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Light at the end of the nuclear tunnel

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), comes into force today. For the first time ever the production and possession of such weapons has been ruled illegal. KATE HUDSON reports

NEW treaties are not often greeted with the recognition and enthusiasm that they merit. 

They can seem dry and legalistic, overladen with clauses and dusty formulations. 

But the reality is that treaties are often the bringing into law of profoundly humanitarian principles, of significant advances in human rights, of steps towards peace and to protect all communities. 

And they are often the result of years of campaigning, of lobbying, marching, and direct action. 

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which comes into force today, is just such a treaty. The result of over 60 years of anti-nuclear campaigning it is a remarkable and path-breaking achievement. 

The Treaty bans the use, production, possession and deployment of nuclear weapons, along with specific activities that could enable or assist anyone to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons. 

For the first time, nuclear weapons are declared illegal under international law. In the past, the World Court ruled that their use would be unlawful under virtually all circumstances, but this is the first time that their production and possession — indeed their very existence — has been ruled illegal.

There can be no doubt that treaty has the potential to achieve a world without nuclear weapons but there is also much more to the treaty, in very human terms.

For the past decade, the work that was undertaken to achieve this treaty was based on profound concern, by states, campaigners and international bodies such as the Red Cross and Red Crescent, about the catastrophic humanitarian consequences that would result from any further use of nuclear weapons. 

As discussions continued across the globe, it was acknowledged that complete elimination of such weapons was the only way to guarantee that they would never be used again under any circumstances. 

The treaty that resulted from this process recognised the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons, that they “transcend national borders, pose grave implications for human survival, the environment, socioeconomic development, the global economy, food security and the health of current and future generations, and have a disproportionate impact on women and girls, including as a result of ionising radiation.”

The treaty also acknowledges the ethical imperatives for nuclear disarmament describing a nuclear weapon-free world as a global public good of the highest order, serving both national and collective security interests.

But one of the most moving sections of the treaty is that which recognises the unacceptable suffering and harm caused to the victims of the use of nuclear weapons (hibakusha), as well as of those affected by the testing of nuclear weapons. It explicitly recognises the disproportionate impact of nuclear-weapon activities on indigenous peoples, because of the choices made by nuclear powers for their testing sites.

Article 6 of the treaty is entitled Victim Assistance and Environmental Remediation. It requires each state party to the treaty to provide individuals who are affected by the use or testing of nuclear weapons, “with age and gender-sensitive assistance, without discrimination, including medical care, rehabilitation and psychological support, as well as provide for their social and economic inclusion.”

And it also covers land contaminated as a result of activities related to the testing or use of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices — states “shall take necessary and appropriate measures towards the environmental remediation of areas so contaminated.”

These two commitments are long overdue. The appalling death toll from nuclear weapons testing has never been adequately measured or addressed. Indeed, testing has so shocked generations of activists that it has been a powerful motivator in building our movement. 

Looking back to the early days of anti-nuclear campaigning in Britain, it was primarily public outrage about nuclear testing that led to the founding of Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). 

According to the UN’s Comprehensive Test-Ban-Treaty Organisation (CTBTO), the United States conducted 1,032 nuclear tests between 1945 and 1992: at the Nevada Test Site, at sites in the Pacific Ocean, in Amchitka Island of the Alaska Peninsula, Colorado, Mississippi, and New Mexico. Between 1951 and ’58, around 100 nuclear weapons tests were conducted in the atmosphere at the Nevada Test Site. The fallout from the tests was transported thousands of miles away from the site by winds. As a result, people living in the US during these years were exposed to varying levels of radiation. 

Early testing by the Soviet Union took place on the steppes of Kazakhstan in what was then Soviet central Asia. 

Tests were later conducted in the Russian archipelago of Novaya Zemlya, as well as in the Urals and at the Missile Test Range area in Kazakhstan. The CTBTO reports that the health impact on the local population includes genetic defects and illnesses, ranging from cancers to impotency to birth defects and other deformities. 

Between 1952 and ’57, Britain conducted a total of 12 atmospheric nuclear tests on Australian territories at the Montebello Islands, and at Maralinga and Emu Field in South Australia. 

The impact of British testing in Australia remains a matter of contention until today. Although the Montebello Islands were uninhabited, the atmospheric nuclear tests spread radioactivity across large parts of the Australian mainland. 

Fallout from the testing at the Australian First People’s territories in Emu Field and Maralinga contaminated large parts of South Australia. 

According to the UN, of the over 2,000 nuclear explosions detonated worldwide between 1945 and 1996, 25 per cent or over 500 bombs were exploded in the atmosphere: over 200 by the US, over 200 by the Soviet Union, about 20 by Britain, about 50 by France and over 20 by China. 

For many decades, nuclear weapons tests have caused unacceptable harm across the globe. 

Now, with the TPNW we have a huge opportunity, not only to eradicate nuclear weapons and secure our survival, but to right the historic wrongs that so many people have suffered at the hands of the nuclear weapons states.

We must work to ensure that Britain signs up to this treaty and makes full recompense to the Australian First Peoples — and to all those who have been affected by its disastrous obsession with nuclear weapons.

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