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Why nuclear weapons must be abolished | Edwy Plenel

27 October 2017

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Mediapart, October 19, 2017

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a coalition of hundreds of NGOs from dozens of countries, puts in stark relief the irresponsibility of those states – including France – who base their security on dissuasion by terror. Mediapart’s publishing editor and co-founder Edwy Plenel argues that far from keeping the peace, nuclear weapons spread the risk of a terrible catastrophe, as the current Korean crisis shows.

“The world is what it is, which is to say, nothing much. This is what everyone learned yesterday...” That is the start of the editorial in the daily newspaper Combat written by its editor Albert Camus for the edition published on August 8th, 1945. Two days earlier, on August 6th, an atomic bomb dropped from a US Air Force plane had destroyed the Japanese city of Hiroshima, wiping out at least 70,000 people. A day after the editorial, on August 9th, a second bomb fell on Nagasaki, killing at least 40,000 people. The American historian Howard Zinn estimates the total number of people killed was in fact at least 250,000 [1].

Camus’s voice was a solitary one, and he was one of the very few people who did not applaud the news even though, as editor of a newspaper that had sprung from the Resistance movement, he naturally wanted to see the capitulation of Japan, an ally of Nazi Germany. For he saw beyond the immediate event itself and the blind indulgence that the media of the day displayed towards such a destructive development. “We can sum it up in one sentence,” Camus wrote. “Our technical civilization has just reached its greatest level of savagery. We will have to choose, in the near or not so near future, between collective suicide and the intelligent use of our scientific conquests.”

To highlight the extent to which Camus was boldly swimming against the tide of the day, one need look no further than the edition of Le Monde on that same October 8th, 1945. Its front page headline was coldly factual but this was enlivened by a strapline which summed up the prevailing lack of collective awareness in the face of such murderous technical know-how: “A scientific revolution”.

Seventy-two years have passed since that Combat editorial was written yet today its conclusions seem more prophetic than ever. “We refuse to take anything from such grave news other than the need to plead more energetically in favour of a true international society, in which the great powers will not have superior rights over small and middle-sized nations, where war, which has become an ultimate scourge through human intelligence alone, will no longer depend on the appetites or doctrines of this or that state,” wrote Camus. “Before the terrifying prospects now available to humanity, we see even more clearly that peace is the only goal worth struggling for. This is no longer a prayer but a demand to be made by peoples to their governments - a demand to choose definitively between hell and reason.”

It is this demand that the Nobel Committee has renewed today, by awarding its 2017 Peace Prize to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a coalition of hundreds of NGOs from dozens of countries. “We live in a world where the risk of nuclear weapons being used is greater than it has been for a long time,” said the Norwegian committee’s president Berit Reiss-Andersen. “Some states are modernizing their nuclear arsenals, and there is a real danger that more countries will try to procure nuclear weapons, as exemplified by North Korea.” She then called on the nuclear powers to begin “serious negotiations” with the aim of eliminating such weapons [2].

By choosing to highlight an international campaign that comes from civil society the Nobel Committee is questioning the collective blindness of a world where the established power balance is based on potential destruction. We are all blind in this respect, unable as we are to imagine that the worst outcome can result from a scientific modernity which is so accomplished but also at the same time so perverted – given that human intelligence has succeeded in inventing a weapon capable of exterminating our own species by destroying all living things on the planet.

The maintenance, production and spread of the nuclear bomb highlights the absurd state of a world in which the apparent order is simply one of persistent disorder. As well as being the five leading arms sellers in the world, their trade fuelling the wars which in theory the United Nations is there to stop, the five permanent member states of the UN Security Council – who each have a veto – were also the first nations to have this ultimate weapon of mass destruction. They are: the United States, Russia (successor to the Soviet Union), the United Kingdom, France and China.

Four more nations have since become nuclear powers: India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea, who are all located in geopolitical areas afflicted by ongoing conflicts, each of them are as uncertain in their outcomes as the countries concerned are, one day, potentially uncontrollable. Inevitably there will be more such countries in the future in a world that is now transnational and based on connections and networks that cross borders. Proof of this was the role played by the Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan [3], lionised in his own country as the father of that nation’s atomic bomb, in spreading the technology internationally, notably to North Korea.

Nuclear weapons, which were supposedly part of the balance in a bipolar Cold War world order involving the Americans and the Russians – “The dissuasion contains extreme violence” as French philosopher Raymond Aron [4] put it – are now let loose in a multipolar world, where the protagonists have their own logic of survival and protection, outside of the games played by the old great powers. As far as dictators of poor, small or fragile countries are concerned, possessing the nuclear bomb has become a trump card in the face of the domineering and predatory arrogance of wealthy democracies.

For though it is as dangerous for itself as it is for world peace, especially faced with a United States which has the unpredictable Donald Trump in charge, the attitude adopted by North Korea’s Kim Jong-un is a rational one from the point of view of his own totalitarian government and his own survival [5]. The violent downfalls of first Saddam Hussein in Iraq then Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, caused by foreign military interventions that plunged those countries into chaos, have obviously convinced him – as they will convince other tyrannic oppressors of their peoples in the future - that possessing nuclear weapons is the only guarantee of his rule and his life.

It is thus the old powers who are guilty of negligence and irresponsibility for relying on a strategy of persuasion which they no longer control because its essential corollary – the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons elsewhere – has become more and more unpredictable. In contrast it is ICAN, a coalition of nearly five hundred NGOs operating in more than 100 countries, who are showing realism and clear thinking. Created in 2007, it has managed in just ten years to bring to the UN a treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons, a treaty that was approved in July this year and which was opened for ratification on September 20th. Like the other great powers from the old world, France is strongly opposed to the treaty, its leaders lacking in imagination and vision and utterly deaf to Camus’s appeal to choose between hell and reason.

The prohibition treaty – a victory for Günther Anders

As is so often the case societies are more intelligent that the states who claim to govern them. In the same way as with landmines and cluster bombs – which thanks to public campaigns saw international conventions banning them in 1997 [6] and 2008 [7] respectively – it is the mobilisation of citizens that has overcome governments’ impotence in implementing their own commitments. In article 6 of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), concluded in 1968, signatory states committed to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control”.

In fact, the opposite has occurred. The number of nuclear powers has almost doubled and the unique ability to instil terror that the first nuclear powers had usurped for themselves has been increasingly challenged. According to a recent report by the French Senate, at the start of 2016 nine states possessed around 15,396 nuclear weapons between them. The spread of these weapons of mass destruction is now a tangible reality. ICAN says that in addition to France, five European nations have atomic bombs on their soil as part of NATO agreements.

ICAN also says that countries that possess nuclear weapons spend a total of at least 105 billion dollars a year on modernising and maintaining their arsenals, a colossal sum that could instead be spent for the common good of the peoples concerned, on health, education, buildings and so on. But Barack Obama’s bold speech in Prague in 2009 [8], in which he called for a “world without nuclear weapons” came to nothing.

Using these relevant and concrete arguments ICAN has succeeded in promulgating a treaty on the prohibition of nuclear arms of the kind that already exists for biological and chemical weapons. The aim is to ban all weapons of mass destruction whose use threatens humankind and would be a crime against humanity. In article 1 of the treaty states agree that they will not “under any circumstances … develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices”. Signatories also agree not to use the policy of dissuasion, with the treaty’s preamble noting that “in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, States must refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force”. And Article 1 then stipulates that under no circumstance should a state “...use or threaten to use nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices”.

Günther Anders is no longer with us to witness the fruition of his lifetime’s commitment. Born Günther Stern (1902 -1992) [9], and the first husband of another major intellectual of the last century Hannah Arendt [10], he was the first philosopher of the nuclear age and, more fundamentally, a thinker about catastrophe. He became known to the wider public at the beginning of the 1960s through his correspondence with Claude Eatherly [11], who was presented as the “Hiroshima pilot” but who was in fact the man who flew a weather reconnaissance plane in support of the bombing mission and who passed on the fateful message to the bomber to go ahead with the attack. The airman spent his remaining life crippled by remorse. His correspondence with Anders was published as a book entitled Burning Conscience. This correspondence is an informative illustration of Anders’ key reflections on the meaning of the atomic bomb, over and beyond even its monstrous nature. (Also instructive is Anders’ fine We Sons of Eichmann: Open Letter to Klaus Eichmann [12] addressed to the son of one of the key figures behind the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann.)

As far as Anders was concerned the nuclear bomb oppresses a world that has become a prisoner of the technical, of its own short-term efficiency and of its more fundamental irresponsibility, a dehumanised world that no longer knows how to imagine, in particular to imagine the possibility of catastrophe, or to feel, and in particular to feel the rising dangers. Our madness, he said, was not to be able to think about a repetition of the event, to not be able to grasp that “what has been done once, can be repeated over again, with ever weaker reservations”. He called it the “Nagasaki Syndrome” where something that has been carried out once can be repeated again, but this time more “matter-of-factly, casually, with little deliberation or motive”. One just has to read the official French reaction to ICAN’s successful campaign – “The international context doesn’t allow for any weakness” insists France’s Foreign Ministry – to understand how Anders’ thinking still resonates as a healthy provocation.

In his major work, The Outdatedness of Human Beings [13], first published in 1956, Anders insisted that the people in charge of the atomic bomb were “active nihilists”. Those who admit that the effect of their act could be the annihilation of humanity should be considered guilty of spawning “nihilism on a global scale”. For Anders, possessing nuclear weapons meant accepting the possibility of the destruction of humanity and living things by man.

At the last General Assembly of the United Nations US president Donald Trump threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea [14], before recently talking enigmatically about a “calm before the storm” followed by a mysterious comment to the effect that “only one thing will work”. Meanwhile France, in a joint statement with the US and the United Kingdom, dismissed the treaty prohibiting the atomic bomb by insisting that it “clearly disregards the realities of the international security environment”. As if nuclear weapons were of some use in helping us when faced with global instability fuelled by economic injustices, denial of democracy, conflict and disorder, and climate imbalance!

And as if, in particular, France had no need to reflect upon its obstinacy over nuclear issues which, under the presidency of François Mitterrand (1981-1995), who ordered the largest number of nuclear tests in the Pacific, blinded it to the new multipolar world that was emerging. It is no coincidence that Paul Quilès, who as the socialist minister of defence in 1985 was a witness to the Rainbow Warrior affair [15], that attack on a Greenpeace vessel in New Zealand caused by France’s arrogance over nuclear issues, is today the politician who is the most committed to nuclear disarmament [16] Like the Hiroshima weather reconnaissance pilot Claude Eatherly, Quilès has reflected on the inhuman blindness of a power status that is based on the control of mass murder. It is high time we chose between hell and reason.

Edwy Plenel

* English version by Michael Streeter.


[1] ESSF (article 42267), Japan 1945 – Hiroshima: Breaking the Silence. WWII and mass killings.




[5] See Mediapart’s article on this, in French, here:











[16] See the website for the organisation he has founded here:


The above article from Mediapart is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use