Skip to Navigation
Skip to Content
Share this page

Support PSR!

Your membership supports PSR's work to reduce global warming, eliminate toxics in our environment and abolish nuclear weapons. YOU make our work possible. Thank you.

Donate Now »

Take Action

Urge your senators to prevent war with North Korea.

Vienna Nuclear Conference: The World Is Coming to Its Senses!

Posted by Martin Fleck on December 15, 2014
Front entrance of the Civil Society Forum

History will show that the struggle to abolish nuclear weapons turned a corner this month. A global drumbeat calling for nuclear weapons abolition has been building since 2010 and reached a loud roar December 6 to 9 in Vienna. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) organized a 2-day Civil Society Forum of disarmament advocates from all over the world.This was directly followed by the Austria-sponsored Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, a massive global gathering of representatives from 82% of the nations of the earth to assess nuclear weapons dangers and--for the vast majority of nations--to reject the notion that nuclear weapons can have any value.

Why are these conferences so important?

According to John Loretz, IPPNW Program Director: "These global talks have represented a collective reframing exercise that has fundamentally changed the way nuclear weapons are discussed internationally." Norwegian State Secretary Gry Larsen, who helped organize the first Humanitarian Impact conference in Norway in 2013, said, "I believe we did change the discourse. We took the humanitarian lens to the discourse, and the burden of proof is now on those who want nuclear weapons." Shortly after the conference, in a speech to The Foreign Policy and United Nations Association of Austria, Nuclear Threat Initiative Vice Chairman Des Browne said: "For far too long, governments have been allowed to abdicate their responsibility to address the humanitarian effects of nuclear weapons use. They have used the NPT as a shield. But the humanitarian initiative and the conferences held in Oslo, Nayarit and now Vienna have provided a platform for discussion that I believe serves to strengthen the foundation of the NPT."

Catherine Thomasson presenting at Civil Society Forum

Thus, the humanitarian initiative has boxed the nine nations that possess nuclear weapons into a corner, and their rationalizations for keeping the wretched bombs sound increasingly hollow. Now it is just a matter of time before the nuclear weapons are eliminated entirely.But it is also a race AGAINST time, a point that author Eric Schlosser drove home in Vienna.

Was PSR represented in Vienna?

Yes, in four ways.

  • PSR is a partner organization in ICAN, which has been the major nongovernmental driving force behind the humanitarian initiative.
  • PSR and IPPNW jointly produced two "Nuclear Famine" reports which have become central to the humanitarian argument for eliminating nuclear weapons. The author of these reports was Ira Helfand, MD , IPPNW Co-President, PSR Board Member, and chair of PSR's Security Committee. Dr. Helfand presented on the Medical Consequences of Nuclear Weapons at the Oslo conference, Mexico conference, and at the Civil Society Forum in Vienna. PSR Executive Director Catherine Thomasson also presented on PSR's outreach programs at the Civil Society Forum.
  • Among United States nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), PSR has been at the forefront of promoting the Humanitarian Impact Initiative to the United States government and to other allied NGOs. PSR leaders have met repeatedly with government officials to directly appeal to them to participate in the Humanitarian Initiative; PSR members by the thousands have contacted the White House urging the President to participate; and PSR circulated a MoveOn petition urging the President and State Department to participate in the Vienna conference. PSR delivered over 5,700 signatures on this petition to the State Department in November.
  • Ira Helfand presenting at Civil Society Forum
    PSR was one of five nongovernmental organizations who delivered a formal, joint statement to the conference, expressing disappointment with the glacial pace of disarmament efforts, decrying nuclear weapons modernization underway in all of the nuclear weapons states, and suggesting concrete actions that these nations should take to reduce nuclear dangers and pave the way for eliminating nuclear weapons. The other organizations signing on were Arms Control Association, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, Federation of American Scientists, and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

IPPNW's John Loretz said: "our work was referenced repeatedly by those who spoke, including Mary Olson of the Nuclear Information Resource Service, who made a presentation on the medical consequences of nuclear war and exposure to radiation, and climate scientist Michael Mills, who brought participants up to date on the research into global climate effects of nuclear wars on various scales. I think it's safe to say that this new understanding of the climate effects of a limited, regional nuclear war, along with IPPNW's assessment that at least two billion people would be at risk of starvation, has registered and is now being cited regularly in these discussions."

What happened at the Civil Society Forum?

Over 600 nuclear disarmament campaigners--most of them under 30 years old--met in Vienna's Aula der Wissenschaften (Hall of Sciences). ICAN unveiled a new, highly-charged video presentation. Tony de Brum described the impact of nuclear weapons testing on the Marshall Islanders, and the lawsuits his country has filed against all nine nuclear armed countries. For a first-hand account of the Civil Society Forum, see Catherine Thomasson's blog post.

What happened at the conference?

  • All told, 158 nations and over 300 civil society representatives attended. 
  • Two nuclear weapons states, the United States and United Kingdom lifted their boycott and sent official delegations. (and China sent an unofficial observer)
  • In a dramatic display of community organizing brilliance, the Austrian Red Cross deployed personnel in hazmat suits who used Geiger counters to screen all participants for radioactivity as they streamed in the front entrance. 

Who spoke and what did they say?

  • Pope Francis stirred things up right away through his message delivered to the conference by Archbishop Silvano Maria Tomasi.  Here are some excerpts: "Nuclear deterrence and the threat of mutually assured destruction cannot be the basis for an ethic of fraternity and peaceful coexistence among peoples and states. The youth of today and tomorrow deserve far more. . . . Spending on nuclear weapons squanders the wealth of nations. To prioritize such spending is a mistake and a misallocation of resources which would be far better invested in the areas of integral human development, education, health and the fight against extreme poverty. . . . I am convinced that the desire for peace and fraternity planted deep in the human heart will bear fruit in concrete ways to ensure that nuclear weapons are banned once and for all, to the benefit of our common home."
  • Setsuko Thurlow, a Hiroshima survivor (or "hibakusha") related her harrowing experiences and challenged the conferees: "Here in Vienna let us move forward, courageously, by concretizing our vision so that we can make the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the appropriate milestone to achieve our goal: to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons. Let us start this process, beginning with negotiations on a ban treaty, here and now in Vienna"
  • Peter Maurer of the International Committee of the Red Cross reiterated the strong ICRC support for the Humanitarian Initiative: "Nuclear weapons are often viewed as a tool of security, particularly during times of international instability. But weapons that risk catastrophic and irreversible humanitarian consequences cannot be seriously viewed as protecting civilians or humanity as a whole."
  • Author Eric Schlosser presenting on nuclear weapons risks at the Conference
    Author Eric Schlosser passionately conveyed the central message of his nonfiction masterwork, Command and Control: that we are living on borrowed time. "Nuclear weapons are machines. They are man-made machines, designed by human beings, maintained by human beings. And the reason that's important, is that all machines eventually go wrong. It's hard to think of a machine ever invented by mankind that hasn't gone wrong, eventually. Toasters catch on fire, microphones don't work, cars crash. We've been making automobiles for over a century, on a mass level, and yet right now millions of automobiles have been recalled by some of the best brands like Toyota, Lexus, BMW, because the airbags may kill the passengers. In that case, a technology designed to protect passengers, may kill them." Video of Schlosser and other Day 1 speakers is available here
  • 80 nations and NGOs delivered official statements, including ICAN, Mayors for Peace, and the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Kingston Reif delivered the joint statement from PSR and four other United States NGOs (see above).

What did the U.S and U.K. representatives do at the conference?

Red Cross radiation screening checkpoint at conference entry

Here is the account from John Loretz of IPPNW: ". . .after a series of very painful and emotional testimonials from three victims of nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, Australia, and the US, the floor was opened for interventions from the State delegations and civil society. The chair requested explicitly that speakers limit themselves to brief questions and comments, and reminded everyone that the time to deliver statements would be during the general debate on the second day. The U.S. speaker took the mike and said he did not have a question and, in fact, did have a statement. He then launched into the usual U.S. litany about the arduous step-by-step work that had to be done to achieve a world without nuclear weapons someday off in the future; said the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons was already well understood; and said the U.S. rejected any proposals for a nuclear weapons convention or a ban." The official U.S. statement on Day 2 is available here,and the official U.K. statement is here.

Where do we go from here?

Conference organizer Alexander Kmentt delivered the customary "Chair's Summary" at the end of the conference. But in addition, and in a surprise move, Austrian Secretary-General for Foreign Affairs Michael Linhart concluded the conference by delivering the "Austrian Pledge." The Austrian government put the world on notice that it intends to push even harder for disarmament in the future. Excerpts:

"Austria calls on all states parties to the NPT to renew their commitment to the urgent and full implementation of existing obligations under Article VI, and to this end, 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."

"Austria pledges to cooperate with all relevant stakeholders, States, International Organisations, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movements, parliamentarians and civil society, in efforts to stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons in light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences and associated risks."

The ICAN strategy is to get as many nations as possible to respond to Austria's invitation and sign onto their pledge, and then bring maximum pressure for meaningful action to bear upon the "P5" nuclear weapons states when all the Nonproliferation Treaty signers meet at the NPT Review Conference, April and May, 2015.

What is the role of PSR and our allied groups?

Obviously the USA plays a pivotal role, and that's where PSR comes in. PSR's Security Program has an ambitious workplan for 2015, including outreach and media work in PSR's chapter network.

PSR and our allied groups will be working throughout 2015 to convince the US government that we must do everything we can to reduce nuclear weapons dangers and eliminate nuclear weapons as fast as possible. We expect the P5 to address the NPT Review Conference with a meaningful action plan. Our five-NGO formal statement to the conference laid out several interim steps as suggestions.

What's all this talk about a "ban treaty"?

In the run-up to HINW14Vienna, the theme has been #thecourageto ban nuclear weapons. Now the government of Austria, 43 other nations, and the Vatican have publicly stated their support for a ban. But not the USA. If the U.S. government does not have the courage to support a ban treaty, we must challenge them about that. President Obama has stated it is U.S. policy to work towards "a world free of nuclear weapons." If so, then why is the United States position at Vienna to oppose a ban treaty? If the U.S. will not support a ban treaty, then what meaningful action WILL the United States take to live up to its NPT Article VI obligation to disarmament? As the Obama administration develops its nuclear modernization budget for fiscal year 2016, PSR will be asking Obama: "Didn't you get the memo? Nuclear weapons are on the road to extinction."


virginia said ..

we all need to contact Obama - and all of our congress people - and ask him/them that above question. Maybe PSR can frame it well, cogently and pointedly: "why??" - and put it into an email form that we can all use. (I'd also like to ask him how come the US rep to the conference obviously did NOT listen to the chair's "questions, NOT statements"; to me that just shows that he (and by inference, the US govt) has "its mind made up, don't confuse it with the facts"...

December 16, 2014 said ..

Nuclear weapons must be removed from the Earth and not allowed to threaten our Earth Mother ever again. Mankind is very unwise to allow this threat to continue. Peace & Love Brooks

December 15, 2014

Comments closed.