A world without nukes: The UN treaty to ban nuclear weapons

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by Merci Llarinas-Angeles (Solidarity Correspondent, Peace Women Partners)

On July 11, 2017, 122 (63 percent) of United Nations member countries ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Thus, the majority of the world’s people called for denuclearization of the world to finally achieve peace and justice. At its adoption, all in the conference hall gave a standing ovation. National delegates and civil society representatives hugged and congratulated each other for the 72-year anti-nuclear campaign begun by the Hibakusha 1– survivors of the atomic bombs – had born fruit.

Tales and struggles of the Hibakusha

Sumiteru Taniguchi was 16 when the atomic bomb exploded in Nagasaki, Japan on Aug. 6, 1945.  He was riding his bicycle a couple of kilometers away when the mushroom cloud erupted “scorching my back and leaving the skin on my right arm hanging down from the shoulder to the fingertips.” Those around him, unable to get help, died begging for water. By the end of 1945, 140,000 in Hiroshima and 70,000 in Nagasaki died. By 2016, the Memorial Cenotaph recorded that 300,000 in Hiroshima and 170,000 in Nagasaki had been killed by the bomb. Taniguchi was treated in a hospital until 1949, often asking to die and be put out of his suffering. Many survivors committed suicide and others died unable to bear another operation. However, Sumiteru committed the rest of his life to fighting for the banishment of nuclear weapons. He died from cancer on Aug. 30, 2017, long enough to witness the fruition of his life-long struggle.

Abacca Amjuin Maddison recalled her uncle’s stories about the suffering of her people who were directly exposed to hydrogen bomb tests in Rongelap Atoll of the Marshall Islands  in 1954. The hydrogen bomb was a thousand times more destructive than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. The bombs destroyed the land, damaged the health of the people, contaminated their herbal medicines and indigenous food, and changed their lives forever. The Rongelapese were used as guinea pigs under a secret project to study radiation’s effects on human beings. Women gave birth to babies with deformities. Men and women suffered from cancer in the lungs, livers, breasts. The successful tests turned the U.S. into the world’s super power and Rongelap Atoll into a ghost town people feared returning to. The Rongelap Atoll people continue living under harsh living conditions in the temporary home island of Mejatto. Furthermore, according to Abacca, the Nuclear Claims Tribunal closed before the claimants from the atolls could collect even half of their personal injury and land damage awards 2.

In the “Polygon,” a vast nuclear testing site in the steppes of Kazakhstan (in Central Asia) the size of Belgium, villagers still die from radiation-related illnesses such as cancer. In the frantic race to build their nuclear arsenals, Russia had detonated 456 nuclear bombs there over four decades. The last nuclear explosion was carried out in 1989. Twenty-five years later, villagers still suffer the consequences of heavy radiation 3.

For over a decade, in the north west coast of South Australia, on Aboriginal land, nine full-scale atomic bombs from 1 to 27 kilotonnes were tested. The British conducted 700 more secret tests with plutonium and other nuclear materials leaving the land highly radioactive. Sue Coleman Haseldine, an Aboriginal nuclear test survivor, recounted, “Up until 1967 we were looked upon as flora and fauna and of little consequence and expendable.” She noted how at the time people did not know about the effects of radiation, but now “63 years on, my small town of Ceduna is being called the cancer capital of Australia 4.”

Neglected and silenced by the U.S. and their own government, the Hibakusha of Hiroshima and Nagasaki rose up to take action in March of 1954 after the hydrogen bomb testing on the Marshall Islands. On Aug. 6, 1955, they held the first World Conference against A and H Bombs in Hiroshima which has been held annually since then. It has included the increasing participation from thousands of Hibakushas, peace and anti-nuclear advocates, and government and civil society representatives from around the world who are united in their calls for a “nuclear weapon-free, peaceful and just world”.

To this day, the Japanese government is reluctant to acknowledge its responsibility to compensate the Hibakusha. Hence, the latter had to relentlessly campaign for justice and to file the “No More Hibakusha Lawsuits.” In 1963, the Tokyo District Court, while turning down the claim for compensation of the damage by a Hibakusha plaintiff, ruled that the atomic bombings had been a violation of the international humanitarian law.  The ruling preluded an advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1996, which said that “a threat or use of force by means of nuclear weapons that is contrary to Article 2, paragraph 4, of the United Nations Charter and that fails to meet all the requirements of Article 51, is unlawful.” This is a precursor to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons recently adopted by the UN Conference 5.

Nuclear armed countries hold the world hostage to war

There is a consensus among U.S. historians that the 1945 atomic bombings were unnecessary in ending the Second World War 6. Since then, the U.S., and eight other countries have stockpiled more than 16,000 nuclear warheads more powerful than those dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They adhere to the doctrine that a country’s ability to inflict unacceptable damage can deter another country from attacking it. This strategy generates fear in the enemy and in the world through the threat of nuclear retaliation. Through these nuclear weapons, the U.S., Russia and other nuclear armed countries threaten the rest of the world with the possibility of nuclear annihilation.  The impact on the planet of a war fought using 1,000 nuclear weapons –5 per cent of the global stockpile – would render the planet uninhabitable 7.

Nuclear Forces in 2012 8

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The Groundbreaking Nuclear Ban Treaty

The Nuclear Ban Treaty is the first legally-binding instrument outlawing nuclear weapons in the world. It expresses deep concern about the catastrophic humanitarian consequences from the use of nuclear weapons including their detonation by accident, miscalculation or design. The only guaranteed prevention to the re-use of nuclear weapons is seen as their complete elimination 9. To achieve sustainable peace and security, the equal, full and effective participation of both women and men is noted as essential. In particular, the treaty commits to supporting and strengthening the effective participation of women in nuclear disarmament 10. The treaty acknowledges the unacceptable suffering of and harm caused by nuclear weapons to survivors (Hibakusha) and those affected by its testing, noting in particular the  disproportionate impact on indigenous peoples 11.

At the core of the treaty is Article 1 that bans the development, testing, production, manufacture, otherwise acquisition, possession or stockpiling of nuclear weapons, the transfer and reception of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices. Noguchi Kunikazu, Co-chair of the Steering Committee that organized the 2017 World Conference on A & H Bombs, stated that the prohibition on the “Use or threaten to use nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices” (article 1.d) is important because it would prohibit nuclear countries not only from using their nuclear weapons but also from establishing a policy of nuclear retaliation, thus preventing mutually assured destruction 12.

Article 1 achieves a complete prohibition of nuclear weapons banning the assistance to, encouragement of or inducement of any activities prohibited under this Treaty including the stationing, installation or deployment of nuclear weapons. It also outlaws “nuclear umbrella” policies as national security based on the nuclear deterrence of nuclear weapon states. Article 1 seeks to achieve a complete prohibition of nuclear weapons 13.

Article 4 stipulates how nuclear weapon countries can join the treaty. One way is eliminating their nuclear arsenal and then joining the Treaty. The other is to sign the treaty and swiftly dismantle their nuclear weapons. Noguchi states that this flexible approach offers more than one implementation path for nuclear-armed states 14.

Article 6 requires each state party to provide assistance, medical care, rehabilitation and psychological support to individuals under its jurisdiction affected by the use or testing of nuclear weapons.  It also requires each State party to take necessary and appropriate measures towards the environmental remediation of areas so contaminated 15.

As regards to states that have used or tested nuclear weapons or nuclear devices, Article 7 mandates the responsible state to provide adequate assistance to those affected in terms of victim assistance and environmental remediation 16.

Call to Action

With the refusal of the nuclear-armed countries to participate in the UN hearings on the Nuclear Prohibition Treaty, many doubt the effective implementation of the Nuclear Ban Treaty. Nonetheless, Corazon Valdez Fabros, Vice-President of the International Peace Bureau (an organization that actively campaigned for passage of the Treaty), affirmed that “this is a clear and unified expression of non-nuclear weapons countries/states that manufacturing, research, possession, use of nuclear weapons is illegal.” This position was attained through the “painstaking process of debate, research and strong and persistent lobby from civil society organizations led by the survivors of nuclear bombings themselves (the Hibakushas) since the 1950’s.” Despite the boycott of the nuclear weapons states in the UN process, passage of the treaty would nonetheless make the possession of nuclear weapons illegal in the global community. Peace and anti-nuclear advocates all over the world need to continue exposing and educating “the arrogance of the nuclear weapons states and the continuing dangers of possibility of use/accident of nuclear weapons use.” As the generation of the Hibakusha are dying, Atty. Fabros urged the youth to make nuclear abolition their struggle 17.

Now more than ever, we in Southeast Asia and the world need to strengthen our movements to challenge the legitimacy of nuclear-armed countries and create peace and justice on our blue planet.

Notes:

  1. Hibakusha is the Japanese term that translates as “explosion affected people” and refers to people that were exposed to radiation from the bombings from Japan and elsewhere in the world 
  2. Proceedings of 2015 World Conference on Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs, p. 136 
  3. https://www.pri.org/stories/2017-03-13/soviet-era-nuclear-testing-still-making-people-sick-kazakhstan 
  4. Testimonial from Sue Coleman Haseldine, Aboriginal nuclear test survivor during the 2017 World Conference on Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs 
  5. Paper by Fujiwara Seigo, Chair of the National Legal Counsel for the No More Hibakusha Lawsuits, delivered during the 2017 World Conference on Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs
  6. U.S. Secretary of War Stimson had advised Truman that Japan’s surrender could be negotiated on terms acceptable to the U.S. The nuclear attacks were done to bring the war to an immediate end so that the U.S. could avoid sharing influence with the Soviet Union in Northern China, Manchuria and Korea, and to intimidate Soviet leaders by demonstrating the apocalyptic power of nuclear weapons and Washington’s willingness to use them even against civilians. 
  7. “Catastrophic Humanitarian Harm”, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, August 2015,  p. 11. This report can be accessed at: http://www.icanw.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/CHH-Booklet-WEB-2015.pdf  
  8. International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) 
  9. Preamble of the Treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons can be accessed at: http://www.icanw.org/treaty-on-the-prohibition-of-nuclear-weapons/  
  10. Ibid
  11. Ibid
  12. Talk delivered by Noguchi Kunikazu during the Opening Program of the 2017 World Conference on Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs
  13. Ibid
  14. Text of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons downloaded from: http://www.icanw.org/treaty-on-the-prohibition-of-nuclear-weapons/ 
  15. Ibid
  16. Ibid
  17. From interview with Corazon Valdez Fabros on November 4, 2016 in Quezon City, Philippines.