Nearly 25 years after the end of the Cold War there are still estimated to be 16,300 nuclear weapons at 98 sites in 14 countries. Rather than disarm, nuclear armed states continue to spend a fortune maintaining and modernising their arsenals – an international conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons learned this week.
More than 150 governments were represented at the conference in Vienna on December 8 and 9, including, for the first time, delegations from four of the nine countries with nuclear weapons: the US, UK, India and Pakistan. They heard Pope Francis condemn in a statement that the money spent on nuclear weapons was “squandering the wealth of nations.”
Delegates from 44 of the countries called at the event’s end for a prohibition on nuclear weapons. The Austrian government pledged to work to “fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons”.
This could set the stage for the start of a diplomatic process towards a new treaty with input crucial from civil society organisations, and individuals around the world.
Delegates heard chilling stories of suffering from survivors of nuclear bombs and tests in Japan, Australia, the US and the Marshall Islands.
The speakers, all children at the time, described how their lives changed forever.
Hiroshima survivor Setsuko Thurlow told the conference: ”Miraculously, I was rescued from the rubble of a collapsed building, about 1.8 km from ground zero. Most of my classmates in the same room were burned alive. I can still hear their voices calling their mothers and God for help”.
Michelle Thomas from Utah, recounted her childhood memories of living downwind of the Nevada test site, where 100 atmospheric nuclear tests were carried out by the US in the 1950s.
At the time the government told the community they were part of history. She remembered feeling embarrassed by her mother protesting against the tests. Only later did she realise that, “Our own country was bombing the hell out of us”.
Many living in those rural areas, including Michelle suffered severe illnesses associated with radiation. The children used to recite:
“A is for atom, B is for bomb.”. Some added “C is for cancer, D is for death”.
Abacca Anjain-Maddison, from Rongelap, the Marshall Islands, described how the children played in the radioactive dust falling from the sky, fallout from the ‘bravo’ nuclear test, conducted by the US in 1954.
They thought it was snow. The Marshall Islanders had no word for “bomb” or for “contamination” and yet many had suffered catastrophic health impacts as a result of the testing.
A total of 67 nuclear tests were carried out in the Marshall Islands from 1946-58. Earlier this year the islanders lodged a historic series of cases in the International Court of Justice, The Hague against nuclear armed states for their failure to disarm.
Sadly, the tragic legacy of nuclear weapons still lives on and continues to threaten our present and future. As long as nuclear weapons exist, the risk of accidental or deliberate use will be present.
Participants of a civil society forum organised by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)) before the conference, called on governments to urgently start negotiating a treaty to ban nuclear weapons .
The US and other nuclear-armed states may remain strongly opposed, but they can no longer ignore the emerging momentum to jump-start the efforts to reduce, nuclear dangers so the world can live safely.
A powerful video shown at the conference by ICAN on behalf of civil society concluded:
“Every generation has a chance to change the world. This generation will ban nuclear weapons.”
Next year will mark the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
We cannot live with this threat to life any longer as Setsuko Thurlow, a Hiroshima survivor told the conference in a heartfelt plea for global support.
Jen Maman is a Peace Advisor at Greenpeace International
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