Unspeakable suffering | Credit: ICAN - Photo: 2013

I CAN Get Rid Of Nuclear Weapons!

By Xanthe Hall* | IDN-InDepth NewsViewpoint

BERLIN (IDN) – The latest acronym in the disarmament community is CHC. It stands for Catastrophic Humanitarian Consequences and is the message that the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear weapons (ICAN) is trying to get across, both to the general public and to governments. So far, so successfully.

Since ICAN started out on this strategy of reframing the debate about nuclear weapons, to get them away from the stalemated security debate into the same arena as other outlawed weapons, there has been much movement in the minds of the negotiators.

Last May (2012) at the conference in Vienna on the Non-Proliferation Treaty, a group of 16 states issued a statement on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. By the First Committee in the UN in September, that number had more than doubled to 34. And next week (March 4-5, 2013) the Norwegian government hosts a whole conference on the subject to which already 120 states have registered to attend.

Many people in the disarmament community have asked: why put the emphasis on the consequences again? We did all that in the 1980s. We know what nuclear weapons do, that’s why we want to ban them. But surveys show that people are either not aware or do not think about what nuclear weapons can do and are already doing.

The subject has disappeared below our radar screens that are full of other problems: climate change, economic crises, human rights abuses, etc. We faced a similar problem with landmines in the 1990s – a total lack of awareness of their consequences – and in bringing those to the fore it was possible to get states to the negotiating table.

Nuclear weapons have not been used to the extent that landmines have, but we can say something about their potential effects extrapolated from the relatively small nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And, in contrast to landmines, only one would be enough to cause untold suffering for thousands, whereas a “limited” nuclear exchange would wipe out millions and cause terrible environmental damage. The scientific evidence will be presented to states at the conference in Oslo on March 4 and 5.

All-out nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia may be unlikely today, but it is still possible. Around 2000 intercontinental missiles are still on high alert and the possibility of accidental nuclear war caused by human or computer failure remains. The consequences of such an exchange are so mind-boggling that noone ever wants to talk about them. They would make climate change look like the proverbial tea-party.

So why bring all this up now when President Obama is talking already about further reductions, you might ask? Are we not already on the way to Global Zero? Should we just be patient and let the states continue with their step-by-step process of dismantling the nuclear arms race?

ICAN is of the opinion that the step-by-step approach is more like the line dance – one step forward, two steps back. The numbers of nuclear weapons might be going down, but in a curve that is flattening out and could get stuck at “minimal deterrence”, perhaps a few hundred nuclear weapons. And all of the Nuclear Weapon States – official and unofficial – are locked in a nuclear modernisation race. We won’t get to zero without true commitment to completely getting rid of them all. That commitment can only come with a process towards eliminating nuclear weapons in a phased and verifiable treaty, in the same way as chemical and biological weapons were banned.

None of this is new. But the dynamic that has arisen in the last year is. Partly because younger people are becoming involved and bringing their energy to the campaign. But also through the CHC strategy, states that have long stood for disarmament are becoming energised to take action. At the last UN General Assembly it was decided to establish an “open-ended working group” on disarmament in Geneva. As the Mexican Ambassador explained at the Middle Powers Initiative Berlin Framework Forum, hosted by the German government on February 21-22, 2013, this working group is truly open and invites civil society to participate. The aim is to break the 15 year long deadlock in the Conference on Disarmament and begin really talking about how to get to the treaty.

Civil Society Forum

Before the Norwegian conference ICAN is hosting a Civil Society Forum on March 2 and 3, also in Oslo. Already more than 700 activists from all over the world have registered. Many of them are new to the field, so there will be much on the programme about CHC. The forum will also present campaigning tools, show how we can learn from previous campaigns, which best practices there are, how treaties are developed, put forward ethical arguments against vested interests, and provide new methods of mobilization, communication and political action. There will be a marketplace for NGOs to share their wares, a party, a concert, a speakers’ corner and even a few celebrities like Martin Sheen.

NGOs have been busy over the last few months pushing their governments to attend and will follow-up with more lobbying to continue the pressure for a ban. For example, in Germany we have already arranged with government officials for a debriefing after Oslo to take place to talk to humanitarian organisations about nuclear weapons. Hopes are high that the states conference in Oslo will result in the conclusion that the consequences of the use and production of nuclear weapons are unacceptable and that they should therefore be banned.

*Xanthe Hall has worked as the nuclear disarmament campaigner at IPPNW Germany for nearly 20 years and is based at their office in Berlin, Germany. In the early eighties, she was a member of the West Midlands CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) executive committee. She co-founded the Abolition 2000 Global Network for the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons in 1995. She also helped found the German Abolition national network: Traegerkreis “Atomwaffen abschaffen”. Xanthe is a member of the Executive Committee of Middle Powers Initiative and the Abolition Global Council. She is European Coordinator of the Parliamentarians for Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Disarmament and German 2020 Vision Campaigner for Mayors for Peace. [IDN-InDepthNews – February 27, 2013]

Image: Unspeakable suffering | Credit: ICAN + Writer’s picture at the bottom

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