Participants in the 27th UN Conference on Disarmament Issues (UNCDI) in Hiroshima lay flowers at the Cenotaph honoring those who died in the atomic bomb attack.
Full Written Remarks by Matthew Bolton, director of the International Disarmament Institute, for Session on “Education for the Next Generation on the Realities of the Atomic Bombings” at the 27th United Nations Conference on Disarmament Issues (UNCDI) in Hiroshima, 29-30 November 2017.
I must admit that when asked to speak on this panel, I initially felt awkward about the request. I have no personal experience with the realities of the atomic bombings here in Hiroshima, or Nagasaki. I have not myself suffered the impacts of nuclear weapons testing in the places where I live. However, in preparing for this panel I have been reflecting on how I came to know about the humanitarian and environmental consequences of nuclear weapons.
I spent some of the first years of my life here in Japan. Though we left when I was only three-years-old, I still have memories of Tokyo and the friends my parents made there would often visit our home in Leicester, England. As a result, I grew up with a positive regard for Japanese people and so always felt disturbed when history classes debated whether the atomic bombings “ended the war.” I could not so easily dismiss the lives of Japanese people as “collateral damage.” I could imagine people in the casualty statistics.
ICAN’s strategy was primarily a discursive one. We aimed to change the way that people talk, think and feel about nuclear weapons, changing their social meaning from symbols of status to outdated, dangerous machines that have repulsive effects.
Representatives of the nuclear-states often marginalize those calling disarmament by dismissing them as deluded. In her protest outside the room where states were negotiating the TPNW, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley chided them, saying “we have to be realistic.” However, ICAN campaigners called attention to the discrepancies between these claims to “realism” and the mystification that surrounded these nuclear weapons.
To change how nuclear weapons were discussed, we brought nuclear weapons into new arenas where humanitarianism, human rights and environmentalism are regular conversations, and to inject these discourses into traditional nuclear forums.
We demanded from states the meaningful participation of survivors, affected communities, medical professionals, faith leaders, humanitarian agencies, activists and academics in the nuclear conversation. We pointed out when forums and panels excluded women, people from the Global South and those who have experienced nuclear weapons’ effects.
Pace University students along with their professors Matthew Bolton, PhD, and Emily Welty, PhD, have been working intensely for three years on negotiations of a nuclear weapons ban treaty with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) that on 6 October was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2017.
ICAN has led the way in recent years in campaigning for an international treaty to make nuclear weapons illegal. The Nobel Prize adds momentum to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons adopted at the United Nations by more than 120 countries on July 7 of this year, and should help the process of ratification, with 50 more countries needed. The treaty makes nuclear arms illegal and calls for assistance to victims and remediation of environmental damage.
The development, production, testing and use of nuclear weapons has had catastrophic humanitarian and ecological consequences on people and environments around the world. ‘Nuclear harm’ – the damage caused by blast, incendiary and radioactive effects of nuclear weapons use, testing and production, as well as by other nuclear technologies – poses threats to the pursuit of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.
Due to advocacy by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), recognized by the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) established ‘positive obligations’ on affected states to assist victims of nuclear weapons use and testing and to remediate contaminated environments. To ensure that the burden does not fall unduly on affected states, the TPNW requires all states to engage in international cooperation and assistance to achieve these and the treaty’s other goals. While the TPNW does not explicitly cover all forms of nuclear harm, and the universalization of the treaty may take some time, its implementation offers the opportunity to build a normative framework and institutional architecture for humanitarian and environmental action to address nuclear harm.
The academic journal Global Policy has published a Special Section on nuclear disarmament edited by Pace University’s International Disarmament Institute, focusing on the Humanitarian Initiative on Nuclear Weapons. As states meet in Geneva this week for the UN Open-Ended Working Group on nuclear disarmament, it is clear that the Humanitarian Initiative has created new openings for stigmatizing and prohibiting nuclear weapons.
Below are abstracts of and links to the articles, written by scholars and practitioners involved in the effort to change the way policymakers think about nuclear weapons, reframing them from instruments of security to a potential humanitarian catastrophe in the making.