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Vienna Conference Boosts Prospects for Disarmament

Posted by Catherine Thomasson, MD on December 12, 2014

PSR’s Executive Director Catherine Thomasson and IPPNW’s Co-President Ira Helfand witnessed and contributed to the exciting and historic outcome of the Vienna conference on the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons. This movement has grown through the efforts of IPPNW and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) resulting in forty-four nations standing strongly for a nuclear weapons ban treaty. Austria issued a formal pledge to continue pushing forward and to cooperate with all stakeholders to achieve this goal.

Ira presenting at Civil Society Forum

Anti-nuclear organizers the world over, should be exceedingly pleased with the "Austrian Pledge". Read by the Austrian Deputy Ambassador, the beautifully composed statement outlined all the reasons leading up to Austria’s pledge to "identify and pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons and Austria pledges to cooperate with all stakeholders to achieve this goal."

PSR and its international colleagues at the International Campaign for Abolition of Nuclear weapons identify this pledge as a sturdy model for encouraging other nations to act. At the end of the third governmental Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons conference there is no doubt there is a heightened international awareness of the moral necessity to abolish nuclear weapons, and the demand for action as written in the Chair’s Summary Statement

This strong outcome followed a packed two-day governmental meeting with many presentations. PSR’s Nuclear Famine Reports and additional new scientific studies were quoted and reviewed during the opening morning. Descriptions of a limited nuclear exchange of just one hundred weapons between India and Pakistan were presented by Michael Mills. The sky would darken, sunlight diminish and reductions in temperature would occur within days to weeks of a limited nuclear war. This type of event would leave two billion at risk of starvation over the following ten years, even in parts of the world not affected directly by a nuclear weapons impact. Growing awareness of this nuclear famine data has moved many governments to expect more from the Humanitarian Impact Initiative and to insist that the only way to avoid this is to eliminate all nuclear weapons.

The raw emotional impact that launched the presentations came from the strong, personal testimony of victims of bombings and testing in Japan, Marshall Islands and St. George Utah.

Downwinder Michelle Thomas from Utah testifies at the conference.

Putting human impacts--especially the information about cancers, stillbirths, immune disorders from radiation--at the outset of the conference underscores the inhumanity of these horrendous weapons of mass destruction. Mary Olson of Nuclear Information Research Service showed Hiroshima data that girls under five are twice as likely to get cancer after a significant radiation exposure than boys due to the marked increase in breast and ovarian cancer.

Other presentations reviewed the risk of nuclear accident including the summary by Eric Schlosser. Mr. Schlosser’s book, Command and Control, sums up the fact that nuclear weapons are machines. These are then attached to delivery machines, which are in turn attached to messaging machines. Finally fallible, flawed humans who have created these machines attempt to control these devastating armaments. Of course accidents will happen. We’ve been lucky so far, and have benefitted from amazing military diligence. But Schlosser pointed out that given the recent reports of lapses in the U.S., and the lack of controls revealed in Russia; we cannot expect our good luck to last.

The last conference session reviewed the legal framework in which nuclear weapons might be "controlled". Unfortunately, there is indeed a legal gap—identified as a moral hole that must be plugged by some mechanism, whether a ban treaty or additional action within the NPT. Nobuo Hayashi from the University of Oslo presented the moral argument that just as there are no ends that justify torture, there are no ends that could possibly justify using nuclear weapons. "We no longer live in an era when humankind felt compelled to take itself hostage for its own survival. The long shadow of a total, instantaneous annihilation that once stifled our moral creativity is slowly dissipating." 

After this strongly declared need for a better legal and actionable solution, statements were then allowed from the 158 countries in attendance, including India and Pakistan--and, for the first time--the United States and United Kingdom. France was notably absent, to the chagrin of French citizens present. Applause rose and fell as the countries asserted their roles and positions.


"Why Not France?"

U.S. Ambassador Adam Scheinman, special representative of the president for non-proliferation, reiterated the official U.S. line that "underpinning all of our efforts, stretching back decades, has been our clear understanding of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use" but failed to report that little has been accomplished in the past five years.

PSR and four other American organizations delivered a statement pointing out that "nearly five years after the successful 2010 NPT review conference, follow-through on the consensus action plan – particularly the 22 interrelated disarmament steps – has been very disappointing". U.S. weapons remain on high alert. We are facing a $355 billion "modernization" budget which belies efforts to reduce our nuclear arsenal. In addition, we’ve refurbished more nuclear weapons than we have dismantled.

The statement delivered from U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon, stressed "the senselessness of pouring funds into modernizing the means for our mutual destruction while we are failing to meet the challenges posed by poverty, climate change, extremism and the destabilizing accumulation of conventional arms." The statement from Pope Francis also decried the resources wasted on nuclear armaments and called for banning nuclear weapons from "our common home."

Lastly and sadly, since the entry into force of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) in 2011, Russia and the United States have failed to start talks to further reduce their still enormous nuclear stockpiles. Even after the New START reduction, the remaining arsenals would annihilate humanity if they were used.

PSR is hopeful that this governmental meeting has stimulated further action and direction that moves us closer to our goal of nuclear weapons elimination. Our work is cut out for us in the United States as little mention of this conference and its hopeful conclusion was reflected in the mainstream press. 

The conference allowed for important networking to occur. We met with organizations dedicated to arms control, political organizations such as Mayors for Peace, arts groups and religious groups. PSR’s Security Program will organize educational and training efforts for our own speakers and others on the issues to bring to the public and our policymakers. We will press humanitarian organizations in the U.S. such as the American Red Cross to develop and launch education efforts. 

With the upcoming 2015 Non-Proliferation Review Conference in April-May, 2015, we will utilize the media to generate pressure for real action on the part of the United States. Tense relations with Russia may hamper efforts, but this is all the more reason that communication and arms reductions must proceed. There is no role, ever, for using--or even threatening to use-- nuclear weapons. The Vienna conference has made it clear: nuclear weapons are headed for the dustbin of history.

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