This morning in the Hofburg Palace, Vienna, in the presence of delegations from 157 countries and dozens of civil society organisations many of whom are partners of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, the inter-governmental conference opened with statements from; Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian Minister for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs; the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon (delivered by Angela Kane, the UN high representative for disarmament); Peter Maurer, President of the ICRC; Hiroshima Survivor, Setsuko Thurlow; and Pope Francis (delivered by Archbishop Tomasi).
Each of the addresses reinforced the need for this forum to advance from discussions and information exchange towards treaty negotiations.
Sebastian Kurz, the youngest foreign minister in the European Union, possibly ever, aged 27, stepped up to the microphone and welcomed the assembled guests. There can’t be many members of the different national delegations born right at the end of the cold war and barely able to recall what it felt like to live under the threat of imminent nuclear war, let alone their foreign minister. Nevertheless Kurz spoke about the dangers of the risks to humanity, not specifically from nuclear explosions in war time but more likely as the result of accidents.
“Today we know more about these risks. Human error, technical flaws and cyber security among them. These risks can never be eliminated completely. Actually humankind has been very lucky on several occasions in the past. But can we continue to rely on luck for our safety?” he asked.
Angela Kane, reading the statement from Ban Ki-Moon said, “Possession does not prevent international disputes from occurring, but it makes conflicts more dangerous. Maintaining forces on alert does not provide safety, but it increases the likelihood of accidents. Upholding doctrines of nuclear deterrence does not counter proliferation, but it makes the weapons more desirable. Growing ranks of nuclear armed-States does not ensure global stability, but instead undermines it.”
Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, in his address stressed that it is now difficult to deny that the use of nuclear weapons would be catastrophic and long lasting, pointing out that hospitals in Japan are still treating the victims of radiation exposure 70 years later. He also reiterated that it is impossible to provide a response that does not have the effect of harming those very members of the emergency services called on to respond.
He concluded by mentioning serious concerns about programmes of nuclear weapon modernisation concluding that urgent action is required to reduce risk.
Setsuko Thurlow was the next to speak and gave moving and graphic testimony once more about the 250,000 people who have died in Hiroshima since the bomb was dropped. This, she pointed out, was the effect of one bomb that by today’s standards would be considered rudimentary. She concluded that humanity and nuclear weapons cannot co-exist indefinitely.
In anguish, she spoke of her frustration at the lack of progress on nuclear disarmament despite the increasingly small number of survivors bearing their souls in public forums for decades about the hell on earth that they experienced. “How much longer can we allow nuclear-weapon states to continue threatening all life on Earth? Let us move forward in Vienna to concretise our vision and make the 70th anniversary of the nuclear bomb the appropriate milestone to achieve our goal to eliminate nuclear weapons.”
The message from Pope Francis, delivered by a representative contained a call for solidarity, the end of nuclear weapons and investment in human development.
“Nuclear weapons are a global problem, affecting all nations and impacting future generations and the planet that is our home. A global ethic is needed if we are to reduce the nuclear threat and work towards nuclear disarmament. Now more than ever, technological, social and political interdependence urgently calls for an ethic of solidarity, which encourages peoples to work together for a more secure world, and a future that is increasingly rooted in moral values and responsibility on a global scale.
“Military codes and international law, among others have long banned peoples from inflicting unnecessary suffering. If such suffering is banned in the waging of conventional war, then it should all the more be banned in nuclear conflict.
“Spending on nuclear weapons squanders the wealth of nations. To prioritize spending is a mistake and a misallocation of resources which would be far better invested in the areas of integral human development, education, health and the fight against extreme poverty. When these resources are squandered, the poor and the weak living on the margins of society pay the price.”
These two days in Vienna have begun with inspiring and moving words and will move on to a series of presentations on subjects such as; the impact of nuclear weapons both in theoretical models and from what we know of previous explosions; the risks of deliberate or inadvertent use; as well as possible scenarios in which weapons could be used. Tomorrow’s presentation looks at international law before the floor is opened for national delegations to make statements. The Chair then has the unenviable task of trying to make a summary of all that’s been heard.
The statement that everyone is most interested in hearing is that of the USA. It is the first time that they attend this forum after having mocked and condemned it in the past as a distraction from the NPT process. No one expects a change of heart but nevertheless any use of positive language could provide a useful boost to the NPT process that will re-convene in May 2015 in New York.
It will also be interesting to see the direction that the humanitarian initiative takes now. Will a future conference be proposed? [Desmond Tutu seemed to be inviting everyone to South Africa in his message to the civil society forum on Saturday] Will non-nuclear weapons governments wait again to once more be disappointed in the NPT? Or are they ready to agree that the time has come to start negotiations for a ban treaty?
Some of these questions may be answered tomorrow.