July 2007

The Human Factor-Revising Einstein

By Alyn Ware


November 6, 1995, Lijon Eknilang, a quiet, unassuming woman from the Pacific island of Rongelap, made what is probably the longest trip in the world for a court appearance. It took her more than two days travelling to reach the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the highest judicial body in the world. She relayed to the 14 officiating judges horrifying testimony about the effects of nuclear testing in the Pacific.

Women have experienced many reproductive cancers and abnormal births. In privacy, they give birth, not to children as we like to think of them, but to things we could only describe as "octopuses", "apples", "turtles", and other things in our experience.


The most common birth defects on Rongelap and nearby islands have been "jellyfish" babies. These babies are born with no bones in their bodies and with transparent skin. We can see their brains and hearts beating. The babies usually live for a day or two before they stop breathing. Many women die from abnormal pregnancies, and those who survive give birth to what looks like purple grapes which we quickly hide away and bury.

Lijon, who has herself had eight miscarriages and no live births, pleaded that the suffering she and other Marshall Islanders had experienced should never be repeated anywhere in the world.

The judges concluded that nuclear weapons are unique in their destructive potential, that their impact could not be contained in time or space, and that there is a universal obligation to abolish such weapons.

Their judgment is by no means the first high-level pronouncement against nuclear weapons. The very first resolution of the United Nations established a commission to consider the control and elimination of such weapons. However, the ensuing Cold War sent the world spiralling in the opposite direction.


In 1987, U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev went for a walk together in Reykjavik, Iceland. There they agreed that nuclear weapons posed a grave threat to both countries as well as to the world, and that such weapons of terror should be abolished. Yet both men were informed by their expert advisers that their dreams for nuclear abolition were unrealistic and the nuclear weapons were here to stay.


Turn the clock forward 20 years, and it seems that the "realists" were correct. The main nuclear armed countries then China, France, Israel, Russia (U.S.S.R.), the United Kingdom and the United States still collectively hold on to 20,000 nuclear weapons and have expanded not reduced their nuclear-use policies. They have been joined by other countries including India, Pakistan, North Korea and perhaps soon Iran. In January this year the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists responded to an increased threat of a catastrophic use of nuclear weapons by accident, miscalculation or intent by moving their Doomsday Clock to five minutes to midnight.

In 1945, Albert Einstein lamented that our ethical and political thinking had not changed along with the new scientific reality of humanity's capacity for self-destruction: "The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe."

Over the past 60 years Einstein has nearly been proven correct. Nuclear weapons were very nearly used by accident, miscalculation or intent some 15 times.

But despite dangerous developments, I believe that fundamental changes in politics, technology and human consciousness have transformed the aspiration of nuclear abolition from a pipe dream into a practical, achievable goal.

An indication of such a change in consciousness is the January 2007 Wall Street Journal article "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons," in which former U.S. hawks George Shultz and Henry Kissinger abandon their former support for nuclear deterrence and call on U.S. leadership to facilitate global nuclear disarmament.

Most countries rejected the possession of nuclear weapons in 1970 by joining the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Many of these countries 113 to date have also formed regional Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones, thus taking even stronger measures against nuclear weapons. Such zones now encompass Africa, Central Asia, the Pacific, Southeast Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean.

These zones include some countries which used to possess nuclear weapons and gave them up (South Africa, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Belarus) and some countries which had programs to develop nuclear weapons which they then curtailed (Libya, Argentina and Brazil).

Gathering Momentum

Polls held in nearly all of the remaining countries which possess, or are "defended" by nuclear weapons, indicate that public opinion has swung against the bomb and for a nuclear weapon-free world. This includes 87 percent in the U.S., 87 percent in the U.K., 72 percent in Belgium, 87 percent in Germany, 61 percent in Russia and 63 percent in India.

The Nuclear Weapon States (NWS), in joining the NPT, accepted an obligation to work for nuclear disarmament. However, their approach to nuclear disarmament has been repeatedly one step forward and two steps backwards. Until recently, most other countries were too trusting, naive or weak to call the NWS to task. But this is changing. Over 125 countries now support a United Nations resolution calling for negotiations to commence on a nuclear weapons convention (international treaty) which would prohibit nuclear weapons and provide a phased program for their verified destruction.

A special commission on Weapons of Mass Destruction headed by Hans Blix recently called on the NWS to develop plans for the complete abolition of their nuclear arsenals.


Over 2,000 organisations support the call of Abolition 2000 for the abolition of nuclear weapons through an international nuclear weapons convention. The United Nations has circulated a model treaty demonstrating the feasibility of nuclear disarmament. The ongoing campaign has also been boosted by innovative national actions against nuclear weapons. New Zealand, for example, adopted legislation in 1987 which makes it a crime for any private citizen or government official to be engaged in nuclear weapons acquisition, threat or use, or to aid anyone in such activities. Norway's $300 billion pension fund recently divested from any corporation involved in the manufacture of nuclear weapons or their delivery systems.

Other positive signs include:

If we utilise this opportunity to abolish nuclear weapons, in doing so we will build a better, more cooperative world order, more able to address human security needs and where such cooperation will replace the obsolete practice of war as a way of responding to conflict and pursuing interests. We will thus be able to revise Einstein, as the splitting of the atom would indeed then have stimulated us to a new way of thinking and acting that prevents not only a nuclear holocaust but also war itself.

Alyn Ware is consultant at large for the Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy (U.S.A.), outreach educator for the Aotearoa-New Zealand Foundation for Peace Studies and global coordinator of the Parliamentary Network for Nuclear Disarmament. He was the UN coordinator for the World Court Project.