, describing not just the use but the possession of such weapons as “immoral.”)

Martha Hennessy, one of the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, addressing supporters during a break in the court hearing, Aug. 7th, 2019.

Martha Hennessy, one of the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, addressing supporters during a break in the court hearing, Aug. 7th, 2019. (Photo by Bones Donovan, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Convicted in October 2019, six of the Seven – Mark Colville (57), Clare Grady (61), Fr. Steve Kelly (71), Hennessey herself, Patrick O’Neill (63), and Carmen Trotta (57) – have recently received custodial sentences ranging from 10 to 33 months (adjusted for time earlier served on remand). The oldest protester, Elizabeth McAlister (81), was given a suspended sentence. All were ordered to pay restitution for acts of ‘vandalism’ including damaging (with a hammer made of melted guns) a ‘shrine’ honoring the missiles worshipped at the base since 1979. The group, of course, expected to be jailed, and the sentences are lighter than feared. But the high prevalence of COVID in US prisons means one or more of the Seven may yet pay with their lives. For trying to save ours.

I have singled out Martha Hennessey in order to share a remarkable moment from her journey to prison on December 14 in the company of two of her ‘co-conspirators,’ Liz McAlister and (a few days before his sentencing) Mark Colville. Traveling from Martha’s home in Vermont to her cell in Connecticut, “we passed,” Colville wrote,  “the little town of Sandy Hook” on what happened to be the eighth anniversary “of that terrible school shooting of all those children and educators.” “We are conscious,” he added, “of the connection between nuclear weapons and the kinds of violence” that ravage like a pandemic “communities everywhere in this country.” And “Martha’s going forward” into jail “was a witness to this connection between the ultimate violence of omnicidal nuclear weapons and the violence that plagues our neighborhoods.”

The Bomb, that ‘ultimate’ False Idol, has held the world captive for three quarters of a century. We must now banish the evil we’re finally about to ban.

Featured image (l to r): Martha Hennessy, girl with Treaty Ban sign, Setsuko Thurlow.


Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton and the Canadian Pugwash Group. He may be reached here.