Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Desmond Tutu: Imagine world without nuclear weapons

By Desmond Tutu, Nobel laureate, Special to CNN
updated 11:45 AM EST, Thu February 13, 2014
Nelson Mandela understood that a world freed of nuclear arms would be a freer world for all, writes Desmond Tutu.
Nelson Mandela understood that a world freed of nuclear arms would be a freer world for all, writes Desmond Tutu.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The month Mandela left prison, South Africa's president ordered its atomic arsenal dismantled
  • Desmond Tutu says nuclear weapons -- like apartheid -- were a blight on S. Africa's image
  • As president, Mandela implored the remaining nuclear powers to also give up their weapons
  • Tutu says nuclear weapons and those who hold them should be stigmatized

Editor's note: Desmond Tutu, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, is a patron of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN) -- In February 1990, the same month that Nelson Mandela, also known as Madiba, walked free after 27 years behind bars, South Africa's then-President, Frederik Willem de Klerk, issued written instructions to dismantle the nation's atomic arsenal.

Like Madiba's achingly long incarceration, the apartheid regime's development of these most abominable weapons, though never officially acknowledged, had become an intolerable blight on South Africa's image abroad. Divesting ourselves of the bomb was -- as de Klerk later remarked -- an essential part of our transition from a pariah state to an accepted member of the family of nations.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Archbishop Desmond Tutu

In his time as president, from 1994 to 1999, Madiba frequently implored the remaining nuclear powers to follow South Africa's lead in relinquishing nuclear weapons.

All of humanity would be better off, he reasoned, if we lived free from the threat of a nuclear conflagration, the effects of which would be catastrophic. Addressing the U.N. General Assembly in 1998, he said: "We must ask the question, which might sound naive to those who have elaborated sophisticated arguments to justify their refusal to eliminate these terrible and terrifying weapons of mass destruction -- why do they need them anyway?"

Despite Madiba's undisputed moral authority and unmatched powers of persuasion, his cri de coeur for disarmament went unheeded in his lifetime. South Africa, to this day, remains the only nation to have built nuclear weapons and then done away with them altogether.

Nine nations still cling firmly to these ghastly instruments of terror, believing, paradoxically, that by threatening to obliterate others they are maintaining the peace. Quite unaccountably, all are squandering precious resources, human and material, on programs to modernize and upgrade their arsenals -- an egregious theft from the world's poor.

How to disarm a nuclear nation

Madiba attributed the lack of progress in achieving total nuclear disarmament to "Cold War inertia and an attachment to the use of the threat of brute force to assert the primacy of some states over others."

Elderly nun sabotages nuclear weapons lab
Obama speaks against nuclear weapons
Tutu: Mandela a 'flawless' diamond

To his mind, the struggle against the bomb was intertwined, inextricably, with the struggles to end racism and colonialism. He abhorred the double standard, deeply entrenched in today's international order, whereby certain nations claim a "right" to possess nuclear arms -- in the hundreds, even the thousands -- while simultaneously condemning, and feigning moral outrage towards, those who dare pursue the same.

We must vociferously challenge the perceived entitlement of a select few nations to possess the bomb. As Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. Secretary-General, put it succinctly in January of last year: "There are no right hands for wrong weapons."

But how do we uproot the discriminatory order? How do we end the minority rule? In our decades-long fight against apartheid in South Africa, we depended upon the combination of an irrepressible domestic groundswell of popular opposition to the regime and intense and sustained pressure from the international community. The same combination is needed now in the movement to abolish nuclear weapons.

This week, in the Mexican state of Nayarit, ministers and diplomats from three-quarters of all nations -- those not coming include the Permanent Five members of the U.N. Security Council, the U.S., UK, France, Russia and China -- are gathered to discuss the devastating humanitarian impact of nuclear detonations.

This will cover the inability of emergency workers to provide relief to the wounded; the widespread dispersal of radiation; the lofting of millions of tonnes of soot from firestorms high into the upper troposphere; the collapse of global agriculture from lack of sunlight and rainfall; the onset of famine and disease on a scale never before witnessed.

This conference is not only a much-needed reminder of what nuclear weapons do to humans beings -- something seldom mentioned in arms control discussions -- but also a vital chance for the international community to chart a new course.

It is high time for the nuclear-free nations of the world, constituting the overwhelming majority, to work together to exert their extraordinary collective influence.

Without delay, they should embark on a process to negotiate a global treaty banning the use, manufacture and possession of nuclear weapons -- whether or not the nuclear-armed nations are prepared to join them.

Why should these weapons, whose effects are the most grievous of all, remain the only weapons of mass destruction not expressly prohibited under international law?

By stigmatizing the bomb -- as well as those who possess it -- we can build tremendous pressure for disarmament. As Madiba understood well, a world freed of nuclear arms will be a freer world for all.

The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of Desmond Tutu.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:48 PM EDT, Sat October 25, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT