Saving Humanity from the Scourge of War

Risk of Human Extinction

In March 2022, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres declared: “nuclear war is back within the realm of possibility.” In June 2019, Mohamed ElBaradei, Leymah Gbowee, Anthony Grayling, Denis Mukwege, Jody Williams and I came together to issue the Normandy Manifesto for World Peace. We warned: “The risk of a war by accident, incident or intent remains a distinct possibility…we face the risk of human extinction.”

Between 2019 and 2022, the world suffered from the coronavirus pandemic. We would expect that our leaders would have given utmost attention to counter the virus attack on humanity. Instead, the leaders of the major powers were busy escalating the arms race by inducting hypersonic missiles in their arsenal. Unlike the ballistic missiles, the hypersonic missiles determine their own trajectory and cannot be detected by radars. They are capable of carrying a nuclear payload. They travel at 5 to 25 times the speed of sound. Their arrival indicates that humans have surrendered the right to decide the issue of mass destruction to machines. Russia tested its hypersonic missile in December 2019 just as the coronavirus first appeared in the world. The United States, Russia and China tested and deployed these missiles during the pandemic. Australia, India, Japan, North Korea are also aspiring to possess them. In addition, in the last three years, the application of artificial intelligence, particularly in the early warning systems of nuclear weapons, has grown significantly opening new possibilities of a cyberwar leading to a nuclear war. 

Why are the big powers, and others following them, escalating the race for lethal weapons technology? Why are 2800 nuclear weapons on hair trigger alert? Why have we doubled the global military expenditure from USD 1 trillion at the turn of the century to USD 2 trillion now? Why has Germany decided to increase its military expenditure for the first time since its reunification? Why do some Japanese leaders want nuclear missiles to be stationed on their land? 

The Great Disorder

Emmanuel Macron said in one of his election speeches that the world is facing “the great disorder” – le grand rabougrissement. Is the mad race for advanced weapons taking place because most world leaders, and not only Macron, are afraid of a great world disorder? Is the fear of a great world disorder leading to insecurity, the need to cling to our roots, hyper nationalism, and the breakdown of trust in others, compelling us to equip ourselves with the most modern arms? Are our leaders worried about a global war that they ought to be prepared for? Will le grand rabougrissement eventually lead to la grande Guerre – the great war?

The greatest challenge before humankind, and the United Nations, is to prevent a global catastrophic war.

It is the primary task of the United Nations to prevent a world war. The Preamble of the UN Charter says that the organisation was established “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” In this task, the United Nations has failed. According to the datasets of Peace Research Institute Oslo, there are around 40-50 active wars in the world every year, killing thousands of people. According to Uppsala University conflict experts, there have been more than 300 wars since the foundation of the United Nations in 1945. The war in Ukraine is only the latest one, following the heinous tradition of twenty first century wars in Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, among others. There is a popular myth that Europe has been free of war until Russia attacked Ukraine in 2022. Have we forgotten the Serbian attack on Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s, NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, Russian wars on Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014? The United Nations has made significant contribution to socio-economic progress in the last 70 years, from eradicating polio to raising the awareness of global warming. However, it has failed to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.

The greatest challenge before humankind, and the United Nations, is to prevent a global catastrophic war. With the combination of nuclear weapons, their delivery vehicles, and artificial intelligence, and possibly killer pathogens under developments somewhere, humanity faces the risk of extinction. The detonation of one nuclear weapon can exterminate a city. If a war does take place, multiple warheads on the tips of multiple missiles are likely to be used annihilating the entire planet. Whatever will be saved from the direct impact of the hundreds of detonations will perish over a few months due to the spread of radiation and the changes in the atmosphere. Scientific studies have shown that even a limited nuclear war in a far corner of the world can cause nuclear winter in many regions on the earth.

Collective Security and Weapons Governance

Preventing a global nuclear war is therefore saving the 200000-year-old project of Homo sapiens, the only intelligent life form in the known universe. It must be our priority above everything else. Such an endeavour will require introducing drastic reforms in the management of peace and security and weapons governance, but it is worth the survival of human civilization. 

The veto should be abolished…

The reform agenda will have multiple dimensions. It can begin with the United Nations. The practice of veto for the five permanent members needs to be revisited. Leo Pasvolsky, who participated in the drafting of the UN Charter, was not in favour of a veto for the victors of the war. It was Stalin who insisted on the veto and Pasvolsky’s detractors in the State Department took refuge in Stalin’s proposals. While the West talks about democracy, it has embraced Stalin’s vision to govern the UN Security Council. It is time to consider revision of the veto system. The veto should be abolished or should be offset if four fifth majority of the Security Council wants to override it. Instead of a veto, all decisions can be made subject to the four fifth majority, or near consensus. 

The UN should be transformed from the United Governments Organisation that it is in practice to the United Nations that the founders had envisioned. At present, the UN offers space for states to negotiate their interests. It is necessary to create a superior mechanism which supersedes interest of the states in favour of measures to ensure the survival of human civilization. We also need to design a reliable collective security architecture that everyone can have confidence in. Unless there is such a security alternative, states will continue to acquire weapons of war. At the core of the collective security architecture, there must be a robust instrument of conflict prevention and conflict resolution. Currently, the UN peace efforts are concentrated on regional conflicts in the developing world. We need a mechanism which can address the honour and interests of big powers such as the United States, China and Russia.

Another key element of the reform would be the weapons of mass destruction including nuclear, biological, chemical, and lethal autonomous weapons. It is necessary to begin with risk reduction measures such as ‘no first use’ by all countries and gradually move towards the phased elimination of such weapons in a time-bound manner. Our ultimate objective should be the reduction in all arms, conventional and strategic, and the expenditure incurred on them.

In order to translate such a vision into a reality, we need actions as well a new philosophical approach, derived from the spirit of the African concept of Ubuntu, “I am because we are”. If we fail, we will face universal death. If we succeed, we will enter an era of Summum bonum.