OP-ED: Nuclear weapons violate human rights

Martin Fleck
Tribune News Service
FILE - In this May 31, 2016, file photo, a man watches a TV news program reporting about a powerful new Musudan mid-range missile launch of North Korea, at the Seoul Train Station in Seoul, South Korea. North Korea said Wednesday that it was examining operational plans for attacking Guam, an angry reaction to U.N. punishment for recent North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile tests and a U.S. suggestion about preparations for possible preventive attacks to stop the North’s nuclear weapons program. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man, File)

Dec. 10 is Human Rights Day, when we honor the incredible work of human rights advocates around the world. It is also a time when we should demand the abolition of nuclear weapons.

When people think of human rights, nuclear weapons might not immediately come to mind. But these weapons violate our human rights by threatening our health and even survival. With about 14,000 nuclear weapons remaining in the world’s arsenals, the potential for a catastrophic nuclear war is an omnipresent threat.

On this Human Rights Day, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the national advocacy organization for which I work, is calling on decision-makers to acknowledge this threat to our human rights and respond appropriately.


For starters, President Donald Trump should respond positively to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s request to immediately extend the New START arms control treaty. Then the United States should actively pursue an agreement among all the nuclear-armed countries to totally eliminate their arsenals.

And all of the countries on earth should join the 122 nations that in July 2017 adopted the U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and bring that treaty into force.

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A nuclear war would create one of the worst humanitarian crises imaginable, one for which no nation would have an adequate emergency or health response. And climate modeling has shown that a nuclear war involving less than 1% of the world’s arsenals — targeted on cities — could trigger global climate disruptions for 10 years, degrading agricultural production and putting up to 2 billion people at risk of starvation.

Physicians for Social Responsibility was founded in 1961 in order to draw attention to the grave health and humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons. Its motto is: “Prevention is the only cure.”

Even if we manage to prevent a nuclear war, the arsenals are still a major health hazard. The processes of mining and refining uranium, building and testing nuclear weapons, and transporting and handling the radioactive waste byproducts have jeopardized the health and safety of communities in the United States and around the world for decades.

These activities have disproportionately impacted indigenous peoples, low-income communities and communities of color, whose families experience the harmful inheritance of multi-generational toxic nuclear legacies. Between 1946 and 1958, the residents of the Marshall Islands were forced to endure 67 atmospheric nuclear test explosions in their homeland.

These communities have called for accountability and for justice, but they haven’t been heard. This is a social justice issue, a health issue, and a human rights issue. The right to health and the right to clean air and water are human rights, not privileges reserved for the most fortunate members of society.

Those who stockpile and threaten to use nuclear weapons are violating our human rights. On this Human Rights Day, let’s make them stop. It’s time to ban nuclear weapons, for good.

— Martin Fleck is the Nuclear Weapons Abolition Program Director at Physicians for Social Responsibility. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by the Tribune News Service.