Podcast: New movement to ban nuclear weapons

January 18, 2016

This hour-long podcast, produced by ICAN in January 2016, describes the ongoing threat of nuclear weapons and the growing international movement to ban them through a new treaty. For broadcast inquiries, please email info@icanw.org.

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A threat to humanity

Fifteen thousand, eight hundred nuclear weapons spread across 14 nations. One thousand, eight hundred ready to be launched within minutes of a warning. This is not the cold war, but the present reality – the daily existential threat with which we have learned to live.

In this podcast, I describe what has become known as the “humanitarian initiative”: an effort by governments, the Red Cross and civil society organizations to re-awaken the global public to this unparallelled danger, and to establish a treaty that outlaws nuclear weapons once and for all.

This is Jakob Kellenberger, then president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, or ICRC, addressing the Geneva diplomatic corps in 2010. His organization has become a leading advocate for the complete abolition of nuclear weapons.

Jakob Kellenberger: Today, nations have a historic and unprecedented opportunity to bring the era of nuclear weapons to an end. The ICRC calls on states to pursue concrete steps that will lead to a legally binding international agreement to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons.

In the aftermath of a nuclear attack, no matter the scale or location, Red Cross personnel would be powerless to respond meaningfully. High levels of radioactivity around ground zero would severely hamper relief efforts. And the destruction would be simply too vast.

Kellenberger: Modern-day nuclear weapons would no doubt cause immeasurably more damage than the atomic bombs that hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Close to a quarter of a million people, mostly civilians, perished when the United States detonated two nuclear weapons on Japan seven decades ago. Many tens of thousands more have died in the years since from an ongoing epidemic of cancers caused by the dispersal of radiation.

Newsreader: This is Hiroshima, the day after the atom bomb exploded over Japan’s seventh largest city and etched its message of doom to an empire. Heat travelling at the speed of light cast a shadow over Hiroshima and over the land of the rising sun.

While no nuclear weapon has been used in warfare since then, more than two thousand have been exploded in the atmosphere, underwater and underground as part of test programmes – with devastating consequences for human health and the environment. The most recent nuclear test was in North Korea, at the beginning of this year.

Newsreader: What started out as a report of an earthquake in North Korea quickly turned into a political earthquake when, today, that country announced it had just tested a hydrogen bomb.

The long period of non-use of nuclear weapons in war has led some to conclude that these ultimate terror devices are a source of peace rather than insecurity. This is despite a litany of well-documented incidents when the world has come within a hair’s breadth of nuclear catastrophe. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 is but the most infamous example.

Eric Schlosser, an investigative journalist and the author of Command and Control, explains the risks:

Eric Schlosser: In my mind, there are two existential threats that we face today. One is global warming, which is occurring slowly and may be reversible. The other is nuclear weapons. But the detonation of a nuclear weapon is going to be instantaneous and irreversible. Having spent years researching the subject, I think that every one of those weapons is an accident waiting to happen, or a potential act of mass murder.

According to the department of defence of the United States, there were about 32 significant nuclear weapons accidents during the cold war. But I found documents through the freedom of information act that suggest there were many, many more than that. One document that I found said that there were over a thousand significant accidents involving nuclear weapons.

Records show that aircraft carrying nuclear weapons have plunged into the ocean. Nuclear-tipped missiles have shot uncontrollably from their silos. A Norwegian weather satellite and even a flock of geese have been mistaken for incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles, nearly triggering nuclear war. How much longer before our luck runs out?


The political underpinning

In May of 2010, one month after Kellenberger’s speech, government representatives gathered at the United Nations in New York for a five-yearly review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT. This historic pact aims to halt the spread of nuclear weapons and compel those that possess them to disarm.

Newsreader: By 1968, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was drawn up.

US official: Mr President, I hand you the proclamation of the treaty for your signature.

Today, 190 nations are parties to the treaty, among them five of the nine nuclear-armed nations: the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and China (the permanent members of the UN Security Council). Nuclear-armed India, Pakistan and Israel have never joined, while North Korea withdrew in 2003 to pursue a nuclear weapons programme.

Many governments had high hopes in 2010 that the month-long review of the fracturing treaty would mark a turning point for nuclear disarmament. Years of inaction and the collapse of the previous review conference had cast doubt on the treaty’s efficacy. Failure to agree on a pathway forward could have proven terminal.

Newsreader: At the opening of this year’s conference in New York this month, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged all parties to help rid the world of nuclear weapons.

Ban Ki-moon: The world’s people look to you for action – action to protect them from the destructive power of nuclear weapons, to rein in rising spending on nuclear weapons, to build a safer and more secure world.

After weeks of diplomatic wrangling, the parties to the NPT adopted by consensus a 64-point action plan that reflected the generally optimistic mood of the day. But it fell well short of endorsing the call by many nations, the Red Cross and civil society for a new legal instrument to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons.

Perhaps the most significant element of the agreed document, at least in hindsight, was a simple sentence put forward by the Swiss delegation – with the backing of Norway, Austria and Mexico – expressing deep concern at the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences” of any use of nuclear weapons.

At the time, few could have anticipated the resonance that these words would have in diplomatic circles. Few could have foreseen that they would provide the political underpinning for a groundbreaking initiative to alter, fundamentally, the international debate on nuclear weapons.


In want of leadership

The positive atmosphere that existed then in the disarmament world had much to do with the recent election of Barack Obama to the US presidency, and his soaring rhetoric. Many believed that a new era had dawned for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Barack Obama: One nuclear weapon exploded in one city – be it New York or Moscow, Islamabad or Mumbai, Tokyo or Tel Aviv, Paris or Prague – could kill hundreds of thousands of people. And no matter where it happens, there is no end to what the consequences might be – for our global safety, our security, our society, our economy, to our ultimate survival.

In his first major foreign policy speech, delivered before a crowd of tens of thousands in the Czech capital of Prague in April of 2009, President Obama had laid out his vision for a world free of nuclear weapons. In rhetorical terms at least, it represented a major departure from the hawkish, anti-disarmament stance of his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Obama: As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavour alone, but we can lead it, we can start it. So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.

It was, without doubt, a significant step forward. But even then, the limitations of the new president’s position were in plain sight. The goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world would not be reached quickly, he said. Perhaps not in his lifetime. And, crucially, the United States would keep its nuclear weapons until all other nations had eliminated theirs.

Obama: Make no mistake: as long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defence to our allies.

Many disarmament advocates, particularly in the United States, chose to ignore the less promising aspects of the Prague speech. They were eager to rally behind a president whose vision, broadly speaking, was in line with their own. Many Europeans, too, embraced the new leader’s high-minded oratory uncritically.

Thorbjørn Jagland: The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009 is to be awarded to President Barack Obama for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples. The committee has attached special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.

But by the time of the NPT review conference, six months after the Nobel peace prize announcement, it was clear that the Obama administration was committed to pursuing an ambitious and costly programme to revamp the US nuclear arsenal. This is disarmament campaigner Jackie Cabasso, of the Western States Legal Foundation, in April of 2010:

Jackie Cabasso: If you look at the Obama administration’s first budget request to the Congress, for fiscal year 2011, you find that the request for nuclear weapons activities – that means activities having to do with maintenance, research and development of warheads, and enhancing the infrastructure – is increased by about 14 per cent to over $7 billion: in inflation-adjusted dollars, the largest amount of money ever requested for those activities in the history of the nuclear age.

The chasm between the rhetoric and reality soon became vast and undeniable. The New York Times reported in 2014 that doves who had once cheered the president for his anti-nuclear crusades were now lining up to denounce him. A new study had revealed that his record on dismantling old nuclear warheads was poorer than that of any of his predecessors, including the two presidents Bush.

But the United States is by no means alone in its pursuit of major upgrades to its nuclear forces. Indeed, all nine nuclear-armed nations are investing heavily in programmes to modernize and, in some cases, enlarge their arsenals. Collectively, they squander an estimated $100 billion every year on these weapons of mass destruction. A new nuclear arms race is under way.


Democracy and disarmament

Against this backdrop of massive nuclear re-armament, the humanitarian initiative emerged and gained traction. Frustrated by decades of unfulfilled promises, and alarmed by the modernization programmes, nuclear-free nations began to seize control of the disarmament agenda in an unprecedented way. For years, they had occupied a back seat in disarmament forums, but no longer.

The Costa Rican government has described this monumental shift as the democratization of disarmament. The new order recognizes that all nations, large and small, nuclear-armed and nuclear-free, have a direct stake in realizing a world without nuclear weapons. All would suffer the horrific, widespread and long-lived consequences of a nuclear war.

Placing faith in the so-called nuclear powers to lead us down the path to abolition had proven an ill-conceived plan. Why, after all, would these nations voluntarily relinquish weapons that they hold so dear, that they consider the ultimate guarantee of their security?

The abject failure of the Obama administration to advance nuclear disarmament had confirmed, for many, that a new diplomatic process driven by like-minded nations was urgently needed. Jody Williams, who in the 1990s spearheaded the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, or ICBL, explains the value of a process of this kind:

Jody Williams: I remember very vividly when 122 nations signed the mine ban treaty in Ottawa, in December of 1997, most reporters didn’t care about 122 nations signing in two days. They cared about the fact that the US didn’t sign. And we kept saying, over and over again, that, yes, we would like the big countries on board, but what was most important was beginning the establishment of a new norm. What was most important was getting rid of the weapons that were in the ground killing people.

And we firmly believed that, by building the norm, the big countries would ultimately see the wisdom of the movement and they would join. And as we can see, the United States now is really on the cusp of finally, totally joining the mine ban treaty. It has taken them too long, but at least they’re there. Also countries that were intransigent, like Russia and China, have changed many of their policies. It does happen. And it happens because of the diligence, I believe, of campaigners.

It was the tremendous success of the campaign to ban landmines that had inspired the creation of ICAN – the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons – in 2007. This global coalition of non-governmental organizations is now the leading voice representing civil society in the humanitarian initiative.

Newsreader: A new anti-nuclear group has been established – the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. The new group was launched in Melbourne today, among its members, a number of prominent Australians, including the former prime minister Malcolm Fraser.

Following the launch in Australia, further launches took place throughout the world. Among the campaign’s founding partner organizations were the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, the Mayors for Peace network, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

The new coalition would work to build a powerful global groundswell of support for a treaty banning nuclear weapons. And, like the ICBL, it would establish strong partnerships with governments and the Red Cross.

Jody Williams: What was so important about our work then was that we took a weapon that had been in use for generations, and we changed the framework of discussion. We turned it into an issue of humanitarian disarmament. And we were able to do that because we had a very strong, and some would say revolutionary, partnership between the NGOs of the ICBL, government allies who shared our same goals and visions for a world without anti-personnel landmines, the ICRC – International Committee of the Red Cross came on board to ban landmines – and various agencies of the United Nations.

Within five years, we took an issue that nobody was talking about and achieved a ban. And it was because of that partnership – and it was because we helped change the framework of discussion like you are doing on nuclear weapons.

That was Nobel peace prize laureate Jody Williams.


A landmark gathering

By March of 2013, it was full steam ahead for the humanitarian initiative, with the Norwegian government hosting the first-ever diplomatic conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. This historic gathering of experts, officials and campaigners sought to demonstrate the unacceptability of nuclear weapons on humanitarian grounds.

Although it had been billed as a purely fact-based discussion, few doubted that Norway’s intention was to lay the foundations for negotiations on a global nuclear weapon ban. Just six years earlier, it had hosted a similar conference on the dreadful human harm inflicted by cluster munitions. Within two years, those weapons had been outlawed.

Espen Barth Eide: As Norway’s foreign minister, I wish you a warm welcome to Oslo and to the conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. This is an important moment. For decades, political leaders and experts have debated the challenges posed by the continued existence and further proliferation of nuclear weapons.

This conference, however, takes a different starting point. It raises a very deep and serious question. If nuclear weapons actually were to be used, what would the consequences be? Would we be able to handle the humanitarian catastrophe that would follow a detonation?

That was Espen Barth Eide.

Close to 130 governments attended in the conference in Oslo. Conspicuously absent were the five nuclear-armed nations of the NPT. A few days beforehand, they had announced a joint boycott. But their non-attendance served only to bestow greater significance on the conference, and allowed for a more constructive exchange of views.

For campaigners, this was an exciting moment, full of possibility. More than 500 people from 70 countries took part in ICAN’s civil society forum held in the days before the official conference. Among the speakers was veteran anti-war activist Martin Sheen, popular for his role as President Bartlett in the US TV series The West Wing.

Martin Sheen: I’ve been an actor all my life. In fact, I have no conscious memory of not being an actor. But while acting is what I do to make a living, activism is what I do to stay alive. So, in my own small way, I’ve come here to encourage you to keep on keeping on with your incredible and inspiring global call to all states, international organizations, civil society organizations and everyone to acknowledge that any use of nuclear weapons would cause catastrophic humanitarian and environmental harm, that there is a universal humanitarian imperative to ban nuclear weapons.

The Oslo conference concluded on an optimistic note, with Mexico announcing that it would carry forward the initiative by hosting a follow-up conference. A process was now under way. Norway’s foreign minister summed up the proceedings.

Espen Barth Eide: Together, we have made this conference into a great success. I believe that we have succeeded in reframing the issue of nuclear weapons by introducing the humanitarian impacts and humanitarian concerns at the very centre, at the core, of the discourse on nuclear weapons.

Taking that approach, it becomes clear that this is everybody’s concern and it is equally legitimate for nuclear and non-nuclear states alike to care about this issue. We have also been reminded in very sharp terms that these weapons do exist. We cannot approach them through a strategy of denial. They exist, hence they can be used.


Time for a ban

The humanitarian initiative continued to gain momentum in 2013, with the convening of a high-level meeting on nuclear disarmament at the United Nations in September. Presidents and prime ministers of nuclear-free nations lined up to denounce nuclear weapons as inhumane and unacceptable. One after another, they demanded a ban.

ICAN’s Nosizwe Baqwa spoke on behalf of civil society:

Nosizwe Baqwa: That nuclear weapons have not already been clearly declared illegal for all, alongside the other prohibited weapons of mass destruction, is a failure of our collective social responsibility. The time has come for committed states to correct that failure. A treaty banning nuclear weapons is achievable. It can be initiated by states that do not possess nuclear weapons. Nuclear-armed states should not be allowed to prevent such negotiations.

History shows that legal prohibitions of weapons systems – of their use or possession – facilitate their elimination. They become illegitimate. They lose their political status, and so do not continue compelling money and resources to be invested in their production, modernization, proliferation and perpetuation. The new treaty will perhaps be the most important tool in our collective work towards eliminating nuclear weapons. And this tool can actually be achieved now.

It will take courage. It will take the leadership by states free of nuclear weapons. And you will have the support of civil society. My name is Nosizwe Lise Baqwa and I am a campaigner from ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. Campaigners like me, from all around the world, are demanding action to finally achieve the outlawing and elimination of nuclear weapons. It’s time.


A point of no return

In February of 2014, 146 nations gathered in the Mexican state of Nayarit to build on the progress made at the Oslo conference. The opponents of a treaty banning nuclear weapons had, by this time, begun honing their talking points and devising a strategy of resistance. For the most part, these were the military allies of the United States.

Among the most vocal was Australia – a nation that claims the protection of US nuclear weapons. Its new conservative foreign minister, Julie Bishop, roundly dismissed what she termed the “emotionally appealing” argument to “ban the bomb”. The horrendous consequences of nuclear weapons, she said, are precisely why deterrence has worked. Germany fretted that a ban might antagonize those nations that possess nuclear weapons – weapons which, in its view, had helped keep the peace.

But these voices of a former time were drowned out by a melodic chorus of pro-ban statements from the nations of Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, South-East Asia and the Pacific. The chair’s summary of the conference reflected this overwhelming desire for change.

Mexico’s vice-minister for multilateral affairs, Juan Manuel Gómez Robledo, received a standing ovation when he declared Nayarit “a point of no return”:

Juan Gómez Robledo: We need to take into account that, in the past, weapons have been eliminated after they have been outlawed. We believe this is the path to achieve a world without nuclear weapons. The broad-based and comprehensive discussions on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons should lead to the commitment of States and civil society to reach new international standards and norms, through a legally binding instrument. It is the view of the chair that the Nayarit Conference has shown that time has come to initiate a diplomatic process conducive to this goal. Nayarit is a point of no return.

This bold closing statement raised the bar considerably for the third conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, which Austria had just announced. NATO states and Australia – unsuccessful in their bid to quell the enthusiasm for a ban – left Nayarit fuming.


The political value

The humanitarian initiative has illuminated not only the nature and extent of the nuclear threat in today’s world, but also the full cast of characters involved in its perpetuation. While just nine nations possess nuclear weapons, around 30 more claim that they enhance their security.

Among them are five European nations that host US nuclear weapons: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey. All refuse to acknowledge, officially, the presence of these weapons on their soil, adhering to a policy of nuclear opacity not unlike that of Israel.

Newsreader: Russia has condemned the US deployments of nuclear weapons in Europe. Moscow says the move contravenes the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or the NPT.

Until recently, this wider group of ostensibly non-nuclear nations had largely avoided criticism. But the humanitarian initiative has forced them to defend their belief in the military utility of nuclear weapons, prompting sharp rebukes from their own citizens and raising the ire of other nations.

At the United Nations a few months before the Nayarit conference, Australia had refused to endorse a 125-nation statement on nuclear weapons issued by its neighbour and ally New Zealand. It objected, specifically, to a sentence declaring that nuclear weapons should never be used again. This is New Zealand disarmament ambassador, Dell Higgie:

Dell Higgie: Today, this statement demonstrates the growing political support for the humanitarian focus. It is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances.

That position, Australia said, ran counter to its doctrine of “extended nuclear deterrence”. Most NATO members, too, had declined New Zealand’s invitation to sign on. Instead they subscribed to an Australian-led counter-statement emphasizing the supposed security value of nuclear weapons.

But what if, at some point, under pressure from parliamentarians and the public, these nations were to join the international mainstream in rejecting nuclear weapons? What if, one after another, they were to sign and ratify a ban treaty?

A change in position, even by some, would at the very least help erode the perception that nuclear weapons are somehow legitimate, indeed that they are signifiers of prestige and status. It would contribute to the progressive stigmatization of the ultimate WMD.

Thomas Nash, a member of ICAN’s international steering group, describes the potential political value of a ban:

Thomas Nash: It would force governments to ask the question: Do we want these weapons to be legal, or do we want them to be illegal? And we believe that most societies will answer that we want these weapons to be illegal.

It will give a huge rallying point, and mobilizing capability, for civil society and parliamentarians and officials in governments that want to do something about nuclear weapons. It will give them a question, a political question, to rally around. And it will fundamentally change the landscape on nuclear weapons. And we’re very confident that this ban is coming.

The new treaty would no doubt influence national conversations about the modernization of nuclear forces. In the United Kingdom, for instance, where debate is raging over whether to replace an ageing fleet of nuclear-armed submarines, a ban could help tip the scales in favour of disarmament.

It could also compel banks and pension funds globally to divest from companies involved in the manufacture of nuclear weapons. This is Dutch campaigner Krista van Velzen from the peace organization PAX:

Krista van Velzen: The stigma of nuclear weapons is growing. More and more banks and pension funds refuse to invest in these weapons. This needs to be translated into a ban on nuclear weapons, and a ban on investing in these weapons.


A pledge to act

On the eve of the third conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, in Vienna in December of 2014, ICAN hosted another major civil society forum, this time attracting more than 600 people from around the world. Nobel peace prize laureate Desmond Tutu had this to say:

Desmond Tutu: Our task, of course, is not an easy one. But nor was ending apartheid in South Africa. Through perseverance, conviction and determination, we defeated the forces of injustice and hatred. We won because we stood on the right side of history; we stood for a just and moral cause. And you, too, stand on the right side of history.

I am confident that, before long, the voices in favour of total nuclear disarmament will drown out those who say that the world cannot change. The writing should already be on the wall for the nuclear powers. A treaty banning nuclear weapons is on its way. The momentum of this campaign is unstoppable. You achieved much in Oslo and Nayarit. This Vienna conference, no doubt, will be another important milestone on the path to a ban.

My dear friend and comrade, the late Nelson Mandela, was an outspoken critic of nuclear arms. He regarded the dismantlement of South Africa’s nuclear arsenal as a necessary part of our transition from a pariah state to an accepted member of the family of nations. He implored all other nuclear powers to disarm as well. In his honour, and for the sake of humanity, let us all intensify our efforts to bring the era of nuclear weapons to an end.

Austria’s foreign minister, Sebastian Kurz, welcomed 158 nations to the official conference, among them the United States and United Kingdom – latecomers to the humanitarian initiative. France was the only NATO member to shun the gathering. This is Foreign Minister Kurz:

Sebastian Kurz: We want to see a new momentum for concrete progress on global nuclear disarmament. In the follow-up of the conferences in Norway and in Mexico, we hope that our discussions here in Vienna will contribute to this aim.

We need to challenge old thinking. We need to take in the knowledge of experts, the voices of the civil society, and we need much more global awareness. I look forward to our discussions here in Vienna, and I would wish that this conference can be a step leading to a world without nuclear weapons.

As at the Oslo and Nayarit conferences, the personal testimonies of the victims of nuclear weapons featured prominently in the programme. Setsuko Thurlow – a leading advocate for a treaty banning nuclear weapons – describes the horror unleashed on her city, Hiroshima:

Setsuko Thurlow: It gives me great satisfaction that these conferences have renewed the focus on the humanitarian dimension of nuclear weapons – the fundamental issue. As a 13-year-old schoolgirl, I witnessed my city of Hiroshima blinded by the flash, flattened by the hurricane-like blast, burned in the heat of 4,000 degrees Celsius and contaminated by the radiation of one atomic bomb.

A bright summer morning turned to dark twilight, with smoke and dust rising in the mushroom cloud. The spreading firestorm and the foul stench of burned flesh filled the air. Miraculously, I was rescued from the rubble of a collapsed building about 1.8 kilometres from the hypocentre.

Most of my classmates who were with me in the same room were burned alive. I can still hear their voices, calling for their mothers, calling for God, for help. As I escaped with two other surviving girls, we saw a procession of ghostly figures, slowly shuffling from the centre of the city, grotesquely wounded people whose clothes were tattered or who were made naked by the blast.

Within the single flash of light, my beloved city of Hiroshima became a place of desolation, with heaps of rubble, skeletons, blackened corpses everywhere. Of the population of 360,000 – largely non-combatant women, children and elderly – most became victims of this indiscriminate massacre of the atomic bombing. No human beings should ever have to repeat our experience of the inhumane, immoral and cruel atomic bombing.

At Nayarit, we declared that the time has come for action to establish a legally binding framework to ban nuclear weapons. Here, in Vienna, let us move forward, courageously, by concretizing our visions, so that we can make the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the appropriate milestone to achieve our goal.

The Vienna conference drew attention also to the impact of nuclear test programmes. Speakers from Australia, Kazakhstan, the Marshall Islands and the United States described the ongoing contamination of their lands. This is Sue Coleman-Haseldine from Ceduna, Australia:

Sue Coleman-Haseldine: Atomic bomb tests began in the desert areas north of my birthplace in 1953 when I was two years old – first at Emu Fields and then Maralinga. The area was picked because the British and Australian governments didn’t think our lands were valuable. But Aboriginal people were still looking after and living off the land.

The first atomic bomb called “Totem 1” spread far and wide and there are lots of stories about the “black mist” it created, which killed, blinded and made people very sick. The bomb tests continued for many years right until 1963 – big atomic tests that the British and Australian governments were proud of, and then a whole lot of secret tests that the British did with plutonium. These tests contaminated a huge area and everything in it.

The United States was the first government to take the floor following the searing testimonies of the nuclear test survivors. Adam Scheinman, a special representative of the president, declared in no uncertain terms his country’s opposition to any moves towards a ban on nuclear weapons.

Even close allies – including those working hardest to undermine the humanitarian initiative – considered the remarks unhelpful. Former United Nations disarmament official Richard Lennane mocked the intervention:

Richard Lennane: Mr Chairman, I have nothing to say to the nuclear-armed states here, except briefly to express my admiration for the delegate of the United States, who, with one insensitive, ill-timed, inappropriate and diplomatically inept intervention yesterday managed to dispel the considerable goodwill the US had garnered by its decision to participate in this conference. Well done, sir.

No, my message today is for those states which do not have nuclear weapons, for those states which, whatever the security threats they face, have foresworn nuclear weapons by joining the NPT, for those states which, despite having no nuclear weapons unjustly bear the risks – and will wear the terrible consequences – of their use.

And my message to you, states without nuclear weapons, begins with these words from Isaiah: “How long, O Lord? Until the cities are wasted without inhabitant, and the houses without people, and the land lies utterly desolate?” How long will you keep playing this game? How long will you continue to accept the procrastination, empty promises, and endless excuses of the nuclear-armed states?

Close to one hundred nations delivered statements at the conference. Most called for a treaty that would place nuclear weapons on the same legal footing as other indiscriminate weapons, from biological and chemical agents to landmines and cluster munitions – all of which have been comprehensively banned. Austrian ambassador Alexander Kmentt summarized the debate:

Alexander Kmentt: Many delegations stressed the need for security for all and underscored that the only way to guarantee that security is through the total elimination of nuclear weapons and their prohibition. They expressed support for the negotiation of a new legal instrument prohibiting nuclear weapons, constituting an effective measure towards nuclear disarmament.

But his would not be the final words. The secretary-general of the Austrian foreign ministry, Michael Linhart, ended proceedings by issuing a declaration that would become known as the Humanitarian Pledge: a political commitment “to fill the legal gap” to ban nuclear weapons.

Michael Linhart: Austria pledges to cooperate with all relevant stakeholders – states, international organizations, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, parliamentarians and civil society – in efforts to stigmatize, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons in light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences.

Within weeks, nations had begun formally endorsing the Humanitarian Pledge. The 33 leaders of Latin America and the Caribbean signed up en masse at their annual summit. This simple, two-page document had struck a chord, encapsulating as it does the strong yearning of the world’s nations to render nuclear weapons illegal and obsolete.


Nuclear apartheid

In May of 2015, another five-yearly review of the ailing Non-Proliferation Treaty took place in New York. This time, few expected a positive outcome. The nuclear-armed nations had achieved little since the previous review conference, in 2010. And their principal objective this time was to thwart the humanitarian initiative.

When Switzerland tabled a weak draft outcome document, the nuclear-armed nations recoiled. It was much too strong, they said. And so, behind closed doors, they tore out its few meaningful elements. To adopt this watered-down document would have been a victory for them: a validation, in a sense, of past and future inaction.

But, in the end, nothing could be agreed. South Africa’s ambassador, Nozipho Diseko, lambasted the nuclear five for their failure to meet the world’s expectations:

Nozipho Diseko: On so many fronts, where progress was expected, it wasn’t accomplished. There is a sense in which the NPT is degenerated into minority rule, similar to what we had in South Africa under apartheid. The will of the few will prevail regardless of whether it makes moral sense.

By the time the gavel came down on the final day of the month-long conference, the Humanitarian Pledge had gained the formal backing of 107 nations. In the absence of an official outcome document, it was the only widely accepted pathway forward.

Newsreader: Though the nuclear disarmament talks failed over lack of consensus among participants, a humanitarian pledge initiated by Austria is being seen as a paradigm shift. Press TV’s Homa Lezgee reports from Vienna.

Reporter: Supporters of the Humanitarian Pledge say it overrules the simply untruthful claim that nuclear weapons provide a peaceful deterrence. An overwhelming majority of NPT member states it’s up to the rest of the world to start the process of prohibiting the use of nuclear weapons as we near the 70th anniversary of the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In September of 2015, in the UN General Assembly, Pope Francis added his voice to the mounting calls for a ban on nuclear weapons. This is a snippet from his speech, interpreted from Spanish to English:

Pope Francis: There is urgent need to work for a world free of nuclear weapons, in full application of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, in letter and spirit, towards the goal of a complete prohibition of these weapons.

A month later, nations voted at the United Nations to establish a disarmament working group that will meet in Geneva this year. Its mandate: to develop new legal provisions and norms to achieve and maintain a nuclear-weapon-free world. The humanitarian initiative continues.

Testing times

Newsreader: The United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon has condemned North Korea’s announcement of its latest nuclear test, calling it “profoundly destabilising” for regional security.

Ban Ki-moon: This test once again violates numerous Security Council resolutions, despite the united call by the international community to cease such activities. It is also a grave contravention of the international norm against nuclear testing. This act is profoundly destabilizing for regional security and seriously undermines international non-proliferation efforts. I condemn it unequivocally.

Leaders the world over swiftly joined the United Nations secretary-general in denouncing North Korea’s fourth nuclear test earlier this year. Among the loudest were those of nations that themselves possess nuclear weapons or claim the protection of a so-called nuclear umbrella.

But there can be “no right hands for wrong weapons”, to borrow a phrase from the secretary-general. If we are to succeed in eradicating this scourge from the planet, we must begin by challenging the double standards that, throughout the nuclear age, have so plagued disarmament efforts. We must declare nuclear weapons unacceptable for all.

North Korea’s outrageous rhetoric, in truth, is little different from that of other nuclear-armed nations. When any nation defends nuclear weapons for itself, it defends them for all.

Unless we reject this duplicity, unless we accept the fundamental wrongness of nuclear weapons, and their incompatibility with humanity, it is all but certain that one day, perhaps when we least expect it – through carelessness, recklessness or sheer madness – they will be used again.

And when that day comes, millions will perish in an instant. Their bodies – our bodies – reduced to ash and vapour, extinguished and uncountable. Or torn apart in the blast, seared beyond recognition, irradiated to the bone. And ghostly figures, alive but doomed, will wander the streets, searching for loved ones and for help that may never come.

The coalescing firestorms of what had once been our cities will loft soot high into the atmosphere, blocking the sun’s rays. A prolonged artificial night will descend upon us. And this dreadful news, of a cataclysm too horrifying to be true, will spread rapidly across the globe, outpaced only by a plume of gene-altering, cancer-causing fallout – invisible, silent, scentless, persistent for generations to come.

The surviving world, shocked and disbelieving, stricken with grief and anger, will demand to know: Why had our leaders not acted to prevent this holocaust? Why had they lacked the resolve even to outlaw these horrific weapons? How could decent, responsible people have argued for them?

And we will pause in silence as this new reality hits us like the delayed shockwaves of a faraway explosion with a multi-megaton yield. And then we will ask: “What do we do now?”


Written and spoken by Tim Wright. Produced by Gem Romuld and Mat Kelly. Recorded in the studios of 3CR Radio, Melbourne, Australia. Music by Peter Tosh, Wanda Jackson, Iron Maiden, The Burning Hell, Nena, The Smiths, Yo La Tengo, Sanmi, Paul Kelly, The Louvin Brothers, The Talbot Brothers and Bob Dylan.

  • sheen

    “If Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr were alive today, they would be part of ICAN.”

    Martin Sheen Actor and activist

  • bankimoon

    “I salute ICAN for working with such commitment and creativity.”

    Ban Ki-moon UN chief

  • yokoono

    “We can do it together. With your help, our voice will be made still stronger. Imagine peace.”

    Yoko Ono Artist

  • jodywilliams

    “Governments say a nuclear weapons ban is unlikely. Don’t believe it. They said the same about a mine ban treaty.”

    Jody Williams Nobel laureate

  • desmondtutu

    “With your support, we can take ICAN its full distance – all the way to zero nuclear weapons.”

    Desmond Tutu Nobel laureate

  • herbiehancock

    “Because I cannot tolerate these appalling weapons, I whole-heartedly support ICAN.”

    Herbie Hancock Jazz musician

  • dalailama

    “I can imagine a world without nuclear weapons, and I support ICAN.”

    Dalai Lama Nobel laureate