14 July 2007

Bombs and the deaths of civilians

By Rupert Read

Keiko Ogura was eight when the US Enola Gay flew over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and dropped the uranium bomb that vaporised and incinerated 70,000 residents of the city. "I was curious. I wanted to see what the city looked like. I climbed up the hill, near our house, and I saw. I was astonished - all the city was flattened", she told the BBC in a survivor testimony. The death toll of innocents continues, with hundreds of thousands dying in the months and years after of their injuries, radiation poisoning and cancers.

Historians continue to disagree about whether the use of the first nuclear bomb on Hiroshima was strategically and militarily a reasonable decision. There were strong critics even within the US military and government, challenging the use of the atom bomb on a civilian population. Meanwhile, Albert Einstein, the very scientist whose work made nuclear weapons first possible, made it clear that he felt the "…decision was political rather than military or scientific."

The United Nations, established in 1945, set out to provide an international framework for intervening in conflicts to prevent war and the subsequent massive (and often politically-motivated) human suffering of civilians. In its first meeting in January 1946 the UN General Assembly drew up a resolution to tackle the problems posed by the discovery of atomic energy. The resolution sought the elimination of all atomic weapons and indeed of all weapons able to cause mass destruction (of which nuclear weapons are by far the most potent). Subsequent conventions, such as the Convention on certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), have further protected civilians in international law.

When President Truman sent the atom-bombers to Hiroshima (rather than at the very least dropping the bomb on some uninhabited Japanese island instead) he discounted humanitarian concerns and, like many subsequent governments in the USA, acted out of pure narrow self-interest, showing off his military might to the Soviets, and in the process conducting a gruesome large-scale human experiment to see how nuclear weapons actually work. Resort to nuclear and other weapons that indiscriminately attack civilian populations (eg napalm, white phosphorus, landmines and cluster bombs) is a tragic indication of the failure of governments to seek out and strive for alternative ways to resolve disputes. In 1945 Japan was already licking its wounds and sending out diplomatic missives seeking surrender in return for the retention of its Emperor.

Cluster bomb victimLakenheath is a nuclear weapons base. It stores up to 110 nuclear B61 bombs at any one time. The base is being used as a storage centre and launching pad for the deployment of cluster bombs that have been used by 'us' in Iraq and by Israel in Lebanon. Cluster bombs are extremely dangerous for civilian populations (to see why, click here).

It is more than ever down to the public, you and me, to ensure that checks remain in place on governments of the day to not abuse their positions of power. As a result of an incident in October 2006, eight protesters (six of them East Anglians, including four from Norwich) have been charged with entering Lakenheath USAF base to secure evidence of war crimes.

In November 2006, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, said: "I have repeatedly called upon States to comply fully with international humanitarian law [notably, the CCW]. Recent events show that the atrocious, inhumane effects of these [cluster] weapons - both at the time of their use and after conflict ends - must be addressed immediately, so that civilian populations can start rebuilding their lives."

One year on from the Israeli attack on Lebanon last summer, in which Israel dropped about two million cluster weapons, the International Committee for the Red Cross are still monitoring efforts to remove the huge numbers of these lethal bomblets so that Lebanese farmers can return to their land and tend their much-needed crops.

Nuclear bombs and cluster bombs. The two are linked by the civilian deaths they inevitably cause - it is the inability of these bombs to discriminate between combatants and civilians which makes them war-criminal.

They are also linked by their presence close to us, at Lakenheath. As Hiroshima Day approaches, here's a date for your diaries: August 4, 7pm, for an interfaith commemoration of Hiroshima Day at the Quaker meeting house in Norwich. Which, as it happens, is my place of worship, along with one of the Lakenheath 8, who is a dear friend of mine. All are welcome.

Thanks to Juliette Harkin for invaluable help preparing this column.