Do nuclear weapons make us safe?

Anna Ikeda of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons explains what we can do to help make disarmament a reality.

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In 1978 the United Nations passed Resolution S 10/2, which declared the week of October 24-30th Nuclear Disarmament Week. It draws attention to the threat to life posed by nuclear weapons and the work and cultural shift required to enact nuclear disarmament.

While there are still many people who believe that nuclear weapons make us safe and are necessary for peace, there are others with a different vision of what they represent. Anna Ikeda works for the Office of U.N. Affairs at Soka Gakkai International and is a campaigner for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. She’s also a mother. She joined Michael Nagler and me on Nonviolence Radio this week to discuss the various ways people understand the nuclear issue and what we can do to help make disarmament a reality.

Anna: Yesterday happens to be United Nations Day, October 24th. It marks the 74th Anniversary of the U.N. Charter entry in support of the U.N. Charter. Every year, the week of October 24th through 30th is designated as Disarmament Week to highlight the danger of the arms race and promote understanding about disarmament among the public.

So, I really feel so fortunate to be on this radio today because I feel I’m able to contribute to this goal of Disarmament Week by sharing my passion with you. I am actually a practicing Buddhist. I’m a member of Saka Gakkai International, a global network of Buddhists. We have 12 million members around the world dedicated to peace, culture, and education.

I also work for the United Nations office. But how I started to work on this issue as an individual, I tend to think about it as…I don’t know. I actually don’t have a good explanation. More like a fateful coincidence. In 2010 I was asked to serve as the national coordinator of SGI USA, what they call, “Student Division,” with a group of college and graduate school students.

Of course, the main function is to support them to practice Buddhism individually as they go through the challenges of being a student. But also, as they have an active presence on campus, one focus at that time in 2010 was to talk about nuclear weapons because it is such a significant issue for our movement, our organization. I’ll talk about that in a little bit.

To be honest, when I was first approached about spearheading this campaign, I felt a little disconnect – and this might also set upon your question too. I was a student of human rights. I actually studied children’s rights. And I remember in grad school I avoided taking security related courses in my studies. But when I was presented with this opportunity, I really wanted to connect.

Also, this issue was important for my faith. So, I studied and read many writings, especially from our international president, Daisaku Ikeda, who I also consider my mentor. The more I read and talked about it, it dawned on me that nuclear weapons are the very antithesis of respect for life and human dignity. And, you know, these are things that I feel passionately about, not only because I’m a Buddhist, but also as a student of human rights and somebody who cares about social issues and people around me.

Learning about the devastation and suffering by the cost of atomic bombing, seeing Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as, you know, various nuclear tests conducted in many parts of the world, especially in marginalized communities, these things really fueled my desire to take action and be involved. So, that was really the start of my journey on this issue. And then later on, I started working for my current office and I continued to work on this issue.

Michael: You might also mention, Anna, that you come into this as a mother.

Anna: That’s true.

Michael: Yeah, that’s important, I know as a father, how deeply affected I was by the issue of strontium 90 getting into the spring rain when my daughter was very young. It was a shake-up and a changing event in my life. So, I think it’s very good to use that energy and that passion to drive us into concern for others, for the whole world, for all of mothers, for all children.

Anna: Thank you so much for bringing that up. Actually, I visited the Hiroshima Memorial that commemorates the devastation of nuclear weapons. It talks about the effects and history in 2015. I was actually pregnant at the time with my son and just standing there, soaking in everything as a mother. I think it really had a significant impact on me.

You know, thinking about this little life that was inside me and what kind of future he can have, what I want him to have. That definitely is a source of inspiration for me. I think when I talk about nuclear weapons, for many people it feels very distant. Or, I guess, too overwhelming, too big of an issue to handle. I think it’s so it’s easy to feel powerless, but on one level it affects everyone.

We can imagine if a bomb detonates in any city, it would destroy the city in an instant. It will annihilate and kill hundreds and thousands of people. And not only that, it will affect people’s health and environment for generations to come. If we can imagine these things affecting the very people that we care about and love, and things that we care about, I think we can really feel close to the issue. So thank you so much again, Michael, for bringing that up.

Stephanie: Anna, the way that you describe it, I feel like why have I waited so long for getting involved? Of course, these represent something totally antithetical to a belief in nonviolence, to a belief in the desire for life to continue on earth. And yet, what is the argument for nuclear weapons? Somehow people think that they make us safer. Can you tell us a little bit about that mentality and why we’re creating nuclear weapons in the first place?

Anna: Yes, that’s a great question. There is actually an encouraging shift in the way of thinking, and I can talk about that a little later. But largely, I think that in society, nuclear weapons have been accepted as something that protects us. Ironically, many people think that they ensure peace and international order. In our country, for example, many people truly believe that the use of atomic bombs was necessary to end WWII, and that they prevented many more deaths, and therefore they are a cause of celebration.

And it’s very apparent – I live in Las Vegas, Nevada, where there is an atomic history museum,. The way they are discussed is, again, as the advancement of science and, you know, celebration. I think this narrative is really strong in public. If you listen to the debates in the United Nations, for example, those including nuclear weapon states — there are nine of them in the world — the narrative they tend to demonstrate is that, “Nuclear weapons are still the symbol of power, of prestige, and they help people stay safe. Therefore, it is impossible to get rid of them.”

Stephanie: That was clear and very helpful to my understanding. I’d be interested in backing up a minute in knowing who those nine nuclear states are, or at least a few of them if we can’t list all nine.

Anna: They are, of course, the permanent members of the United Nations: United States, United Kingdom, France, China, and Russia. And then we also have India and Pakistan as well as North Korea and Israel.

Stephanie: Okay. Another reason that people don’t want –- or governments don’t want to disarm is because they say, “Well, if we do and they don’t, it puts us at a disadvantage.” So, it almost needs to be unilateral in some way.

Anna: Correct.

Stephanie: I understood too with the conflict in Kashmir — for example, Kashmir and Jammu –- that part of the concern of the violence escalating between India and Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir, is the concern over nuclear weapons.

Anna: Yes. Some experts actually say that the possibility of nuclear war is at all-time high today because of global tensions. Again, people tend to think about nuclear weapons as something of the past, the threat of nuclear weapons is something I doubt many of us wake up and think about. But if you think about what’s happening in the world today, it is real.

Also, the impact of what could happen if they are used either intentionally in a conflict or by accident, which is another real possibility — if you read works by experts, it’s actually frightening how many close calls we’ve had in recent history. And if one weapon detonates, it can have significant impact, not only in the immediate environment, but also, for example, on the global climate. These are things that I think not many people are aware of.

Stephanie: Right. How are nuclear weapons transported, for example? Might they be in our airways or on our highways or in our seas?

Anna: Yeah.

Stephanie: There could be –

Anna: Yeah.

Stephanie: And we don’t know it, there could be an accident.

Anna: Mm-hmm.

Stephanie: Okay. Michael has a question for you.

Michael: Yes, thank you. Anna, are you familiar with the work of Dan Ellsberg and his, book, “The Doomsday Machine.”

Anna: Yes. That’s what I was actually referring to when I made the comment.

Michael: Oh good.

Anna: It’s a great book. I recommend it.

Michael: Good. Then I wanted to ask you, Anna, if you could tell us a little bit about where things stand now with the ICAN campaign.

Anna: Yes. Thank you so much for that question. As mentioned earlier, I campaign for ICAN. My campaigning focuses on the crazy invasions that, of course, support the global movement. ICAN for people who might not be familiar with it, is the campaign that actually won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 and our work supported the promotion of the treaty. This is the solution to nuclear weapons which prohibits them categorically, meaning all activities related to nuclear weapons – no production, use, threat of use — all these things are prohibited legally once this treaty enters into force.

We have 79 countries that are signatories and 33 of them are actually ratified, meaning that they are parties to the treaty. The treaty will take effect once it reaches 50 ratifications. We have 17 more to go which is really, really exciting. Very recently, in September, the treaty had many countries really come on board, to concretize their commitment by signing and ratifying the treaty. That was really exciting.

Stephanie: Anna Ikeda is joining us here on Nonviolence Radio today. She works for the Office of U.N. Affairs at Soka Gokkai International, and her work focuses on disarmament, peace, and security. And she also is a campaigner for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. She also happens to be a board member of the Metta Center for Nonviolence. And that’s where I want to go next with this conversation, Anna, to nonviolence.

Something that comes to mind for me is there’s so much emphasis on the climate movement right now. It’s devastating, it’s the same stories that go into climate– that we’re in the Sixth Mass Extinction and all of life on earth could die. We’re seeing this progress rapidly. This devastation could happen very, very quickly, and with nuclear weapons as well. So, there’s this connection between climate disruption and nuclear weapons and nuclear warheads.

From there, I’m wondering if it’s the same story that underlies both of them in a way, that is, this disregard for life. Do you think that the abolishment of nuclear weapons could be an issue that the climate movement could focus on because it would help to change the story rapidly. If the story is, “We need these for support, and we don’t care about life. We don’t care about life on this planet. We don’t care about our neighbors.” That’s a story that’s perpetuated death in our society. It’s the same story that’s perpetuating disrespect for the climate. Is this clear? Shall I say a little bit more?

Anna: Yes. I think that’s a great connection. Thank you so much for bringing it up. Some people say that climate change and nuclear weapons are the two – I don’t want to say biggest — but you know, the two major threats that the human race faces because they risk our extinction as a species. And yes, in both issues, the underlying cause is this total disregard for the environment and life in all forms.

One of my friends with the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, Dr. David Krieger, he says, “When we talk about nuclear weapons and peace, what they are talking about is assuring human’s future.” Because again, just like you said, any use of nuclear weapons can risk our extinction. So, yeah, talking about that and nonviolence – to me, obviously, nuclear weapons are an example of senseless mass violence because of the scale of impact they can have and the number of people they can kill.

Also, there are the effects of radiation, the effects of testing — and let’s think for a minute, for example, about resources used for production, modernization, and maintenance of those weapons. Those resources could be directed toward, for example, health care, education, climate action to activate our capacity to foster a real culture of peace.

There is a figure I’m looking at, for example, it says that in the next three decades, the United States alone plans to spend $1.7 trillion to enhance their nuclear arsenal, to make them, “more useable.” Think about the kind of massive resources we’re dedicating to the science of death rather than to something positive. For us – the disarmament movement – I think we have to do a better job reaching out to our colleagues in the climate movement. I think the connections are happening now because we are realizing that all issues are connected. But I think we can do better to create energy between those two movements.

Also, I want to mention that this theme about just being here for life is very important to me as a Buddhist, as an individual practitioner of Buddhism. Our teachings say that life is the most important thing because it is the cause for enlightenment. Through life we can tap into this infinite potential, which I always make a connection with nonviolence and ahimsa.

Nuclear weapons, again, are the total opposite of that. I think really talking about it from a nonviolence perspective can resonate with many people. I’m particularly proud of my organization’s legacy. In 1957, the president of the organization was a man named, Josei Toda. And he made a declaration in front of thousands of youth in Japan at that time, calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

The way he talked about it was that he wanted to rip the claws, to “expose and rip out the claws that lie hidden in the very depths of such weapons.” – Josei Toda. He didn’t like the death from these weapons. The current president of our organization, Daisaku Ikeda, explained what this means: when we talk about the hidden claw, it’s really the way of thinking that hides underneath those massive weapons of destruction. It’s this way thinking that it is okay for somebody or some country to threaten with this level of violence, to wipe out the entire population for what they believe is their security, their peace, or their national interests.

Talking about this at that level is powerful because that means that there is an uncertain bias at that level [that we can become aware of]. We believe at SGI that the answer is the radical transformation of people’s ideas about peace, security, what it means to be safe in our connections with each other. That’s why we have been really passionate about grassroots education to talk about this issue.

Michael: You’re making me a little nervous, Anna, because you just gave away the whole book that I’m writing. But I do have a question for you. If we look at this from the point-of-view of nonviolent strategy, let’s assume -– which I would be very, very happy to see — that those 17 nations come on and the treaty is ratified. Well, that’s really sort of the beginning rather than the end of the struggle because we have these nine weapon-holding states and their acolytes. They’re the client states who are going to hold out no matter what the treaty says.

So, my question for you, is anyone to your knowledge in ICAN or in SGI, thinking about where we would go from there?

Anna: Absolutely. That’s a great question too. Yes, we know that the treaty entering into force once we reach 50 is not going to magically dissolve all the nuclear weapons in the world. It is, indeed, the beginning. But it’s really about this shift.

I just want to backtrack, and talk a little bit about how this treaty actually came about. Back in 2010 – 2010 seems like an interesting year in this conversation — there was a shift in the ways in which nuclear weapons were framed in the discussions at the U.N. Like I said earlier, they have historically been framed as symbols of power, as something to protect us and so on. But in 2010 some governments and international agencies in civil society, like us, came together to talk about what nuclear weapons really are – that they are weapons of mass destruction, designed to kill a great number of people, mostly civilians, indiscriminately.

These groups began highlighting the harms of nuclear weapons based on the experiences of the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and also the victims of nuclear tests. They started to discuss also the studies that explore potential impacts of nuclear weapon detonation on our environment and climate, like I mentioned earlier.

This discussion and framing which became known as, “The Humanitarian Initiative,” really became the driving force behind the negotiation introduction of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, or the TPNW. And the TPNW is really our strategy. If you think about it, in the disarmament movement we have observed -– especially with other weapons of mass destruction — that prohibiting them legally was the critical step for their abolition.

Once the weapons become “Illegal” in the international community through a treaty, there is going to be a stigma attached to them. For example, it’s going to be very difficult for companies to produce illegal weapons. It will become dramatically more difficult for them to receive funding. And it’s actually starting to happen already. Some funders are already pulling out because they know that it will be illegal in the future.

It’s really about creating a norm and the conditions that chip away at those in power. And I think there is a power to the nonviolent movements which show that they can’t hold the status quo. Nuclear weapons are no longer going to be the status power symbol anymore.

Stephanie: Anna Ikeda, thank you so much for joining us on Nonviolence Radio today. We just have a few more minutes with you, so I want to ask you the general question: What can people do to get involved in this issue?

Anna: Great, thank you so much. That’s an important question precisely because many people feel disconnected. But there are many things people can do to take action. For example, just promoting awareness and educating and informing others, no matter how small it might feel, I believe it really helps change the narrative – especially in our countries. Not everywhere.

I talked about funding a little earlier. Another thing that people can do pretty immediately is to divest. There are banks and financial institutions that are known to support nuclear weapon production and there are ones that do not support such activities. They’re are all reported in a report called, “Don’t Bank on the Bomb.” You can, for example, move your bank account if you happen to be a customer at a certain bank, like Chase or Wells Fargo that invest in nuclear weapons, to ones that don’t. That’s another contribution. Those are things we’re trying to encourage.

Lastly, I also want to say that many initiatives are happening at the level of cities. For example, there have been many resolutions passed, some in California as well. City and municipal governments calling on the government to support the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons, and also demanding the shift in nuclear weapon policy in our country. Those are called, “ICAN Cities Appeal” and also, “Back from the Brink Initiative.”

Stephanie: Anna Ikeda, thank you so much for joining us. I’d love to invite you back to Nonviolence Radio anytime. Also, we can support your work if you send us updates and news, we can always report on this from the show.

Anna: Thank you so much.

Stephanie: Yeah, thanks a lot for joining us today.

Anna: Thank you. My pleasure.

This transcript was provided by Matthew Watrous and was edited for length and clarity.

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