“The courage to ban nuclear weapons”: ICAN Civil Society Forum opens in Vienna
More than 600 civil society campaigners from around the world filled the Aula der Wissenschaften (Hall of Sciences) for the first day of the ICAN Civil Society Forum in Vienna yesterday. “The courage to ban nuclear weapons,” is both the theme of the two-day campaign gathering, and also the message that campaigners intend to bring to the third Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons hosted by the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The conference begins on Monday, and 150 States have already registered, exceeding the numbers that came to the previous HINW conferences in Oslo and Nayarit.
Highlights from the first day of the Forum included a powerful new ICAN video; a video greeting from Austrian Federal President Dr. Heinz Fischer (who echoed the phrase “the courage to ban nuclear weapons,” to the delight of everyone in the hall); and an emotional speech by Hiroshima survivor Setsuko Thurlow, who recounted her childhood experience of walking through the devastated city moments after the atomic bomb had dropped.
IPPNW co-president Ira Helfand joined a panel of experts on the medical, environmental, humanitarian, economic, and social impacts of nuclear weapons. Ira recapped the findings on climate disruption and nuclear famine that were presented at the Oslo and Nayarit conferences; Werner Kerschbaum of the Austrian Red Cross described how the country’s emergency response infrastructure would be overwhelmed in the event of a nuclear detonation over Vienna; and Paul Walker of Green Cross International surveyed the environmental damage caused by nuclear weapons testing and production.
Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group added a dimension that has not been previously addressed at these conferences when he talked about the “pivotal decisions” the US, Russia and the other nuclear-armed States are making to reinvest in their nuclear arsenals, and the destructive impact this has on the social and economic fabric of communities—particularly the communities where nuclear weapons facilities are based. Greg said he’d taken inspiration from ICAN and that the campaign for a ban treaty was a “bright light” in an otherwise dark time.
There were so many activities taking place during the afternoon that it was hard to keep track of everything. I had an opportunity to present IPPNW’s new campaign kit on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons to about 50 or 60 participants at a lunchtime breakout session. Other sessions introduced new campaigners to the key facts about nuclear weapons consequences and to ICAN’s goals and strategies, while a vibrant “marketplace” gave participants a chance to learn about and interact with more than a dozen ICAN partner organizations.
The first day ended with a panel on international law, a presentation by Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Tony de Brum on his country’s courageous lawsuit against the nuclear-armed States, and a sobering keynote speech by journalist Eric Schlosser, the author of “Command and Control,” who made a compelling case that nuclear weapons, at the end of the day, are just “machines connected to other machines,” and that all of these machines are as flawed as the humans who created them. While you could make a case that deterrence has worked at times in the past, he cautioned, the reality is that it will work until it inevitably fails.
Tomorrow the Forum shifts gears from a review of what we know about the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons to working on effective strategies for banning and eliminating them—the same transition we will be urging upon the State delegations to the HINW conference on Monday.