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Direct from Vienna: the 3rd International Conference on the Impact of Nuclear Weapons.|
Published 7 December 2014
The capital of Austria – the world’s only nation with a constitution that refuses both nuclear weapons and nuclear power-plants – is the venue of five intense days. (*)
ACDN had sent two delegates, Jean-Marie Matagne (France) and Peter Low (New Zealand). They have reported on this site, in English and French, on the events of the day. Here are their reports: the Conference, as if you were present.
Vienna? A great moment in history, and perhaps a turning-point in the struggle for the abolition of nuclear weapons. In any case a terrific boost for those engaged in this struggle. As the Pope has said: "a world without nuclear weapons is TRULY POSSIBLE."
Friday 5 December 2014
Grey cold day in Vienna. The time-zone is the same as Paris, but it gets dark around 4.30pm.
This afternoon, before the Civil Society Forum organised by ICAN (International Campaign Against Nuclear weapons) for Saturday and Sunday, the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms IALANA) and the US-based Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (NAPF) invited us to a preliminary event not ot be missed: presentations about the lawsuits lodged at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) by the Government of the Marshall Islands, against the 9 nuclear-armed states – including France, of course.
It’s David against Goliath, or rather against nine Goliaths, no less. (1)
“Entrusted” in 1947 to the USA (as a strange kind of protectorate), the Marshal Island became a fully independent state and full member of the UN in September 1991. Located in the mid-Pacific, north-east of Australia, between Micronesia and Hawaii, there are in total 70000 inhabitants, dispersed acorss some fifty islands and atolls. The chief atoll, Majuro, hosts the capital and boasts 25000 inhabitants (plus an international airport). Think of that – scarcely more people than the city of Saintes!
The slingshot wielded by their Foreign Minister, Tony de Brum, is the law, existing international law of treaties, and customary law surrounding armaments. The “Nuclear Zero Suits” were the focus of presentations in Vienna on 5 December: nine cases to the International Court of Justice and one to the US Federal Court in California, all claiming that the nuclear states have long breached their legal obligations, especially under Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970.
Tony de Brun spoke briefly about how his country was misused by the USA which exploded 67 bombs there before 1960, including the famous “Bravo” on Bikini Atoll in 1954, testing the biggest US bomb ever. Its fallout led to a huge wave of protest around the world and eventually to the ending of tests in the atmosphere. The Marshallese people can be compared with the hibakusha, the Japanese survivors who kept suffering after the bombs of 1945.
One speaker was David Krieger, president of NAPF, who incited and advised in the Marshallese initiative. He insisted this was not all about law. It’s about human survival. He praised the Marshallese for providing qualities that our leading nations are not giving us. Leadership, notably. Boldness and courage too, to challenge the unkept promises of the giants, to dare question the status quo, to seek justice and right outcomes for all. He praised them also for wisdom, so different from the hubris of the powerful. These qualities can help bring about a conversion of heart, can help deliver us from the cocoon of complacency.
Complacency is quite misplaced, since the danger of nuclear explosions by cyber-attack, terrorist arms programmes, and accidents may be greater than ever. Knowledge about how to make them is widely available. They must be eliminated. And the Court must give its rulings on questions like these: Who decides whether treaties matter? Who decides whether all signatories matter? And who decides whether treaty obligations are being met?
Another speaker, Marylia Kelly, an activist involved in the case before the US Federal Court, spoke specifically of how the USA seems to be breaching its obligations. The extensive programmes to modernise nuclear weapons constitute “vertical proliferation” and flout the requirements of “good faith”. In recent years 14 distinct kinds of nuclear weapons have been developed since the 1970s, or at least imagined, notably at Livermore Laboratories. The nuclear arms budget stands for the next ten years at over $355 billion. In view of this madness she described the Marshallese lawsuits as creative, timely and courageous.
Another speaker, the distinguished judge Christopher Weeramantry, former vice-president of the ICJ, said that solutions need to be found in the next 5-10 years. And one reason is that humans have to think in the long term, to consider the needs of future generations and not just the balance sheet of this year. He stressed the need to education young and old about international law and about how international law is founded on the wisdom of many traditions and religions. He insisted that nuclear weapons have to be abolished. And in a quiet yet eloquent voice he lambasted the “giants” who fail to obey the law in nuclear matters, yet keep wanting to impose their will on the “dwarfs”.
The nuclear zero lawsuits are already a remarkable, indeed breath-taking story. Their importance in 2015 and beyond is potentially enormous.
That evening there was a long and moving ceremony in which the Inerntional Peace Bureau (IPB) awarded the 22nd “Sean MacBride Prize” (named after an Irish nationalist who became a man of peace, chaired the IPB, helped to found Amnesty International and won the Nobel Peace Prize)to the government and people of the Marshall Islands. Tony de Brum accepted it on behalf of his people and all the victims of nuclear testing, notably the children born deformed or non-viable, or affected by childhood leukemia, as happened to his own grand-daughter. His words sturck deep.
(*) The Austrian Government invited each of the 193 UN member states, both the nuclear-armed ones (9 in all) and the non-nuclear ones (184), to come and hear exposés by experts on the effects that these weapons could have, if unfortunately they were to be used again.
It’s the 3rd conference of this kind. The first was in Oslo in March 2013, the second in Nayarit (Mexico) in February 2014. In Oslo, there were 127 states that answered the invitations of the Norwegian government. In Nayarit, there were 146. This time there will be over 150, including for the first time the USA abd the UK, two of the 5 nuclear-armed states with permanent seats on the Security Council and signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. As for now, France (in a similar situation) has not appeared, no more than Russia and China.
(1) See Marshall Islands Statement to the 2014 NPT Prepcom and http://www.acdn.net/spip/spip.php?article868, 8 May 2014
Saturday 6 December
Today is the start of the Civil Society Forum, a large gathering of over 600 people (half women, half men) from all round the world. There is a wide age range, but the number of young people stands out – we estimate the average age as under 40: the ICAN organising team – about 20 strong – is incredible young, motivated and energetic, and that does not mean a reduction in efficiency.
Béatrice Fihn, executive director of ICAN International, greeted delegates by declaring that civil society is a world superpower – it is citizens’ groups rather than governments that have to be the main force for change. The next to speak, Nadja Schmidt of ICAN-Austria, related the adventure of her group which two years ago had three members when they wrote to Austrian President to draw his attention to the nuclear question. A few weeks later he was saying things that ICAN could have dictated. Then the Austrian parliament passed a resolution along the same lines, unanimously. And then the government announced at Nayarit that it would host the next conference in this series, in Vienna.
Today the vast auditorium of the Faculty of Sciences is overflowing with enthusiasm and energy for the elimination of nuclear weapons. In a video message, the Austrian President Heinz Fischer, greeted the participants and spoke for a political will which, in his view, is continuing to grow: « Humanity has the right to live beyond the nuclear threat » he said.
Setsuko Thurlow then spoke. She is Japanese, now with Canadian citizenship. She brought her testimony as a hibakusha (nuclear survivor). She told how in 1945 the people of Hiroshima had marvelled and then got used to their city not being bombed even though almost all cities in Japan, even smaller ones, had been hit. (2)
On the morning the bomber came, August 6, she was aged 13. She was upstairs with her schoolmates in a wooden building 1.8 km from the epicentre above which the bomb exploded. The army had summoned the girls for a task not really fitting their age: to learn to be secret messengers if the country was occupied. Setsuko was struck by a huge blinding flash and the building collapsed, blown over like a blade of straw. She was thrown down inside the ruins. Though injured, she crawled out with help from others, and was confronted by a devastating site. We will spare you the details here.
It is not certain that President Hollande, had he been listening, would have reaffirmed his role as the man with a finger on the nuclear button: « It’s a presidential prerogative, and I assume it. » Today’s event makes it easier to understand why France stayed away from the last two conferences on the human impact of nuclear weapons and is leaving her seat vacant this time round. There are some realities one prefers not to know. And posing as valiant while brandishing megatonnes doesn’t vaccinate you against a lack of courage.
Other speakers took the podium, including the president of the Austrian Red Cross, Werner Kershbaum, and the head of Green Cross International (the Foundation of Michael Gorbachev), Paul Walker of the USA. The former spoke of humanitarian crises in which the emergency services had been stretched, but said that a nuclear explosion would not be comparable : the Red Cross would be totally nable to respond adequately. Paul Walker spoke of the environmental effects of even small nuclear explosions – they could result in « nuclear famine ». He then explained that « We suffer all the time from nuclear weapons », through the ongoing effects of testing them, stockpiling them, managing their radioactive waste. And through their opportunity cost – what the expense of them could do if used for the benefit of humanity.
This afternoon there were several parallel session. One organised by IPPNW (International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War) presented a new campaining tool: a PowerPoint available online, well thought out and based on verified facts. Worth seeing.
In a video statement, the retired US General Lee Butler, who as head of Strategic Air Command had been in charge of all US nuclear forces, told the Forum that the abolition of nuclear weapons is now a moral imperative and indeed « the ultimate measure of our worth as a species, as human beings. »
A later session looked at the world’s chief religious traditions and concluded that their « common denominator » is a concern for the real needs of human beings, now and in future generations. Mustafa Ceric, the grand mufti of Sarajevo (where he lived through the siege in the 1990s) declared that religious faith can help us to counter the fear and lack of trust that are so common today, and can only impel us to want to abolish nuclear weapons.
Well, it would be great if that was the view of the Church of France, at least the Conference of Bishops (3) : then France would stop the foot-dragging discourse of wanting nuclear disarmament, but only “step by step”, and certainly without speed or urgency. Do you know what the latest step was? It was on 23 October 2014, when PM Manuel Valls visited the Laser Mega Joule in Le Barp (near Bordeaux). That is the monstrous plant that is preparing the thermonuclear arms of the future. “Disarmament step by step” they say. They really are taking us for fools. (4)
(2) To explain the strange respite granted to Hiroshima (but also Kokura, Niigata and Nagasaki), see Hiroshima, Nagasaki - an unknown story
(3) See The Church of France, Nuclear Disarmament and the Vienna Conference. To our knowledge at least one bishop has written to President Hollande asking France to take part in the Vienna - Mgr Emmanuel Lafont, the bishop of Cayenne (and former chaplain in Soweto, South Africa).
(4) Concerning the trustworthiness of France’s talk of « unilateral disarmament », see France confronting Nuclear Disarmament
Sunday 7 December
Just confirmed: France, like North-Korea, will not attend. (5)
General points about this Civil Society Forum.
The clear hope is for some sort of nuclear weapons ban, treaty, or other “legally binding instrument”. Although most people here see them as already contrary to international law (as the Marshall Islands cases will show), an international convention will place them explicitly outside the law and will stigmatise them to such an extent that the states possessing them will in fact lose all their authority if they persist in wanting to keep them.
A key strategy in 2013-14 has been to focus on their effects on human life and health – to reframe the debate away from their purported deterrent value and onto their undoubtedly barbaric nature. NGOs such as ICAN are encouraging the many governments that already think along these lines, and are insisting (a key point) that we cannot, we must not wait for the nuclear-armed states before creating a ban. We’ve been waiting too long already, and they haven’t even started the multilateral negotiations required under the NPT of 1970!
Can prohibition precede elimination? Yes, it can. There is encouraging evidence from the recent conventions banning landmines and cluster munitions that a nuclear weapons convention would have an impact even without the signatures of major players like the USA, France etc. Proud nations don’t like to be stigmatised. Besides, the humanitarian case for a ban is overwhelming.
The first speaker on Sunday was one of the Kokatha Mula people of South Australia who were living downwind of a nuclear test they had not been warned about. Sus Coleman-Haseldine spoke of numerous cancers in children and adults, over a long time-span. Then she added a point seldom made: “And don’t forget the animals!”
The main focus of debate then moved from the problem to the ways to solve it. A long session on Political Leadership began with a Norwegian MP, Gryl Larsen, outlining the strategic thinking that led up to the Oslo conference of 2013. She insisted on the value of alliance between political leaders and a strong civil society.
Then followed officials from three strong anti-nuclear countries: Mexico, Austria and Ireland, allied in this cause with other like-minded states. The Mexican Jorge spoke of his nation’s choice to “achieve security by disarmament” and desire for a nuclear weapons ban. Of the process that led to this Vienna event, he said “It’s a game-changer” because it gives a better voice to the non-nuclear states and it bases its case on facts, on unquestionable scientific information showing how risky nuclear weapons really are. The Irish official Breifne O’Reilly also spoke of risk, and of the lack of capacity to respond properly to a nuclear detonation, now or ever. The Austrian, Jan Kickert, gave an insight into his nation’s position – for decades beside the Iron Curtain and vulnerable to the blocs on both side – which helps to explain its strong position on disarmament.
Sunday afternoon was the conclusion of the Civil Society Forum. Many of the weekend’s themes were reinforced, such as the health consequences of nuclear explosions. In this case their human face was Karipbek Kuyukov, an artist born with no arms. He is from Kazakhstan, where some 1.5 million people have been affected by the nuclear testing there.
In the closing panel discussion, there was agreement that the logical response to the threats posed by nuclear weapons is to ban them, and differing ideas about exactly what treaty or other instrument is needed. In one important session four MPs spoke of the challenges they face. Members of PNND (Parliamentarians for Non-proliferation and Nuclear Disarmament), they told the hundreds of NGO people: “Push us to do the right thing” (Paul Dewar of Canada).
A specific case arises in one of the nuclear states - the UK debate about the renewal of Britain’s Trident system. Joan Ruddock said “space must be opened” in the British mind, where complacent citizens need to become aware how serious the nuclear threat is. And Bill Kidd of the Scottish parliament spoke of how the Scottish National Party is challenging the right of the Westminster government about this weapons system based at Faslane, not far from Glasgow, the biggest Scottish city.
A Green MP from Austria, Peter Pilz, reminded us that even today his nation with no nuclear weapons and power-plants, realises the power-plants just over the border could be unsafe, and are certainly vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
It is no doubt that the weekend’s forum was a fine prelude to the Intergovernmental Conference in Vienna’s great Hofburg Palace, when official representatives from over 150 non-nuclear countries (and a few others) have come to be better informed about the human and scientific truths about the nuclear issue.
Now some quotations from Sunday:
“Nuclear weapons are adding to insecurity…The world is safer with less weapons than with more”… “A conventional war cannot be prevented by possessing nuclear weapons” – Jan Kickert, Austrian official.
“The burden of proof is now on those that want nuclear weapons” – Gry Larsen, Norwegian politician.
“We can and we must succeed” – Desmond Tutu, video message
(5) Cf. our today’s press communiqué : Nuclear Weapons: France aligned with Russia, Israel and North Korea
Monday 8 December
At 8.30 participants began to enter the Hofburg Palace. Inside the great door was a posse of overdressed contamination agents in yellow costumes and armed with devices to detect radioactivity. "You’re OK for now, you get the badge." So you take off your coat and proceed up the grand staircase. Upstairs, a huge and impressive hall greets you, with chandeliers probably dating from the time of imperial splendour. That was once an imperial ballroom. Over 700 chairs face the podium, half of them with small tables for the representatives of governments and UN agencies. The others are divided between the press and civil society people, who also colonise the steps at the rear. In all, over 800 people.
It is 10 a.m. on Monday. The Intergovernmental Conference has begun.
Austria’s young and brilliant Foreign Minister, Sebastian Kurz, greeted representatives from nearly 160 states, plus many people from Civil Society, around 800 people in the splendid Festsaal. He spoke a strong discourse on nuclear disarmament. (See the austrian position here.)
Some of the first messages were from absent world leaders: Ban-ki-Moon speaking of the "senselessness of pouring huge sums into useless nuclear weapons", and Pope Francis saying how "spending on nuclear arms squanders the wealth of nations". His Holiness spoke also of the unity of the human family, the need for an "ethic of solidarity", and the way in which nuclear weapons break moral norms by causing unnecessary suffering.
Unnecessary suffering was one theme of the morning. We heard a moving testimony from Hiroshima survivor Setsuko Thurlow, and similar testimonies from the survivors of nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, in the Australian outback, and in the "downwind" communities of Utah, USA. "Gruesome, brutal and long-term" was one phrase used. These testimonies certainly gave a human face to the "human impact" discourse. The weapons allegedly "not used since 1945" have caused plenty of death and disease!
Another theme was scientific evidence of the extent of harm. Mary Olson spoke of medical damage in the immediate, short-term, mid-term and extended timeframes, including thermal, climatic, radiological and general public health consequences. She concluded by saying "Prevention is the Cure."
A frightening simulation was then presented by Michael Mills: if a limited nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan exploded only half their arsenals, the firestorms, smoke and dust would before long affect all nations and destroy or degrade food production, resulting in "nuclear famine".
Then Matthew McKinzie presented a simulation based on the hypothesis of a single 200Kt bomb exploding on a military base in North Italy: the fallout cloud would contaminate all of Austria and continue across more national boundaries, affecting the Baltic States and northern Russia. On 12 November 2014 it would have reached the frontiers of France… Fortunately, as we have all known since Chernobyl, France’s frontiers cannot be crossed by radioactive clouds. (6)
Scientific evidence was given also of the damage caused in many places by the mere production of nuclear weapons, beginning with the uranium mining. Arjun Makhijani declared that the nuclear-weapon states have exploited the peoples of other nations, and called for the establishment of a "Truth Commission on the health and environmental impact of nuclear weapons production."
The main theme of the afternoon sessions was unacceptable risk. It was highlighted by a video from Stanislas Petrov. His name will soon be better known through a documentary film "The Man who Saved the World, which will inform all viewers just how close we all came to disaster in 1983. It will be screened in Vienna this evening.
There followed presentations on risk by Eric Schlosser, Reinhard Mechler, Camille Francois, Seth Baum and Bruce Blair. We we told of various accidents and near-misses in the USA, which could have wiped out South Carolina, Arkansas, or North Dakota. In Schlosser’s words "the odds of an unintended nuclear detonation may be low, but the consequences would be high. Low probability events occur all the time." Baum concurred, adding that "risk increases over time - the longer we wait, the more likely nuclear war will occur."
It seems that few of us have realised how lucky we were to get through the Cold War without a nuclear weapons detonation.
As for today, Bruce Blair did not reassure us, but declared that "the expansion, diversification and modernization of nuclear arsenals... are increasing the risks of their intentional and unintentional use... nuclear states are steadily lowering the threshold and increasing the risks that weapons will be used deliberately or through loss of control, unauthorised acts, hasty decisions and miscalculation."
Other risks mentioned were possible capture and use by terrorists, and the area outlined by Camille Francois: cyber threats and cyber-attacks.
For obvious reasons, none of these speakers encouraged the view that such risks are acceptable. On the contrary, the collective message resembled a command to "Quit the Russian roulette, take all the bullets out of the revolver."
As a pre-premiere and with the original Russian sound-track (Stanislav Petrov plays himself), the film "The Man who Saved the World" was projected at the end of the day. This film should draw the crowds, a risk we are glad to take and even to encourage. Particularly in France, the land of the nuclear Omerta.
(6) The power of that bomb, 200 Kt, corresponds to a dozen Hiroshima bombs, but is of an average size for today’s bombs (those of France vary from 150 to 300 Kt), and is well suited to the imaginable purpose of the explosion: to prevent an underground missile from leaving its silo, or else to destroy an arsenal stocked underground. As for the Italian base, it really exists, and US atom bombs are really stationed there. The hypothesis is therefore very realistic.
Tuesday 9 December
The final panel of the Vienna conference showed again how well the Austrians had brought together brilliant experts to give new perspectives to the issues, and to reinforce the paradigm shift that is taking place.
This morning session focussed on areas of existing international law often neglected by nuclear policy-makers - environmental law, health law, disarmament law, laws regulating arms, and of course International Humanitarian Law (IHL) which protects combatants and civilians.
Helen Durham of the Red Cross pointed out how IHL has rules about distinguishing targets, about proportionality in attack, and requirements of precaution (like warning civilians and minimising « collateral damage »). There is even a rule prohibiting "the use of weapons of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering." The Red Cross very much doubts that nuclear weapons can ever satisfy those limitations.
Other speakers mentioned the progress that International Health Law has made in the 21st century, and the fact that armed conflict does not necessarily suspend environmental protection.
Then the philosopher Nabuo Hayashi summed up the consensus about existing law on nuclear war: "it strangles the beast from many directions but does not strike at its heart". His reflection was that the ethics of consequence, in which the end can justify the means, must give way to a deontological approach, focussing not on consequences, but on the moral status of the act itself. Nuclear weapons use is inherently immoral, like torture. In conclusion he said: "We no longer live in a time when humankind needs to take itself hostage for its own survival."
The next non-stop session lasted more than 7 hours and was devoted to formal statements by nearly 100 nations and three or four, NGOs (Mayors for Peace, ICAN, Wildfire). There was in fact no debate. Some of the strongest abolitionist statements came from Chile, Denmark, Egypt, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Togo, Costa Rica, Ireland, Malawi. All these were very well received, and vigorously applauded by civil society people, especially South Africa, which reminded us that it had developed nuclear weapons and then dismantled them, and which is ready to host a further step in the current process.
A few statements expressed unjustified commitment to the old "step-by-step" approaches which so far have proved too slow and ineffective in the end. The US statement reflected their well-known deterrence policies, while the UK stated an intention to reduce their warheads by half, before the year 2025. Other nations, presumably, are expected to remain patient.
One diversion came from Ukraine, who gave a long protest against the Russian Federation. The later delegations did not take this up, yet it was relevant inasmuch as Ukraine renounced the nuclear weapons on its soil, but Russia did not.
Bangladesh proposed a lively slogan: "Freeze the nukes, farm the future!" Another delegate challenged the NW states who justify the so-called "security" that they attribute to these weapons. The ICAN statement advocated a binding legal instrument to ban nuclear weapons, and added "This is not a controversial proposal ... it is a logical one."
Another NGO group, which calls itself Wildfire, provided the least boring statement. Supposedly addressed to the non-nuclear states, it was a litany of rhetorical questions beginning "How Long?" For example "How long will you politely tolerate the procrastination of the NWS before you start negotiating a legal ban whether they come to the table or not?"
In the final summary of the conference. The Austrians made eight points which few would dispute. We summarise them here :
Besides these eight points, the host nation recorded others that several states had made, such as concern about how much money is diverted from worthwhile purposes to weapons programs. They also drew attention to the forthcoming NPT Review conference, which needs to take stock of Oslo, Nayarit , Vienna, and the 70th anniversary next August of the 1945 bombings.
The Austrians then made a unilateral pledge to continue the work of this conference in various ways: the objectives include the filling of the legal gap by some sort of prohibition, and the need to stigmatise nuclear weapons on the way to eliminating them.
The Austrians deserve thanks for their impressive work and the remarkably good organisation of this Conference.
The fact that two-thirds of the governmental delegations wanted to make statements, and that some exceeded the rule of three minutes, meant that the NGO section was allotted very limited time and most groups were unable to speak.That was to price to pay for success.
The ACDN delegation was able to hand to every governmental delegation an English version of the memorandum on “France confronting Nuclear Disarmament” and the “Letter to the President of the Republic”. The declaration that ACDN was unable to make orally has been put here on the Austrian Ministry’s website.
We leave Vienna with a little more hope in our hearts and the firm intention not to give up the campaign.
Jean-Marie Matagne (France), Peter Low (New-Zeland)
List of the 158 States which participated in the Conference of Vienna:
Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Andorra, Angola, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria,
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