Format: video with audio
Running time: approx. 30 min 02 sec.
Summary: Pinky calls up international law expert John Burroughs (Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy) and talks to him about the current state of nuclear weapons: Are they really a threat to the planet? If they're so dangerous, why do we still have them? What does international law have to say about nuclear weapons? How do we go about getting rid of them? How about nuclear power - is that okay?
Pinky: I think maybe because of all this stuff I've been reading in the newspaper lately, I've been having these really scary nightmares. In one of my dreams Los Angeles gets blown up by a nuclear missile. I want to run away, but then I realize, there's really no way to run or hide from nuclear war. We all end up dying.
So... I was wondering. Am I just being neurotic, or are nuclear weapons still a threat to living things here on Earth?
I called up John Burroughs and asked him if it'd be okay if I interviewed him about some of that stuff. John Burroughs is the executive director of the Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy in New York City. He's a well-known expert on international law, especially as it relates to nuclear and other non-conventional weapons. Here we go.
John Burroughs: Lawyers' Committee, this is John Burroughs.
Pinky: Hi Mr. Burroughs. This is Pinky.
John Burroughs: Yeah, hi there.
Pinky: I have a bunch of questions about nuclear weapons - is this a good time to talk?
John Burroughs: Yeah, this is fine.
Pinky: Okay. Well, my first question is a pretty basic one. You know, it's been about 60 years since human beings first used nuclear weapons. Umm, is there still the possibility that people might use nuclear weapons again?
John Burroughs: Well, yes, unfortunately there is that possibility. There are nine countries in the world that have nuclear weapons. There are about 27,000 nuclear weapons total on the planet. The countries that have nuclear weapons deploy them ready for use and have doctrines saying that they would use them in certain circumstances. So the idea about how detonation of a nuclear weapon might happen vary, you know - some people are especially concerned about terrorists getting their hands on nuclear weapons and using them. Some people are worried that there might be a nuclear war between India and Pakistan. Some think the Middle East, were Israel already has nuclear weapons and where other countries may be interested at some point and acquiring them, might be a flash point.
The thing that I focus on because I don't think it gets enough attention is that among the world's major powers, there is still a nuclear balance of terror - I'm talking about between the United States and Russia, the United States and China. And in fact, the United States is building up its trident nuclear sub fleet in the Pacific, based at Bangor, Washington to build up its capabilities to wage nuclear war. And we've been in a period of relative stability and cooperation since the end of the Cold War among the world's major powers, but that may not always exist. And certainly one could even predict that there will be periods of hostility or tension ahead.
So there tends to be this, you know, comfortable assumption that nuclear weapons won't be used, but I don't think that's warranted, and I think we should seize the opportunity of this time of stability and cooperation and move towards global elimination of nuclear weapons as indeed people like Henry Kissinger, and William Perry, former Secretary of Defense under Clinton, and Sam Nunn, former Senator, and George Schultz, former Undersecretary of State for Ronald Reagan. All of them recently called for achievement of a nuclear weapon-free world.
Pinky: I'm really scared of nuclear weapons, I think that's a natural response. But, there must be some people, somewhere, who actually want nuclear weapons. Who are these people?
John Burroughs: Yeah, well that is a really an excellent question Pinky, and we really need to have good answers to that question. You know, my first stab at answering that would be to say that unfortunately, nuclear weapons have become identified with state power. But beyond that, certainly in the United States, you have a constituency in the form of the weapons laboratories, and you also have the branches of the armed services that are involved with nuclear weapons deployment, especially the naval submarine operations and also the air force's land-based ICBM operations. So they have a big lobby in Washington.
The budget for nuclear forces in the United States is on the order of $25 billion or so. That includes warheads, delivery systems, command and control; does not include environmental clean-up, which is another maybe $10 billion or so. So that's about 5% of the U.S. military budget. In and of itself it doesn't seem to be that huge a commitment that would create, you know, some kind of really powerful constituency. But the history has been for the United States and Russia especially that nuclear weapons have kind of become part of the identity of the countries. And that's something we have to... have to overcome if we're going to make progress.
Pinky: So this functions at least partly as an issue of national identity, very interesting. Nuclear weapons then, sort of legitimize a country's status as a "powerful nation"?
John Burroughs: Yeah, I think that's been an unfortunate effect. Somewhat by historical happenstance the five permanent members of the UN Security Council - United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China - also were the original five countries to have nuclear weapons. And then came Israel, India, Pakistan, and finally North Korea recently. And especially in the case of India and Pakistan, it's very clear that significant parts of the elites in both countries view having nuclear weapons as a ticket to prestige. And you know, maybe that will happen with other countries as well. And so, that's why one of the things that groups like mine that work for the elimination of nuclear weapons and work for their marginalization in the meantime, we say you have to diminish the political value that's attached to nuclear weapons in order to give them less (kind of) desirability in the eyes of governments that do not now have them, and thus to help stop their spread.
Pinky: How is it that some countries are allowed to have nuclear weapons and others are not?
John Burroughs: There is an international treaty framework for this. It's the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Most countries in the world are members of the treaty. The only countries that are outside of it are Israel, Pakistan, India, and North Korea withdrew in the last few years. All other governments are in it, and almost all of them have agreed that they will not acquire nuclear weapons and that they will allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor their commercial and research nuclear power operations to ensure that nuclear materials - highly enriched uranium and plutonium - are not diverted to use in weapons. The five original nuclear weapon states I mentioned before - U.S., Britain, France, China, and Russia - under the NPT have committed to the achievement of the elimination of their nuclear arsenals through good faith negotiations of nuclear disarmament - that's Article Six of the treaty. And, the countries outside the Non-Proliferation Treaty also are bound by that obligation according to, at least it's a strong implication of, a 1996 opinion of the International Court of Justice.
Pinky: I read about that. Apparently in 1996 the International Court of Justice essentially declared that the threat or use of nuclear weapons is illegal. Can you please explain how the court came to this conclusion?
John Burroughs: Right, well, the International Court of Justice (a.k.a. World Court) is the judicial branch of the United Nations and in the early 1990's a campaign started and it was supported by civil society non-governmental groups around the world. My group, the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, was one of the principle organizers. So, there was this campaign to support the United Nations General Assembly in asking the International Court of Justice for an advisory opinion on the legality of threat or use of nuclear weapons. And in 1995, there were two weeks of really emotional, dynamic hearings before the court. Then the court issued its opinion in 1996 and the court said that nuclear weapons are subject to laws governing the conduct of warfare, just like any other weapon is.
So, you cannot use them to target civilians; you cannot use them against military targets if they have indiscriminate effects on civilians in addition to the attack on the military target. There are other rules as well. You cannot cause disproportionate damage to the environment; you cannot harm neutral states. The court said that the threat or use of nuclear weapons is generally contrary to the international law of armed conflict. But the court went beyond that. The court was unable to rule on all circumstances in which nuclear weapons might be used, and it said in view of the problems, the risks posed by nuclear weapons, and in view of the lack of certainty of the law in all circumstances, the best course is, you know, fulfilling the obligation of good faith negotiations of nuclear disarmament contained in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Here's how the court put it, and all judges agreed to this. The court said: "There exists and obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations under nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control." So the court said talk is not enough. Talk must lead to action, that is, elimination of nuclear arsenals.
Pinky: I see. So how much progress have we made towards the elimination of nuclear weapons since 1996?
John Burroughs: Well, not very much. The overall quantity of nuclear weapons in the world continues to decline slowly. It's now I think I mentioned around 27,000 and during the Cold War the total global arsenal was on the order of 70,000. The U.S. right now has about 10,000 nuclear warheads. It is estimated that the U.S. is heading towards having 6,000 nuclear warheads in the year 2012. So the United States says "We're complying. We're following the disarmament obligation. Look at the quantitative reductions that are taking place." But, since '96, there really hasn't been progress on specific commitments that have been made. Perhaps most disturbing is this: that the United States and France in particular, since 1996, have expanded the range of circumstances under which they might use - they say they might use - nuclear weapons. Basically they said "We will use nuclear weapons whenever it suits our purposes to do so." So this expansion of doctrines regarding possible use of nuclear weapons makes them more, you know, sort of, salient and important and so it's increasing the perceived political value of nuclear weapons and therefore causing or contributing to possible proliferation.
Pinky: The idea of International law - from what I've read it seems that the United States played a leading role in its origination and development in the late 19th/early 20th century. Yet more recently, I see the U.S. saying that, um, "We have the right to ignore the World Court whenever we want." That's 1986, and in 2002 the United States un-signs from the International Criminal Court. What is the United States' current relationship to international law as a means of settling conflict?
John Burroughs: Right. Well you are certainly correct and especially following World War II, the U.S. was the architect of the UN system, and the world financial system, and the Human Rights Declaration, and of course the United Nations is based here in New York City. But, unfortunately, especially in the last decade, the U.S. really has been turning its back on international agreements and the set of agencies and procedures that they create as a means for governing the world. And you know, you mentioned the statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), but we could also mention here the Kyoto Protocol on global warming; the landmines treaty. In 2002 the Bush administration effectively put an end to negotiations of an agreement which would have established inspection procedures to ensure or to monitor compliance with the existing legal ban on biological weapons. And you know, the story goes on in the sense that at a most basic level, the United States ignored, that is violated, the United Nations charter when it invaded Iraq in 2003. You know, this is not wise policy. It's not the best way to make a safer world in which the United States would be a responsible partner, but it also goes against the role of law in the United States. You know, the commitment to international agreements is embodied, it's found in the U.S. Constitution. Article Six of the U.S. Constitution provides that treaties of the United States are part of the supreme law of the land along with the constitution itself and laws passed by Congress. Well, the US government certainly has not been acting in recent years as if treaties were part of the supreme law of the land.
Pinky: Wow. Umm... here's what I don't understand. I'm so curious: Why has the U.S. moved towards this kind of 'selective', or 'self-interested' use of international law?
John Burroughs: Yeah, well again, Pinky, that's a really good and a really important question. And I suppose it goes back two or three decades. Parts of U.S. elites started getting very annoyed by what they perceived to be anti-American rhetoric coming out of the United Nations general assembly. Partly, it is that a faction that has become extremely central in the Bush administration decided following the end of the Cold War, that this was the opportunity to establish the United States as the world's leading military and economic power, and that international law constraints would be viewed as just that - they wouldn't be a means for increasing cooperation and therefore increasing everybody's security around the world - instead they just acted as limits on US power. So, paradoxically, the time of the Cold War was a time when international agreements, international institutions were relied upon. Once the Soviet Union disintegrated, you know, U.S. elites seemed to have decided "Well, we don't need those things anymore". Of course, this in my view is totally unwise because the world faces threats like the spread of nuclear weapons, their potential acquisition by terrorists, but also in the area of the environment, especially climate change, and a wide range of other issues and problems that really need to be dealt with on a cooperative basis, and to do that you need to rely upon international institutions and international agreements.
Pinky: You mentioned a little earlier something like 6,000 warheads... in regards to nuclear weapons, that still sounds like a lot . Is the abolition of nuclear weapons really possible? How do you achieve that?
John Burroughs: Right. Well you're certainly correct to say that it's a lot, and that one way to think about this is that each nuclear warhead is a potential holocaust. Each nuclear warhead can destroy a city. Let's take the Trident warheads, now deployed in the Pacific on submarines. Some of them are 100 kilotons. That is about seven times the size of the atomic bomb with which the United States devastated Hiroshima. Some of the Trident warheads are about 450 kilotons, or 30 times the size of the Hiroshima bomb. So, you know, thousands, or hundreds, or even scores of nuclear weapons are basically, they can cause damage that is just inconceivable. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, they estimated that using 50 warheads - five-zero warheads - could cause as many as 200 million deaths. So these numbers in thousands are just so absurd as to be difficult to grasp.
Now, Pinky, I know you asked me is it possible and how would you abolish nuclear weapons, and yes, it is possible. And that has been established in many studies. Recently the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, headed by Hans Blix, which included experts from around the world, they laid out a series of steps leading towards the elimination of nuclear weapons. And they said that if we follow the path of increasing transparency about nuclear arsenals and verifying and accounting for the warheads that are reduced, and dismantling the warheads and delivery systems in a verified manner, we can arrive at a nuclear weapon-free world.
But one thing I have to say here, and that is that it is absolutely true that it will be difficult to, with confidence, arrive at a stage where we say, where the world says, all warheads and all fissile materials that can be used to produce nuclear weapons have been accounted for and controlled or destroyed around the world. The reason it's difficult is in part because the United States and the Soviet Union created such vast stocks of warheads and fissile materials. So sometimes people say, "you know, we're not going to be able to that". And this somewhat abstract discussion, I find, diverts attention from the situation we're facing now. It is completely possible within a short period of time, and I'm talking weeks or months or possibly a couple of years, to marginalize nuclear weapons so that the countries that have them are no longer relying upon them as central instruments of their military and foreign policy. So, if you have submarines deployed with nuclear missiles, we bring the submarines back to port. We take missiles out of the submarines; we take the warheads off the missiles. So, if you do that, you haven't dismantled the warheads so you don't have verified elimination, but at least the world would no longer be in this situation where nuclear weapons are ready for use on a large scale within half an hour of an order to do so.
Pinky: I'm just one cat right? Is there anything an individual can do to help eliminate nuclear weapons from the face of the earth?
John Burroughs: Well, the first thing I would say is that the elimination of nuclear weapons, nuclear abolition, should be integrated into political agendas. There are, you know, many important things to do in the world, but eliminating nuclear weapons is certainly one of the them at the very least, you know, it might be the very most important thing to do, but it's certainly very important, and so it should just be part of a kind of ordinary political agendas in whatever way that individuals are pursuing their politics. Whether that be in party politics or whether that be communicating with members of congress, or all the ways in which people are involved in politics. The second thing I would say is that there are of course organizations which are devoted to reduction and elimination of nuclear arsenals. So, it is certainly possible to get involved in some of the organizations that are working specifically on nuclear abolition.
Pinky: What is the Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy's position on the use of nuclear power as a means of generating electricity? In other words, how is atomic energy connected to atomic bombs?
John Burroughs: Well, Pinky, That's become a question that is getting a lot more attention, and the reason is that nuclear power is said to be on the rise as a means of energy generation, especially in countries like India or China. So it's an important question. Our position at LCNP, Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, is that nuclear power is just too closely linked to the possibility of making nuclear weapons. You have to have enriched uranium or plutonium to operate a nuclear reactor. Well, you can use highly enriched uranium or plutonium to also make a weapon and that's the most important step in being able to make a weapon. You know, somebody who's got some engineering and scientific expertise, once they have the material - that's hard to get the material - but once they have the material they can certainly make at least a crude bomb. So, our position is that in moving towards a nuclear weapon-free world, we're going to have to also phase out, transition away from nuclear power. It's not to say that we make one dependent upon the other. We can do many things towards the elimination of nuclear weapons and that doesn't depend on whether the world has completely transitioned away from nuclear power. But if we want to have a stable situation where nuclear weapons have been eliminated, it's better also not to have reliance upon nuclear power.
Pinky: Thank you very much. You know, when I first heard of your organization, I was like "Lawyers? Why lawyers?" But then after 30 seconds at your website, it was pretty obvious.
John Burroughs: [laughs] Right.
Pinky: Mr. Burroughs, thank you so much for your time.
John Burroughs: Okay, well good talking with you.
Pinky: Same here, bye-bye.
John Burroughs: Okay, bye-bye.
Pinky: That was John Burroughs, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy, in New York City.
guest: John Burroughs (Executive Director, Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy)
sound effects: phone noises by Bunny
drawings & illustrations: Pinky
other images: titles by Pinky
video credits: We found quite a lot of government-produced stock footage
of exploding atomic bombs, computer simulations, weapons systems firing
& testing, and other miscellaneous military footage on YouTube:
- Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
- Atomic Stock
- Nuclear Weapons Yesterday and Tomorrow
- Trinity and Beyond
[ image credits ]