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CSF Vienna—day two: the writing on the wall

December 8, 2014


ICAN volunteers celebrate (and are celebrated!) at the conclusion of the Civil Society Forum in Vienna.

ICAN volunteers celebrate (and are celebrated!) at the conclusion of the Civil Society Forum in Vienna.

Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu set the tone for the second day of the ICAN Civil Society Forum in Vienna during a video message at yesterday’s opening session:

“The writing should be on the wall for the nuclear powers,” said Archbishop Tutu. “A treaty banning nuclear weapons is on the way. The momentum is unstoppable.”

That was certainly the feeling in the once-again-packed conference hall and throughout the Aula der Wissenschaften in a day devoted to political dialogues, campaign strategy discussions, and planning meetings for the conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons that starts today.

Reflecting on the beginnings of this humanitarian initiative and the first HINW conference in Oslo in March 2013, former Norwegian State Secretary Gry Larsen told the campaigners, “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.”

Her sense of confidence that these conferences have themselves been a form of action in the right direction was echoed by Mexican ambassador Jorge Lomónaco, who said that the Nayarit HINW conference had moved things along even further, and that “we have collectively given a voice back to non-nuclear-weapon States,” who now have “science and hard facts” as a foundation for demanding the elimination of nuclear weapons. “We have made unsustainable the position taken by some states that they are for nuclear disarmament but must continue to rely on nuclear weapons for security.” From the perspective of the humanitarian evidence, he concluded, “you’re either for or against” nuclear disarmament.

Arun Mitra and Ron McCoy view some of the artwork that captured the content and mood of the CSF over the two days.

Arun Mitra and Ron McCoy view some of the artwork that captured the content and mood of the CSF over the two days.

Jan Kickert of the Austrian foreign ministry expressed equal confidence that the momentum will be maintained in Vienna. He welcomed the presence of some of the nuclear-armed States who boycotted the first two conferences, saying that their participation “is important to the process, since they are the ones who will have to eliminate the weapons.” But he emphasized the need for constructive participation and said that “they can’t impede the process.”

Parliamentarians added their voices to those of the diplomats a little later in the day. British MP and former CND activist Joan Ruddock said that “we need to make people feel about nuclear weapons the way they feel about cluster bombs and landmines,” and that in the UK this means driving the point home that “UK nuclear weapons could kill tens of millions outright and have indirect effects that could cause the deaths of two billion people.” In her view, a ban treaty supported by large number of states “would be the greatest challenge” to the UK’s nuclear policies.

The idea that a ban treaty would change the entire political landscape for nuclear disarmament, and would place unprecedented pressure on the nuclear-armed States to eliminate their nuclear weapons, was repeated several times during the day.

The afternoon belonged to the campaigners themselves. Regional groups met throughout the day to plan their approaches to State delegations during the government conference. A special campaigners session gave activists from several countries an opportunity to showcase their activities back home.

Karipbek Kuyukov

Karipbek Kuyukov

If Setsuko Thurlow captured the hearts of the participants on Saturday, that role on the second day of the Forum went to Kazakh artist and Atom Project ambassador Karipbek Kuyukov, who was born without arms as the result of his parents’ exposure to radiation from nuclear weapons tests at the former Soviet test site in Semipalatinsk. Speaking on behalf of himself and all those who have suffered from the effects of radiation from nuclear tests, Karipbek said that his whole life was about the fight to abolish nuclear weapons. “I don’t have arms to shake your hand or hug you, but I have a heart that belongs to you,” he said. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

The final panel of the day had a simple title that minced no words: “Ban nuclear weapons.” Panelists including Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova of the Monterey Institute, Richard Lennane—the irreverent voice behind the website Wildfire, Ray Acheson of Reaching Critical Will, and Richard Moyes of Article 36 had no trouble agreeing that existing institutions are not pushing the disarmament process far enough, fast enough; that the policies of the nuclear-armed States are full of contradictions (disarmament vs. deterrence vs. non-proliferation vs. modernization) that stand in the way of real progress; and that the humanitarian initiative has really shaken up the debate.

In his introductory remarks, Richard Moyes reminded everyone that ICAN and the humanitarian initiative has its roots in the work of IPPNW, which has been educating the public and policymakers about the medical, environmental, and humanitarian consequences of nuclear war for more than 30 years.

Richard “Wildfire” Lennane criticized those who talk timidly about the legality of nuclear weapons and claim only that they are “mostly” illegal for “most” countries “most of the time.” “Nuclear weapons are not ‘mostly’ illegal; they’re illegal. The debate about that is over.”

Gaukhar agreed that the debate may be over, and that most people believe nuclear weapons are illegal, “yet there’s no explicit prohibition. We need a ban treaty.”

In a brief side discussion, the panelists and the audience came up with several examples of weapons that that had been prohibited by treaty as a prelude to their elimination (landmines, cluster bombs, chemical and biological weapons), but could not come up with an example of a weapon system that had first been eliminated and then made subject to a ban. Anyone have one?

Ray Acheson had pretty much the final words, and they were good ones. I think this is a pretty accurate paraphrase. It’s what my Twitter messages say she said, anyway: “The ban treaty idea is simple. Everything about nuclear weapons is illegal…for everyone. We need to prohibit them, then eliminate them….The nuclear-armed States will try to shut this down. We need the courage and the confidence to make the ban treaty happen.”

Nosizwe Baqwa

Nosizwe Baqwa

The Forum ended on an emotional high, with a moving and inspirational talk by ICAN activist Nosizwe Baqwa, whose story of her mother’s flight from South Africa to Norway during the days of apartheid, and the lessons it taught her about courage in the face of unbearable oppression and impossible odds, had empowered her to take up the struggle for nuclear abolition.

Today we move over to the Hofburg Palace for the long-awaited Third Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons—the next step on the road to banning and eliminating the damn things.

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