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Looking back at the week in Oslo

March 14, 2013
Helfand in Oslo

Ira Helfand describes nuclear famine at the international conference Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, March 4 in Oslo

Last week, ICAN and IPPNW participated in two extraordinarily successful conferences in Oslo on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. That, in fact, was the title of the two-day intergovernmental conference hosted by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was attended by 127 States, several UN agencies, the Red Cross Red Crescent movement, and a 50-person civil society delegation coordinated by ICAN. An ICAN-organized Civil Society Forum took place on the two days before the government conference, and drew 500 participants from 70 States, including about 40 of us from IPPNW.

This was the first time that States had come together—inside or outside the UN—to focus entirely on the nature and consequences of nuclear weapons, and to consider them as an existential threat requiring collective action. While the Norwegian sponsors carefully arranged the conference as a scientific meeting and did not want to raise expectations too quickly that the conference might lead to a process to ban and eliminate nuclear weapons, the State delegations lost little time in calling for just that as the only responsible course of action. We had hoped that this conference would redirect the discourse about nuclear weapons toward their catastrophic and unacceptable consequences, and away from the disingenuous arguments about their deterrent value offered by the nuclear-weapon states. That hope was more than fulfilled. The one concrete outcome that we wanted from the conference was a decision to hold a followup conference as soon as possible—perhaps within this calendar year, or early in 2014. The offer to do this came from Mexico at the end of meeting, with a declaration that the momentum achieved in Oslo had to continue and that the humanitarian perspective on nuclear weapons required action from States, particularly the non-nuclear-weapon states.

Followers of this blog know that the P5 boycotted the conference. This was a deliberate decision that the US, the UK, and France took in consultation with each other, while Russia and China were happy to go along. India and Pakistan sent representatives to Oslo. Israel, of course, did not. This was inexcusable behavior on the part of the P5, but if the intent was to marginalize the conference and diminish its significance, the result was exactly the opposite. Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide told the press before the conference began that the reason given by the P5 for their absence (basically, that they saw the conference as a distraction from their important step-by-step disarmament initiatives inside the NPT) was “not convincing.” With some strategic counsel from ICAN campaigners who fanned across the room and spoke with nearly every delegation, most States at the conference easily came to understand that they would be in a stronger position to discuss the real issues and to set an agenda that could lead to meaningful progress without the predictable “distractions” from the P5. And that’s exactly what happened.

Members of the ICAN civil society delegation spoke at key moments throughout the conference (L-R: Rebecca Johnson, Akira Kawasaki, Bea Fihn)

Members of the ICAN civil society delegation spoke at key moments throughout the conference (L-R: Rebecca Johnson, Akira Kawasaki, Bea Fihn)

The program of the conference, including the plenary presentations, many of the government statements and interventions, the Chair’s summary, and streaming video of all the sessions on both days, can be found on the conference website. Many of the same materials, and an excellent report on the conference, are at Reaching Critical Will. ICAN, as the civil society partner to the State organizers of the conference, was given the floor at the end of each session, and at the conclusion of the conference as a whole. The interventions read by Nosizwe Baqwa, Beatrice Fihn, Akira Kawasaki, and Rebecca Johnson, not only underscored the importance of the scientific content presented in each session, but also gave us repeated opportunities to link these sobering facts directly to the need for action. In its statement at the close of the conference, ICAN said “an understanding of the global humanitarian consequences of nuclear detonations should be the starting point for urgent action to ban and eliminate nuclear weapons.”

Before wrapping this up, I want to highlight a few things of special interest to IPPNW:

  • The content of the conference, from beginning to end, echoed and amplified IPPNW’s core message for the past 30 years — that the consequences of nuclear weapons use and nuclear war would be unimaginably catastrophic; that not only do we lack the capacity to mount a medical and humanitarian response to the victims of nuclear detonations, but that any attempt to prepare such a response capacity is infeasible; and that the only appropriate and responsible course of action is prevention.
  • While some concerns had been expressed in the run-up to the conference that there would be an equivocal (or even damaging) message about preparedness planning in the event that a nuclear weapon were used against a city, those concerns turned out to be unwarranted. There were a couple of presentations by UN disaster-response agencies unfamiliar with the extreme challenges presented by nuclear weapons use, during which they suggested that the systems in place for responding to major natural and industrial disasters are a good basis for planning a coordinated response to a nuclear attack. That poorly informed notion was quickly refuted by the ICRC, by several States during their interventions, and by Foreign Minister Eide in his factual summary.
  • IPPNW was very well represented from the podium. Sir Andy Haines, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a veteran of our UK affiliate, Medact, gave a textbook IPPNW bombing run, in which he described the medical and environmental catastrophe that would follow the detonation of a nuclear weapon. Masao Tomonaga, the director of the Japanese Red Cross Hospital in Nagasaki and IPPNW’s regional vice president for North Asia, described his experience as a Nagasaki survivor and explained the acute and long-term effects of radiation exposure. What we heard repeatedly from many participants, however, was that the most compelling presentation of the conference was made by IPPNW co-president Ira Helfand. Speaking as a representative of ICAN, Ira gave one of his most powerful presentations to date on nuclear famine and the long term medical, environmental, and humanitarian catastrophe that would result from nuclear war. There’s a short clip on our YouTube channel that I was able to capture on my little point-and-shoot camera, but I urge you to watch the whole thing on the streaming video from day one (starting at 3:07:45).
Rutgers climate scientist Alan Robock at the ICAN Civil Society Forum in Oslo

Rutgers climate scientist Alan Robock at the ICAN Civil Society Forum in Oslo

The ICAN Civil Society Forum on March 2-3 set out to explicitly link the humanitarian perspective with campaign objectives. The first day was devoted to scientific presentations and personal narratives, with well-crafted talks by Patricia Lewis, Andy Haines, Ira Helfand, and Rutgers climate scientist Alan Robock. I had never seen Ira and Alan work as a team before in making the nuclear famine/nuclear winter presentation, and they were simply brilliant together! For those of us who have been working on this issue since the 1980s or even longer, much of this material was very familiar. But for many of the participants—the majority of whom, by my reckoning, were under 30—this was new information, and they soaked it up eagerly. I would have to say, in fact, that an important subtext of this Forum (and ICAN as a whole, for that matter) was the way in which a new generation of activists has taken the nuclear weapons issue to heart and has made abolition their own cause. If this really is the next (the last?) big push, the kind of youthful energy apparent in that room is exactly what we’ll all need.

One Comment
  1. March 14, 2013 11:41 pm

    Thank you for this. It seems to me now that even without nuclear war the whole nuclear chain is already threatening life on earth and the threat will grow with each generation. until no life is left to generate new life.Every link in the nuclear chain — from uranium mining to enrichment to nuclear fuel to plutonium and nuclear weapons to depleted uranium and nuclear waste — is a threat to earth’s many varied life forms, and to the waters and soil and air of the planet itself. And then there is the bomb — hundred and thousands of nuclear bombs on high alert. What madness seized our fathers? It is time to end this Faustian bargain and choose life with all our beings , , ,

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