NUCLEAR WEAPONS: ‘Their Weapons Possess Them’

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By Xanthe Hall*

“Possession does not prevent international disputes from occurring, but it makes conflicts more dangerous. Maintaining forces on alert does not provide safety, but it increases the likelihood of accidents. Upholding doctrines of nuclear deterrence does not counter proliferation, but it makes the weapons more desirable.” - UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.

BERLIN | VIENNA (IDN) - Nearly a thousand people crammed into the conference hall in the majestic Hofburg in Vienna for two full days of discussions on the unspeakable and unimaginable theme – the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. This was the third in a series of state-sponsored conferences taking place outside of the UN, the first two having taken place in Norway and Mexico.

The growing number of states taking part at these conferences is taken to be a sign of their effectiveness in both creating awareness about the unacceptable nature of nuclear weapons and building pressure for nuclear disarmament.

Nearly 160 states were represented, among them the United States and United Kingdom who were taking part for the first time, to the chagrin of Russia and France who resolutely continue to stay away. At the end of the conference, Austria pledged to work to close the “legal gap” that would lead to the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons, inviting others to join them.

The Austrian Foreign Ministry pulled out all the stops for this conference. In the opening session, the young minister Sebastian Kurz called for a new momentum for concrete progress on global nuclear disarmament.

High level messages from the UN Secretary-General and the Pope set the tone. Pope Francis encouraged nuclear weapons' victims to be “prophetic voices” warning of the potential to destroy “us and and the civilisation”.

A long list of prominent figures sent a letter to the Austrian Foreign Minister sharing the belief that the risks posed by nuclear weapons are underestimated and need to be reduced. The President of the International Committee of the Red Cross said that new studies confirmed their already-stated conclusion that there could be no adequate help or relief in case of a nuclear explosion.

Setsuko Thurlow related her personal story of loss and suffering as a Hibakusha (nuclear bomb survivor) and the whole room suffered with her.

"A is for atom, B is for bomb. C is for cancer, D is for death"

The opening session thereby introduced the main themes of the conference that were then covered in depth in the following sessions on the impact of nuclear weapons' explosions, nuclear testing, risks, and scenarios.

Scientific presentations were interspersed with testimonials from “downwinders” (victims of nuclear testing). Wheelchair-bound Michelle Thomas from “HEAL” in Utah gave an impassioned speech about growing up in the radioactive midst of over 100 above-ground nuclear tests and how her community became ravaged by cancer and other illnesses. She spoke of embarrassment at her mother's activism until she herself realised that it was not the Cold War enemy but "Our own country was bombing the hell out of us". People asked her if she was not afraid to speak out so strongly against the government. She replied: “they already killed me”.

During the Q&A session following three testimonials from women on the destruction of their land, subsistence and health, the U.S. representative made a severe error of judgement. He made a speech, despite the Chair clearly telling states not to do so until the following day. The U.S. representative chose not to apologise to the Downwinders for their suffering, but to make it clear to all in the room that they were not planning on diverting from their “to-do” list of steps in order to increase momentum for nuclear disarmament.

Nuclear weapons are too cruel to tolerate

On the second day of the conference, a panel on International Humanitarian Law (IHL) concluded that the use of nuclear weapons would contravene existing IHL and environmental law, even though no specific ban is in place. A fascinating talk by Nobuo Hayashi of Oslo University delved into the ethical and moral dimensions and concluded that, like torture – which was on everyone's minds that day after the publication of the Senate report – nuclear weapons are “too cruel to tolerate”. Now that “we no longer live in an era when humankind felt compelled to take itself hostage for its own survival” it is an opportune moment to relieve ourselves of this unnecessary suffering.

The political statement section took five hours to slog through, without a lunch break and for some of the time without translation. 100 states took the floor to share their thoughts and their conclusions. Now and again the tedium of the occasion was broken up by a civil society statement, most notably from the Wildfire's ‘Chief Inflammatory Officer’ Richard Lelanne who pleaded with the non-nuclear weapon states to stop whining and get on with banning nuclear weapons on their own.

The so-called “weasel states” (those under the nuclear “umbrella” of the U.S.) were greeted by a giant weasel that appeared in the foyer when they stepped out for some refreshments. Lelanne likened the nuclear-armed states to alcoholics, possessed by their weapons, and urged nuclear weapon-free states not to support their habit. The ICAN statement was presented by the young director of ICAN Austria Nadja Schmidt who called for a process “open to all and blockable by none” leading to a ban on nuclear weapons.

The humanitarian initiative aims to put the effects of nuclear weapons at the centre of the debate rather than national security interests and these conferences have been effective in achieving that for the large part.

Ukraine, however, was so caught up in its present conflict that it was unable to step outside its own box and indulged instead in a verbal attack on Russia.

The United Kingdom went as far as to say that the humanitarian effects were already clear in 1968 and that a ban or a timetable for elimination would endanger strategic stability, so that they planned to hang on to their missiles for “as long as necessary”.

The “Austrian Pledge” was the main outcome of the conference – a tool that allows countries to signify their preparedness to begin a process leading to the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.

It is unlikely that much more than this could be achieved before the Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in Spring 2015. But unless there is an outcome from the conference in New York, which many hold to be unlikely, Austria may be able to use the support amassed through its Pledge to kick-start negotiations on a treaty, with or without the nuclear-armed states. Given that the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will be commemorated for the 70th time next year, that might be an apt time for talks on a ban to begin.

*Xanthe Hall is Disarmament Campaigner of IPPNW Deutschland | IPPNW Germany. [IDN-InDepthNews – December 11, 2014]

Top photo: A view of the Vienna conference

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