As two of the world’s nuclear powers—Russia and Israel—are engaged in two devastating conflicts, a lingering question remains: could the military tension looming over both countries trigger a nuclear attack either by design or by accident?
“That is one scenario that must never happen”, warns Hirotsugu Terasaki, Director General of Peace and Global Issues, Soka Gakkai International (SGI), which represents a diverse Buddhist community of over 12 million people that promotes peace, culture and education, and is an NGO in consultative status with the United Nations. JAPANESE
In an interview with IDN, he said, much effort has been made and must continue to be made to ensure that this will never become a reality by all concerned—the United Nations, international organizations, and civil society.
“Needless to say, the background and circumstances of the two crises are different and should be discussed separately, and any discourse on nuclear weapons should be cautious and restrained,” he pointed out.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q: In what is described as a rare occurrence, two of the world’s nuclear powers, Russia and Israel, are at war with their neighbors, namely Ukraine and Hamas. Could the military tension looming over both countries, at some stage, trigger a nuclear attack– either by design or by accident?
A: That is one scenario that must never happen. Much effort has been made and must continue to be made to ensure that this will never become a reality by all concerned, the United Nations, international organizations, and civil society.
Needless to say, the background and circumstances of the two crises are different and should be discussed separately, and any discourse on nuclear weapons should be cautious and restrained.
Israel is considered to be a de facto nuclear weapon state, although it has never confirmed or denied possessing nuclear weapons. It has been reported that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reprimanded a cabinet member for suggesting a nuclear weapons option and suspended him from cabinet meetings until further notice because his remarks were “disconnected from reality”.
The armed conflict in the Gaza Strip has already caused too many civilian casualties and destroyed neighborhoods and livelihoods. Hate is causing more hatred, deepening division, and I am deeply concerned day after day. To prevent further tragedy, we strongly call for a humanitarian ceasefire and humanitarian aid to save lives.
In the Ukraine crisis, repeated threats to use nuclear weapons have been made. Prior to the G7 Hiroshima Summit held in May 2023, SGI President Daisaku Ikeda urged the nuclear weapon states to make pledges of “No First Use” of nuclear weapons to reduce risk, which would serve as the basis on which states could together transform the challenging security environments.
The SGI, co-sponsored with other NGOs, a side event on this theme at the 2023 NPT Preparatory Committee in August. Unfortunately, international norms for nuclear disarmament have since been further disrupted.
Humanity is now staring into the abyss of annihilation. Therefore, we must take the right steps toward a future that we choose and build a sustainable world. We should deal with the crises, constantly reminding ourselves of the true horrors of the atomic bombings, bearing in mind the voices of the global hibakusha, and facing up to inhumane and catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons.
Let us take this opportunity to once again take to heart the Russell-Einstein Manifesto: “We appeal, as human beings, to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest. If you can do so, the way lies open to a new Paradise; if you cannot, there lies before you the risk of universal death.”
UN as a peacemaker?
Q: The United Nations, as you know, has failed to bring about a settlement of both disputes primarily because of a new Cold War between China and Russia on one side and Western powers such as the US, UK and France on the other. As a result, both the UN and the Security Council have remained paralyzed? Do you still have hopes for the UN as a peacemaker?
A: I understand your perspective on and your concerns about the current situation. The way I see it is that, rather than a dichotomy like the Cold War between the East and West, we live in a multipolar world today, and each country has different agendas and positions.
In “Our Common Agenda” released two years ago, UN Secretary-General António Guterres discusses the revitalization of multilateralism, emphasizing the rebuilding of global solidarity and collaboration between governments and civil society. In his remarks to the General Assembly consultation on Our Common Agenda on October 4, he said, “despite deep divisions, we have made progress,” and that he would step up efforts in preparation for the Summit of the Future scheduled for 2024.
With serious confrontations among major powers and the presence of the Global South and emerging economies growing stronger, it is imperative to establish secure channels of multilateral dialogue. At the same time, more attention needs to be paid to indigenous peoples, vulnerable groups, marginalized persons, refugees and displaced persons.
In short, the UN must be strengthened and revitalized as a forum for building multilateral consensus. Increasing the involvement of women, youth, and civil society in the decision-making process so that the UN heeds the voices of civil society and is supported by civil society will generate the impetus for change.
It is true that the UN has longstanding problems, such as the dysfunction of the Security Council, and constant reform efforts are necessary. But as long as there are people in the world whose lives are threatened, the lofty mission of the UN will remain unchanged: “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind.” (Preamble of the UN Charter).
Other than the UN, the most universal organization with 193 member states, it would be virtually impossible to find another entity that could serve as a basis of international cooperation and give legitimacy to its activities.
Impact of the Cold War
Q: Will the new Cold War also have a negative impact, sooner or later, on the UN’ s primary role in its longstanding campaign for nuclear disarmament?
A: Aside from whether or not to define the current global confrontations as the “new Cold War,” there is no doubt that the increasingly chaotic situation is having a significant impact on the UN’s efforts to promote nuclear disarmament.
The NPT Review Conference last year failed to adopt a final document. The First session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2026 NPT Review Conference held in July/August was unable to adopt the chair’s summary as an official UN document, which is unusual. In addition, Russia’s decision at the beginning of November to rescind its ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) runs counter to nuclear disarmament.
Therefore, the current second Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which is taking place, from November 27 through December 1, is an extremely important opportunity to strengthen the trend toward nuclear disarmament.
We can also say, from a reverse perspective, that it is precisely because the crisis in which the threat of nuclear weapons and of their use is looming large has been more prolonged than ever before, we must make this a turning point in history toward nuclear abolition by turning the tide of nuclear arms proliferation back toward nuclear disarmament.
The preamble of TPNW clearly states, “Mindful of the unacceptable suffering of and harm caused to the victims of the use of nuclear weapons (hibakusha), as well as of those affected by the testing of nuclear weapons.”
This year, the SGI recorded the testimony in English of Keiko Ogura, who directly told the leaders of the G7 Hiroshima Summit her firsthand experience of the atomic bombing, and made it available to the young generation and the world.
Her experience conveyed a powerful message, “Under the mushroom cloud, nobody could live.” We are also going to launch “I want to live on,” a video testimony of victims of nuclear testing in Kazakhstan at a side event at the upcoming second Meeting of State Parties to TPNW.
We are determined to strengthen our efforts for nuclear disarmament and the abolition of nuclear weapons especially for the sake of future generations, as the preamble of TPNW states: “Cognizant that the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons cannot be adequately addressed, transcend national borders, pose grave implications for human survival, the environment, socioeconomic development, the global economy, food security and the health of current and future generations, and have a disproportionate impact on women and girls, including as a result of ionizing radiation.”
Q: The 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan has been one of the worst human disasters not only in the world but also in Asia. But today four of the world’s nine nuclear powers are from Asia — China, India, Pakistan and North Korea. Isn’t this a strange coincidence? And could the longstanding territorial and political disputes between India and Pakistan, and between India and China, result in a nuclear war in the future?
A: According to the most recent data, about 90% of the estimated 12,500 nuclear warheads in the world are held by the U.S. and Russia. On the other hand, it is estimated that China has increased its arsenal by 160 warheads, India by 64, Pakistan by 60, and North Korea by at least 30 over the past decade (according to RECNA, Nagasaki University Research Center for Nuclear Weapons Abolition).
China is a nuclear weapon state (NWS) signatory to the NPT, but India and Pakistan are not NPT signatories, and North Korea has unilaterally declared its withdrawal from the NPT. Recently, North Korea has warned of the possibility of a preemptive nuclear strike, which has been condemned by the international community. China and India maintain a no first use policy. Some studies suggest that if Pakistan joined them to establish a no first use principle, it would contribute to stability in South Asia.
In reality, the likelihood of nuclear war is low. But it is essential to build greater strategic stability and promote confidence building in order to avoid accidental crises. We believe that multifaceted exchange and awareness-raising initiatives in civil society will serve as the foundation for such efforts.
The nuclear trilemma of China, India, and Pakistan and the need for risk reduction measures are addressed in a series of policy recommendations that the Toda Peace Institute published jointly with other research institutions. Among these, Manpreet Sethi’s policy brief recommends several policies, including initiating bilateral or multilateral strategic dialogue, formalizing low alert levels, conducting studies on deterrence breakdown, and raising public awareness about the dangers of nuclear use.
The Role of faith-based organizations
Q: What role can anti-nuclear activists and faith-based organizations like SGI play in the current state of affairs to promote nuclear disarmament and prevent any nuclear attacks in war zones?
A: Over the past year, I have participated as a representative of Buddhism in the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions held in Kazakhstan (September 2022) and the Bahrain Dialogue Forum (November 2022), where religious leaders openly exchanged ideas and shared wisdom on global problems. The experience gave me a sense of hope for the future.
In the document on human fraternity for world peace and living together issued in 2019, in the names of Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmad Al-Tayeb, a preeminent Sunni Muslim religious leader, who were present at both of these events, they state:
“…we resolutely declare that religions must never incite war, hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism, nor must they incite violence or the shedding of blood. These tragic realities are the consequence of a deviation from religious teachings. They result from a political manipulation of religions and from interpretations made by religious groups who, in the course of history, have taken advantage of the power of religious sentiment in the hearts of men and women in order to make them act in a way that has nothing to do with the truth of religion. This is done for the purpose of achieving objectives that are political, economic, worldly and short-sighted.”
The crises confronting humanity today cannot be solved by a handful of people. I am deeply convinced that the key to breaking through the situation, whether it is issues involving nuclear weapons or climate justice initiatives, lies in working together as fellow human beings, transcending boundaries and differences.
Faith-based organizations certainly can work together and play many roles at the UN, in the international community, and in grassroots awareness-raising in civil society: to find a way to put an end to the loss of civilian lives as soon as possible, to prevent catastrophic inhumane consequences in the name of humanity, to bring people together, understand each other, be there for those who are suffering, and leave no one behind, and to create a world where everyone can shine as they are and all can enjoy diverse lives.
SGI President Ikeda, who passed away on November 15 at the age of 95, stated in his last proposal addressed to the G7 Hiroshima Summit: “It is said that the darker the night, the closer the dawn, and the end of the Cold War demonstrated the scale of energy unleashed when people who refuse to be defeated unite in solidarity…Let us once again change the course of history through the power of people, paving a path toward a world free from nuclear weapons, a world free from war.”
With these words in our hearts, we will continue on the path of cooperation, upholding the courage to never give up. [INPS Japan/IDN-InDepthNews]
*(p43) 2022 SGI Annual Report — Peace Activities: https://cdn2.assets-servd.host/un-sgi/production/assets/downloads/SGI_Peace_-Activity_Report_2022_12.10.23.pdf
The VII Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions: https://religions-congress.org/en/page/povestka-dnya-VII
Photo: Hirotsugu Terasaki, Director General of Peace and Global Issues, Soka Gakkai International (SGI). Photo Credit: Seikyo Shimbun