(By Matrika Shukla, Sarah Samyukhta, and Jennifer Philip)
France has issued international arrest warrants for Syria’s president, his brother, and two other high-ranking officials in connection with the alleged use of prohibited chemical weapons against civilians in Syria.
The warrants stem from a criminal investigation into chemical attacks that occurred in the town of Douma and the Eastern Ghouta district in August 2013, resulting in the deaths of over 1,000 people.
Despite Syria’s denial of using chemical weapons, a previous joint inquiry by the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed the Syrian government’s use of the nerve agent sarin in an April 2017 attack and its repeated use of chlorine as a weapon.
The Dark History of Weapons of Mass Destruction
Throughout history, chemical weapons have exerted long-lasting impacts on nations and individuals. These weapons, as their name implies, consist of toxins, chemicals, and chemical substances that have been weaponized to target the human body’s systems. Designed to induce rapid death or injury, chemical weapons fall under the category of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD).
Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) are designed with the intent of inflicting the maximum possible damage in the shortest time frame. They are characterized by their lethality, toxicity, and inhumane nature, causing profound harm upon realization. The inaugural deployment of chemical weapons in history is documented during World War I in the Second Battle of Ypres. In this instance, Germany employed chlorine gas against British and Canadian soldiers, resulting in fatal consequences upon prolonged exposure. The surprise attack claimed the lives of over 1,100 soldiers and left 7,000 others injured simultaneously. This grim event stands as the deadliest initial use of chemical weapons, involving the release of 168 tonnes of chlorine gas from 6,000 metal canisters, resulting in the devastating loss of thousands of lives.
Chlorine gas, the pioneering chemical weapon, had severe, devastating effects on the victims. It aggressively irritated their lungs, causing a stinging sensation in the throat with a metallic taste. Upon inhalation, the gas reacted with the water lining the lungs, forming Hydrochloric acid which further led to internal burns, vision loss, nausea, and the death of lung tissues – ultimately culminating in death by asphyxiation. Most chemical weapons are lethal and extremely toxic causing immediate death, irritation, and blisters, and severely affecting the body by seeping and absorbing into the blood. They even choke and damage the respiratory organs.
The weaponization of chlorine gas during World War I marked the inception of humanity’s foray into the creation of monstrous inventions that, over the ensuing decades, led to numerous massacres and claimed the lives of thousands. This ominous development set a precedent for the advancement of increasingly destructive and lethal weapons, shaping a troubling trajectory in the history of warfare and posing enduring threats to global security.
Chemical and biological weapons, both classified as WMD, share the common objective of targeting large populations with the intent of causing maximum damage. While chemical weapons, pioneered by the German army during World War I, have inflicted immediate and often fatal harm, biological weapons present a different and insidious threat.
Biological weapons, as exemplified by the Wuhan virus, can cause widespread casualties, plunging nations into chaos and confusion. Unlike the rapid effects of many chemical weapons, biological agents can lead to gradual deaths in the millions. The Wuhan virus, which triggered a global pandemic, showcased the ability of biological threats to spread rapidly and affect populations on a massive scale, creating a complex and challenging situation for nations worldwide. The unidentified symptoms and the gradual nature of the illness added to the difficulties in managing and mitigating the impact, highlighting the potential of biological weapons to disrupt societies and pose significant global challenges.
It worked as a successful experiment in proving the effectiveness of a barbaric weapon. It is the beginning of a deadly era of weapons in a preposterous world where nations aim and design their weapons to nonchalantly kill multitudes under the cover of Diplomatic Deterrence.
The Global Nuclear Landscape
Nuclear weapons stand out as the most perilous arms on the planet, capable of annihilating entire cities, causing the deaths of millions, and posing long-term catastrophic threats to the environment and future generations. Despite being used only twice in warfare, in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, around 13,400 nuclear weapons reportedly exist in the world, with over 2,000 nuclear tests conducted to date. The inherent dangers associated with these weapons underscore the urgency of disarmament, a formidable challenge in itself.
Nine nations currently have nuclear weapons: the United States, Russia, France, China, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea. The combined global nuclear arsenal stands at approximately 13,000 weapons. Although this figure is lower than the peak of around 60,000 during the Cold War, it does not diminish the inherent threat these weapons pose to humanity.
Most of the key nuclear powers, such as the United States, Russia, and China, are currently expanding their nuclear arsenals in terms of both quantity and capability. This escalating trend in a new arms race has heightened the potential for a nuclear conflict.
To address these concerns, Regional Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones (NWFZ) have been established, aiming to reinforce global nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament norms while fostering international collaboration for peace and security.
Since its inception, the United Nations has been committed to the elimination of nuclear weapons. The inaugural resolution of the UN General Assembly in 1946 established a Commission to address issues related to the discovery of atomic energy and propose measures for the control of atomic energy to ensure its exclusive use for peaceful purposes. The United States possesses approximately 5,400 nuclear weapons, with 1,744 of them deployed and ready for delivery. These weapons are stored in submarines and missile silos, located in five Great Plains states at depths of 80 feet. Additionally, some are housed at air force bases, available for loading onto long-range bombers. Furthermore, there are one hundred U.S. bombs deployed at airbases in five European nations.
Russia’s arsenal comprises approximately 6,000 warheads, with 1,584 deployed. When combined with the United States, these two countries possess over 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. The sluggish progress in reducing nuclear weapons can be largely attributed to the tensions and hostility between the United States and Russia.
The United Kingdom possesses around 120 “operationally available” nuclear weapons, referring to warheads ready for deployment on submarines or those that can be loaded promptly. At any given time, 40 of these weapons are deployed. All these nuclear arms are sea-based and are carried by Trident submarine-launched ballistic missiles acquired from the United States.
China initiated the development of nuclear weapons in the Cold War era and has since maintained a comparatively limited arsenal, estimated to consist of around 350 warheads. Slightly more than a hundred of these warheads are designated for missiles capable of reaching the United States.
France possesses an arsenal of nearly 300 deployed nuclear weapons, the majority of which are situated on submarines, while the rest are carried by air-launched cruise missiles.
North Korea possesses sufficient nuclear material for the potential creation of 30 to 40 nuclear warheads, and there are indications that it may have assembled between 10 to 20 weapons. The country is also actively advancing its capabilities in long-range missiles, although the extent of these capabilities remains uncertain.
India currently has approximately 150 nuclear weapons and continues to produce more. While historical tensions with Pakistan have traditionally been the primary driver of India’s nuclear program, there is a growing emphasis on concerns about relations with China.
Similar to India, Pakistan possesses around 150 nuclear weapons and is actively increasing its arsenal. The future size and composition of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal are likely to be significantly influenced by the actions and developments in India’s nuclear program.
The TSAR BOMBA
The most potent nuclear weapon in Russia’s arsenal, produced during the Soviet era, is the Tsar Bomba. Developed in 1961 amid the Cold War, it is widely considered the most powerful weapon of mass destruction. When tested on Novaya Zemlya Island in the Arctic Ocean, the explosion was allegedly visible from a distance of 1,000 kilometers. Reports suggest that the blast reached an altitude of 67 kilometers.
This bomb stands as the most formidable human-made explosion ever documented, boasting a strength of 3,800 times greater than the U.S. nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. It is also identified by the designation RDS-220.
In 1961, a team of Soviet physicists, including Andrey Sakharov, built the Tsar Bomba amid heightened tensions of the Cold War between the U.S.S.R. and the United States. Conceived as a demonstration of Soviet strength, this three-stage bomb was unparalleled in its power, boasting a 100-megaton capacity. However, the potential fallout from such a blast was deemed too hazardous for a test scenario. To carry the bomb, a Tu-95V bomber was modified, and equipped with a special parachute to slow the weapon’s fall, enabling the plane to retreat to a safe distance before detonation.
Piloted by Andrey Durnovtsev, the aircraft took off from the Kola Peninsula on October 30, 1961, accompanied by an observer plane. At around 11:32 AM Moscow time, Tsar Bomba was dropped over the Mityushikha Bay test site on the deserted island of Novaya Zemlya. Exploding approximately 2.5 miles (4 km) above the ground, it generated a mushroom cloud over 37 miles (60 km) high, visible from 620 miles (1,000 km) away. The resulting devastation was extensive, leveling the uninhabited village of Severny 34 miles (55 km) from ground zero, with reported damage to structures over 100 miles (160 km) away. The heat from the blast was estimated to cause third-degree burns up to 62 miles (100 km) distant.
Despite its success, Tsar Bomba was never intended for operational use due to its size, making it impractical for deployment by ballistic missiles. Instead, the bomb had to be transported by conventional aircraft, vulnerable to interception before reaching its target. Consequently, Tsar Bomba was considered more of a propaganda weapon. Following the 1961 detonation, Sakharov played an increasing role in advocating for a ban on nuclear tests, particularly promoting underground testing. This led to the signing of a treaty in 1963 by the United States, Britain, and the U.S.S.R., with subsequent participation from numerous other countries.
Humanitarian Crisis and Multifaceted Impacts
Presently, the likelihood of a nuclear conflict is greater than it has been in many years. Escalating geopolitical tensions, reckless nuclear threats, and instances of nuclear blackmail are eroding the traditional aversion to the use of nuclear weapons. In this delicate scenario marked by heightened nuclear risks, it becomes imperative for the global community to comprehend fully the disastrous humanitarian repercussions that would accompany any deployment of nuclear weapons, not to mention the dire consequences of a full-fledged nuclear conflict, impacting humanity and the world at large.
A collaborative report by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Japanese Red Cross Society reveals that seven decades after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Red Cross hospitals in these cities continue to provide care to several thousand individuals annually who suffer from cancers and illnesses directly linked to those devastating attacks. The psychological impact of exposure to the atomic bombings is found to be substantial, affecting even those who are otherwise in good health. Studies indicate persistent psychological challenges, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), among a considerable number of survivors. Radiation-related anxiety is a prevalent clinical concern during annual health assessments conducted in adherence to the Japanese Government’s policy.
The radiation poses a significantly greater risk to females, especially when exposure occurs during their early years, with differences in harm reaching up to seven times. The oversight of females in regulatory assessments has led to a systematic underestimation of the adverse effects of ionizing radiation exposure on the global population. Children, in particular, are more susceptible to the development of cancer due to their ongoing growth and faster cell division compared to adults. It is crucial to recognize that, across all age-of-exposure groups, female bodies experience more harm. Women, children, and the developmental stages of pregnancy exhibit heightened sensitivity to radioactivity exposure, experiencing more damage per dose compared to adult males, even at lower levels of exposure.
In Australia, where the UK conducted nuclear tests, unresolved issues persist, including indigenous dispossession, lingering contamination, inadequate site cleanup, and the lack of compensation for Aboriginal people, ex-servicemen, and civilians exposed to radiation. Across the Pacific, nuclear-armed states have demonstrated disregard for populations affected by testing, sidelining safety, environmental, and health considerations. Monitoring of the effects on affected populations was insufficient, leading to a lack of care and follow-up. While some states initiated programs for their citizens, extending such support to affected populations in other countries has been rare and insufficient, with significant radioactive and chemical waste persisting at testing sites. Indigenous communities, such as Marshall Islanders and Maohi islanders, face increased radiation exposures, but no programs are addressing the needs of subsequent generations living in contaminated environments, facing disrupted social and cultural heritage.
Populations residing in the ‘downwind’ areas of nuclear tests continue to face persistent risks from ionizing radiation, coupled with enduring psychological, social, and cultural distress. However, testing states obscured these humanitarian consequences by asserting that fallout could be confined to specific spatial zones, suggesting ‘thresholds’ below which radiation exposure has negligible health impacts, and downplaying socio-political forms of harm. While the primary focus has been on assessing cancer instances in affected populations, there has been minimal exploration of the impacts on coral reefs and the psycho-social toll, including anxiety and trauma, among individuals who have been exposed to or fear exposure to radiation.