Nuclear disarmament takes a back seat during US election campaign

An American peace activist has a struggle on her hands to put nuclear disarmament under the political spotlight. The issue is being overlooked by the two main candidates in the presidential election, despite the recent ratification of a United Nations treaty banning nuclear weapons.

Rebecca Irby, a peace activist in New York, has been closely observing the US presidential election campaign. She says a key issue – nuclear weapons – has been pushed aside.

Atomic bomb survivors in Japan had been hoping 2020 would be a landmark year in the push for global nuclear disarmament. It’s now 75 years since the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, and time is running out for many of those who lived through the horror.

"We don't have another four years to waste just playing around pretending that these nuclear issues don't exist,” says Irby. “It's going to take all of the people coming together to push these issues forward.”

Rebecca Irby, an American peace activist, working on nuclear issues.

Irby found her passion nine years ago after a fateful encounter in Hiroshima. During a visit to the city's peace park, she met Mito Kosei, who was in his mother's womb when the bomb dropped.

Mito is an interpreter at the park, and he shares his family's story with the visitors. His sense of duty had a profound effect on Irby. "He experienced all of this, and it was my country that did this to him, but he still had the kindness to share his experience to me," she recalls. Irby felt compelled to share Mito's story herself, and made a documentary film.

Irby met Mito Kosei, an atomic bomb survivor, in Hiroshima.

Since moving back to the US in 2016, Irby has devoted herself to nuclear disarmament. Every year, she joins atomic bomb survivors to deliver petitions to the United Nations calling for a world free of nuclear weapons. She says she too had been hoping for a breakthrough in 2020, but public attention – and the presidential election campaign – is focused on the coronavirus pandemic.

Irby has devoted herself to nuclear disarmament.

Irby wants voters to see nuclear disarmament as a domestic issue. She held a webinar alongside some Indigenous activists to help people understand the horrific impact of nuclear weapons. They also discussed uranium mining and nuclear testing on Native American reservations.

Irby wants the fights against nuclear proliferation and climate change to be given the same degree of urgency. "Young people understand science, and they can see there is more strength and conflict in the world, which could lead to more nuclear war," she warns.

Irby wants people in the United States to treat nuclear proliferation as a domestic issue.

Decades after the Cold War ended, disarmament efforts around the world have largely stalled. The US and Russia still hold more than 90% of global nuclear warheads. Experts became concerned about a new arms race after President Donald Trump withdrew from a key deal with Russia. His rival, Joe Biden, has promised to reduce “the role of nuclear weapons", but does not have a concrete plan to shrink the US stockpile.

The United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has now reached the 50 ratifications it needed. It will take effect in late January 2021, but the five major nuclear powers, including the US, Russia and China, have not joined. Neither has Japan, which is protected by Washington’s nuclear umbrella. 

Irby wants people to consider the issue when they go to the polls, and push their preferred candidate to take real action. "The US is the first country to use nuclear weapons, and we have a huge responsibility in this conversation. If we can start to critically think about this issue, then maybe we can move that into our politics," she says.

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