Sachertorte #1: a slice of the nuclear ban action in Vienna

Jun 19, 2022 | News, Sachertorte

Sachertorte: a famous Viennese chocolate cake. Easier to eat than to pronounce correctly. Used here to provide a slice of the action for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Vienna, Austria.

Saturday 18 June

ICAN Nuclear Ban Forum, Day 1

Report by Talei Luscia Mangioni, board member of ICAN Australia.

Opening the ICAN Nuclear Ban Forum, the executive director of ICAN Beatrice Fihn with ICAN Austria’s Nadja Schmidt gave an introduction by taking about the history of nuclear weapons, the formation of ICAN and the TPNW, the central importance of nuclear survivors in the negotiations of this Treaty, Austria’s important relationship to the TPNW, and finally how addressing the issue of nuclear weapons has never been more relevant given the recent threat by Russia to use them in the war on Ukraine. This was followed by a message from Austrian ambassador Alexander Kmentt who described the situation in Ukraine as a wakeup call to the disarmament, and a watershed moment given that many nuclear weapons states have been rapidly expanding and modernizing their arsenals in light of escalating conflict. Following this, Fihn and Schmidt gave their recognition and appreciation of all the people who traveled from so far away to be with them today, many of whom had to apply for special visas. Taking the stage, the stagehosts Seth Shelden and Philine Scherer-Dresseler, told attendees that there were four stages for the day, only two of which (The Main stage and Vienna hub) would be livestreamed for international audiences. 

Togzhan Kassenova, Kazakh expert

Following this, Togzhan Kassenova, an Kazakh expert of nuclear politics and WMD non-proliferation then gave a keynote entitled “Deciding our Fate”. She told the story of survivors of Soviet nuclear tests in Kazakhstan whose families had suffered deaths and maladies from health issues such as cancers as a result of atmospheric fallout. She spoke about the history of resistance of the Nevada-Semipalatinsk movement and how, after Kazakhstan’s independence and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, they chose to be nuclear-free and to denuclearise after finding themselves in possession of one of the largest ever nuclear arsenals after the Soviet Union left. She described nuclear weapons as a threat to humanity, emphasizing “it is our common fate, in a way we are all hostages as long as nuclear weapons exist and are possessed by a few”. Finally, she raised concern at the fact that Russia is now threatening to use nuclear weapons, imploring the audience: “we need to question how we got here.”

Survivors of nuclear weapons

Following this was a panel discussion of representatives of survivor communities entitled “This is what nuclear weapons are”, hosted by Akira Kawasaki from Peaceboat (Japan), with Suechi Kido for Nihon Hidankyo (Japan), Mary Dickson (USA), Léna Normand (French Polynesia), and Remy Zahiga (Congo).  Akira Kawasaki highlighted that these discussions must start with the human and environmental harms and listen to survivors as they are the “real experts”.

Suechi Kido for Nihon Hidankyo and a Nagasaki survivor, shared a memory of the bombing being two kilometers from hypocenter. He and his mother suffered from burns and evacuated to a nearby town and witnessed many deaths by acute atomic radiation illness and the complete devastation of his homeland. Kido then gave the history of Japan confederation of A+H bomb sufferers in the 1950s and then connected it to his own organisation Nihon Hidankyo’s current activism for survivor communities. The hibakusha welcomed the TPNW especially the positive obligation of Article 6 which he hoped would be deepened at the 1MSP. He celebrated the post-WWII Japanese constitution Article 9, which prohibits or renounces war and the threat or use of force, and hoped that it would be extended to the world. Even so, he publicly demanded why Japan refused to ratify or sign the TPNW and turned its back on 1MSP. He concluded his speech by saying: “We Hibakusha refuse the use of force as the means of resolving international conflicts. Responding to force by force will only lead to the continuation and expansion of conflict.”

Mary Dickson, a Utah Downwinder, spoke of the 100 atmospheric tests at the Nevada Test Site (NTS) between 1951-1962 and fallout reached across the USA and Canada by showing a horrifying graph. She told her own story as a survivor, where she had first hand experience of cancer and had sisters who died from cancer and autoimmune diseases. She had connected with other downwinders in the United States and worldwide in her quest for justice. She stated: “Ask any of them [nuclear survivor communities] and we will tell you, the arms race did not prevent nuclear war, it was a nuclear war waged against us.” She then touched on the history of the RECA act which gave some compensation to survivors in several states nearby the Nevada Test Site, however, the RECA act is very limited given that the fallout extended all across the United States. Today, survivors and their descendents continue to fight for more nuclear justice, especially health care. 

Léna Normand, of Association 193 spoke of the French nuclear tests in polynesia of which 46 were atmospheric and 147 were underground. This was an average of 1 shot every 2 months for 30 years. Normand questioned, “France is the fourth nuclear armed state in the world, but at what price?”. She spoke of some of the issues facing Association 193, including not having any social security data between 1966-1996 and only knowing that in recent times, there have been 600 new cancer patients per year, 300 cancer deaths per year and 10,000 patients from 1992-2017 with one of 23 radiation induced diseases. Association 193 educates and assists families to claim compensation with the Committee of compensation of victims of nuclear tests (CIVEN) through acceptance and rejections, assisting to find them legal representation. Today, Association 193 wants several things: forgiveness from the French state to the Polynesian people, profound reforms regarding the law of compensation with 2010-2 of January 5, 2010 amendment (specifically, the withdrawal of eligibility deadline, cancellation of dose of 1 millisievert, extension of list of radiation induced diseases, recognition of collateral victims), further studies under the aegis of the United Nations on transgenerational diseases and environmental consequences, and collective compensation coverage including reimbursement to the local social security fund of expenditure financed for radiation-induced diseases. She concluded with a request of International support for technical and scientific assistance, legal assistance and financial assistance for survivors.

Remy Zahiga from Green Congo Initiative began his speech asking the audience “Where does the material used directly or indirectly for the nuclear weapons industry come from?” He reminded audiences that uranium often comes from Indigenous lands and through mining and deforestation in violation of their human rights. He talked about how the rainforests in the Congo basin are intrinsic to his identity, and connected the struggles of nuclear justice, climate justice and Indigenous rights. 

Film: How Far from Ground Zero?

Following the panel, the film “How Far From Ground Zero?” of the CROSSROADS2020 project with L.A.B.R.A.T.S was shown. It had interviews from military and civilian survivors from Marshall Islands, Kiribati, French Polynesia, and other locations. This is a compelling multimedia initiative to educate people on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons and also connect it to climate change.

Then Patricia Lewis, Chatham House gave a lightning talk and spoke about the risks of nuclear weapons in a speech entitled “the reality of risk”. She acknowledged that we knew a bit about short and long term risks, but then talked about probability of risk especially in times of crisis. She identified that deterrence relies on risk, and nuclear deterrence relies on overwhelming and existential risk which views the consequences of nuclear weapons as so high that it will prevent risk. It might work with rational actors, but it doesn’t with irrational actors like despots. She connected risk with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and recent overt threats to use nuclear weapons. To conclude, she asked the audience to imagine if in the 1990s after the Cold War there were many disarmament treaties with the decision to eliminate nuclear weapons? It didn’t happen because they didn’t see each other as enemies, so the window of opportunity closed, reminding the audience to act now. 

Panel: Risking our realities

There was then a panel called “Risking our realities” with Gabriella Irsten of Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society, Ira Helfand of IPPNW and Eirini Giorgou of ICRC. Helfand talked about how nuclear weapons are the greatest threat to public health. Giorgou talked about ICRC and its role in protecting people from weapons and regulating nuclear weapons during wartime. rather than it being abstracted. Helfand emphaised the threat of the new technology of the bomb if it were to be detonated today would be catastrophic and worse than ever before. Similarly, according to Giorgou, the ICRC knows that nukes defy all laws so that’s why they have been a vocal opponent of these. She talked about the long term humanitarian and environmental impacts in the event of war, much of which was unknowable. Helfand talked about the environmental consequences of collapse of food production and famine, highlighting how climate change will escalate the climate crisis and the importance of bringing the message of nuclear to the climate movement. Giorgou talked about how nuclear weapons can’t be controlled and are against several international laws, including the prohibition of indiscriminate attacks, the principle of proportionality, prohibition superfluous injury and unnecessary suffering and laws against weapons causing severe damage to the environment. 

Terror and Impunity: Nuclear Weapons and the Ukraine Invasion

Following this, Terrell Starr of Black Diplomats then gave a lightening talk on “Terror and Impunity: Nuclear Weapons and the Ukraine Invasion”. As a foreign correspondent and political reporter covering the Ukraine crisis, talked about his positionality of an African-American doing reporting on Russia/Ukraine and experiences of  being in the middle of the war outbreak and having a stake in it all as he had lived there for several years. He noted the difficulty in explaining the situation to Americans how Putin did not treat Ukraine as a sovereign nation and thought it was useful to parallel both superpowers to their imperial pasts and presents. He emphasized: ”Anytime someone views their foreign policy through colonialism, there’s no weapon that’s off the table.”

Weapons Grade Colonialism

Next was the panel entitled “Weapons Grade Colonialism” with María Pía Devoto of SEHLAC, Vincent Intondi from the Institute of Race, Justice and Civic Engagement, Bedi Racule from MISA4Pacific and Pacific Conference of Churches, Zia Mian from Princeton University. Intondi highlighted how racism has shaped various regimes of oppression through dehumanising the “other” to justify our economic system and legitimise slavery to nuclear weapons. Racule presented the experiences of affected Marshallese people, Fijian soldiers and I-kiribati at the hands of nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific. Racule highlighted that “it was no secret that nuclear colonialism in the Pacific is underlined with racism. Our islands were chosen as a nuclear playground because they are isolated, far away and seemingly insignificant”. She reiterated the multiplicities of harm that her community faces, including how Marshallese people had been disproportionately affected by nuclear weapons, climate change and COVID-19 yet still continue to speak back to power and own their narratives. Mian concluded the session by talking about how nuclear weapons originated in the West, and the need for a place-based but also intersectional and holistic way of thinking through various movements that are “anti-systemic” to address the issue of nuclear weapons. 

TPNW in action: Victim Assistance and Environmental Remediation

Switching the channel to the Vienna hub, there was another important panel entitled “TPNW in action: Victim Assistance and Environmental Remediation” with Elizabeth Minor from Article 36, Bonnie Docherty from Harvard University’s International Human Rights Clinic, Alimzhan Akhmetov from the Center for International Security and Policy in Kazakhstan and Vanessa Griffen from Pacific Network on Globalisation (PANG). Panelists discussed the humanitarian and environmental impacts of nuclear weapons and  positive obligations of the Treaty. Minor gave an overview of Article 6 on victims assistance and environmental remediation, followed by Article 7 on international cooperation and assistance. Docherty discussed the implementation of the obligations at the 1MSP and suggested outcome documents as guided by the recommendations of affected state-parties from Kiribati and Kazakhstan. Akhmetov discussed the history of compensation and remediation of Kazakhstan enshrined in national law since Kazakh independence in the 1990s but it has loopholes. He identified the need for an international trust fund because of the ongoing struggles with medical care, intergenerational issues for second, third and fourth generations, and social and transport expenses. Griffen from Pacific Network on Globalisation (PANG) talked about centering survivors today and having up-to-date information. She then compared the inefficient compensation schemes for civilian populations between French Polynesia and Marshall Islands, both of which are set by the nuclear-armed states and have legal geographical and time constraints and difficult processes to prove victimhood and apply for compensation. 

Setsuko Thurlow: a survivor’s journey

The Vienna hub concluded with a moving speech from Setsuko Thurlow of ICAN with a presentation entitled “A Survivor’s Journey”. She evoked the horrors of Hiroshima where she witnessed the bomb in 1945. She powerfully states “For the first six decades of the nuclear age, the voices of survivors and victims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in the many Indigenous homelands devastated by over 2000 nuclear test explosions were silenced and marginalized by the nuclear armed states and their allies and accomplices. But we continued to tell our stories.” She celebrated that the TPNW broke through this silence and the opening that can bring to a close, the nuclear era. She condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and nuclear weapon states and allies (including USA and her adopted country Canada) continuing to promote the use of nuclear weapons for deterrence. She reminded audiences “we cannot allow the lie of the nuclear age that the bomb offers us shelter”. She stated her disappointment in Japan for not signing and ratifying the TPNW in spite of their history of nuclear detonation. She concluded her talk by urging the audience to take advantage of this moment by saying: “if we can build on the platform of our beloved Treaty the worst of the nuclear age may be over, but if we don’t seize the opening the worst is yet to come and may come soon”.