Nukes and the bigger picture

Billions wasted on nuclear weapons could save the world’s children

By Kehkashan Basu

Kutupalong – a beautiful, lyrical name. It could possibly describe a flower, a river, or an exotic bird. In fact, it is none of these three. Its claim to fame or rather infamy comes from the fact that it is the world’s largest refugee camp. Not only is it the largest refugee camp on our planet, with a population of 1 million and counting, it is also the most densely populated. It took just six months to double in size when Rohingya refugees fled Myanmar, according to reports from the World Food Program. Tens of thousands of makeshift tents packed together on a hilly terrain, it offers refuge to over a million refugees.

A two-hour drive from Cox Bazaar in Bangladesh, Kutupalong was a sleepy unknown hamlet until a few years ago, when the Rohingya crisis escalated in neighboring Myanmar. On the ground the camp is sprawling, chaotic, and unimaginably crowded. If you were looking for a definition of misery, this is it!

I spent last Christmas with my team at this camp engaging with hundreds of Rohingya children, soaking in the latent energy they possessed and trying to be the catalyst that would ignite their passion into a meaningful avenue of growth and development. For these children, every day is a struggle for survival. Sanitation and hygiene do not exist. It’s an unbelievably moving sight which no words or pictures can describe.

British nurses treating Rohingya children suffering from diphtheria in Bangladesh.

Dying children could be saved with food or medication costing less than 1/10th of the cost of one Trident submarine. (Photo DFID)

The world seems to have forgotten them – yet they are humans like us and have the same right to a life of dignity. Every day 50 children are born here – many unable to survive beyond the first week. Abuse, exploitation, and trafficking add to the pangs of hunger and disease at every moment. Girls younger than 14 are married off to men in their sixties just to escape from this life.

The Rohingyas are not isolated in their misery. Our world today has more refugees than World War II, and the numbers keep increasing. Yemen, Syria, Sudan, and so many other regions where war and violence have become a way of life, continue to add to the numbers of people displaced from their homes into an uncertain future. Add to this the mind-numbing statistic of 168 million children, who are trapped in child labor worldwide, many of them girls much younger than me.

Every second, a person dies of hunger. Which means that by the time you finish reading this piece, hundreds more will have died of hunger and starvation. And yet the nuclear-armed states continue to spend billions of dollars building nuclear stockpiles, ostensibly in the name of security, but in reality threatening current and future generations and violating the rights of children to a peaceful and non-irradiated planet.

And our banks, universities, cities, pension funds, and governments continue to invest in the corporations manufacturing and promoting the nuclear arms race for their own personal gain, with no consideration for the ethics of investing in death. This is the myopia that afflicts our society, our governments, and our policy makers, and each one of us has to take ownership for the situation we find ourselves in today.

As an 18-year-old, I am really concerned at the widening chasm that divides society. I am growing up in a world where hyperloops and space tourism make headlines while the blue macaw is added to the growing list of extinct species as a result of ecocide; where factories churn out Trident submarines at $4 billion each, while in the developing world 80,000 children die each day due to poverty – most of whom could be saved with food or medication costing less than 1/10th of the cost of one Trident submarine.

Trident protest

People have made the connection for decades between exorbitant spending on nuclear weapons and how these funds could be better used for health care. (Photo: WikiCommons)

In 2015 the world’s nations adopted the Sustainable Development Goals with concrete programs on reducing poverty and protecting the environment. Yet governments continue to undermine progress by investing more in military, including nuclear weapons, than in achieving the goals. I recognize that for many countries, nuclear weapons provide a sense of security. Perhaps they play a role in preventing war. But we are a civilized and intelligent society, are we not? We know how to resolve conflicts, prevent aggression, and enforce the law without having to threaten to destroy civilization.

We have the United Nations, the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), the International Court of Justice, and many other mechanisms for diplomacy, common security, and law. So even if we can’t prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons overnight, we can start the disarmament process, slash the nuclear weapons budgets, and start funding peace.

A first step is to disarm the nukes. Take them off alert and launch-on-warning. Take the warheads off the missiles.


KekhashAn Basu, then 16, receives the 2016 International Children’s Peace Prize, presented by Nobel Peace Laureate Muhammad Yunus, for her fight for climate justice and against environmental degradation. (Photo: KidsRights)

We need to provide some momentum to the implementation of Article 26 of the UN Charter – the obligation to reduce military spending in order to address economic and social needs. This is of critical importance now, given that the US has withdrawn from the INF Treaty (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty).

Regardless of what governments do, civil society has to step up action for nuclear disarmament and sustainable development. Let us pledge together to build common security that has no need for nukes and utilize instead our scarce resources to prevent the death of the next child from hunger, from disease, from exploitation. We need to come together to address the gender bias that continues to push pre-teen girls to be sold into marriage and exploitation. Instead of weapons of mass destruction, let us use our tools for poverty destruction. We need to pool our resources to combat critical issues of climate change. The 2018 IPCC (the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report warns that the world is now completely off track, heading towards an increase of a devastating three degrees Celsius.

Instead of investing in research to build the next powerful bomb, we should tackle issues of sanitation, health, and clean water, a luxury for millions in the developing world. Agenda 2030 for creating a life of dignity for all requires collective action at every level. It requires a change in lifestyle, a change in policy making, and most importantly a change in the mindsets of our decision makers, who need to look beyond short-term economic gains. It will not happen unless each one of us decides to take steps to disturb the current status quo, which allows peace to be sacrificed to drive the profits of the arms industry. The time for procrastination is long gone. It is a time for action.

Kehkashan Basu, 18, is from the United Arab Emirates and is based in Toronto, Canada. Her article first appeared in The Interfaith Observer and is republished with kind permission of the editor. Basu is a founder of the international youth organization, Green Hope, and the 2016 winner of the International Children’s Peace Prize, an initiative of KidsRights, the foundation committed to defending children’s rights worldwide. 

Headline photo of the Kutupalong camp courtesy of UK Department for International Development.

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