In Oslo today 127 nations, together with international organisations and civil society representatives wrapped up their 2 day conference on the humanitarian consequences of a nuclear war.

Presentation after presentation by organisations, experts and survivors left those delegates present in no doubt that nuclear weapons have no place in global politics or military strategy.  Peter Maurer, President of The Red Cross said, “We have concluded that an effective means of assisting a substantial portion of survivors of a nuclear detonation, while adequately protecting those delivering assistance, is not currently available at national level and not feasible at international level.”

Dr Ira Helfand from International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, speaking for ICAN told delegates about:

  • the widespread radioactive contamination which would affect housing, food and water supplies,
  • the financial costs in terms of property damage, disruption to global trade and general economic activity, and
  • the impact on development in terms of the creation of refugees.

Helfand also walked the delegates through a model scenario where a small percentage of the world’s nuclear weapons are exchanged between India and Pakistan, who fortunately were the only two nuclear weapon states present in the room.  Such a model is based on an estimated 5 million tons of soot projected into the atmosphere.  What would ensue would be an unprecedented drop in global temperatures, the changes to the length of the growing season and changes in precipitation.  With these estimates he charted how US corn production would be affected (12 time zones away) and how Chinese rice production would be hit (potentially 30 to 40% lower within 2 years)

On top of this he pointed out that already it is estimated that 870 million people are suffering from malnutrition in the world, and apart from the victims of the war itself, these people would be included in the estimated 1 billion people who will die in the immediate aftermath of a small-scale nuclear war.

Karipbek Kuyukov, ATOM Project ambassador, from Kazakhstan grew up 100km away from Semipalatinsk which is where the Soviet Union tested nuclear weapons.  Kuyukov was born without arms and illustrated in the most powerful way imaginable the effects of radiation on human DNA.  In his presentation he said, “We need a world where there would be no excuses for Hiroshima and Nagasaki or for Chernobyl or Semipalatinsk…”

“We live now in a dangerous world, whether we like it or not. If we want to protect ourselves, we have to ban nuclear weapons.”

After the official presentations, national delegations, one after the other, came to the rostrum to share their horror of nuclear weapons and to express their resolve to help eliminate them.

Ironically it was Japan that seemed to sound a note of caution by saying that the world needs to focus on “practical” measures for a “world of decreased nuclear risks.”

New Zealand took aim at the Conference on Disarmament which is an international body of 65 nations whose successes include treaties on biological and chemical weapons but which has been in deadlock for years now on nuclear disarmament.  Some nations in the CD have criticised the Oslo conference for undermining their work and the work in the Non-Proliferation Treaty revision forums, but New Zealand came to the defence saying that there is no contradiction in promoting disarmament at both the NPT and here in Oslo.  Ireland backed them up agreeing that a humanitarian approach is fully compatible with and supportive of the NPT.

Towards the end of the presentations, Mexico took to the stage and to the greatest ovation of the day invited the world to come to Mexico for a follow up conference at a date to be decided.

The Foreign Minister of Norway summed up with some personal comments:

“I believe that we have succeeded in reframing the issue 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 has become very clear that this is everybody’s concern and it is equally legitimate for nuclear states and non-nuclear states alike to care about this issue.  In doing so, we believe that we are taking the debate about nuclear weapons out of the somewhat traditionalised and institutionalised arenas that are already existing.  We are not intending to substitute them.  This is a supplement but we do believe that there is a new sense of urgency that should govern our work in this area.

We’ve also been reminded in very stark terms that these weapons do exist.  We cannot approach them through a strategy of denial.  They exist and they can be used.  We have to think about the unthinkable and we have to raise awareness.  I’m happy to see that so many different actors have set stage here, not only the States but also key international organisations, the UN, the ICRC, key scholars and learned people, experts and of course civil society.  Our experience when working closely with civil society is when concerned States and concerned organisations of the civil sphere work together we are more than twice as powerful than if we try each on our own.  This should lead to a new understanding, a new awareness and a new sense of urgency.”

Several states have not attended but most notable among them are the P5, the permanent members of the UN Security Council: the USA, the UK, France, Russia and China. If the work done in Oslo in this forum is not interesting enough for the P5 to warrant their participation it must surely call into question the UN’s very raison d’être.

Although there are already huge numbers of people in precarious situations around the world, and on the point of death, either in war zones or impoverished regions, and increasingly in so-called “developed” countries such as Greece and Spain due to the economic crisis, and these situation are urgent; it is clear – and the four days of conferences in Oslo have driven the message home – that nuclear weapons are the most important issue for humanity to resolve.

The deaths and destruction that the planet is witness to today will pale into insignificance if the global family does not get its response correct.