Report on the UN commemorative event for the International Day against Nuclear Tests

Abolishing nuclear tests means abolishing nuclear weapons

By Ray Acheson
26 August 2020

As the UN met to commemorate the International Day against Nuclear Tests this year, the discriminatory humanitarian and environmental impacts of thousands of nuclear weapon tests continue to be felt around the world. Despite the known and lasting harms of these deliberate acts of radioactive racism, the US government has indicated it is contemplating resuming nuclear testing. In the midst of a global pandemic, while grappling with geopolitical tensions that are rising at least as fast as temperatures and sea levels in the face of climate change, the threat of resuming nuclear weapon testing is an egregious assault to international peace and security as well as to the survivors of past testing and to future generations.

Racialised harms of nuclear testing

Nuclear weapon testing has caused horrific and intergenerational harm around the world. Marking the 75th anniversary of the first ever nuclear weapon test, conducted by the United States on 16 July 1945, the UN Special Rapporteur on toxics noted that this test marked the beginning of a long and tragic legacy of discrimination and “one of the cruellest examples of environmental injustice.” The nine nuclear-armed states have detonated thousands of nuclear weapons, predominantly on small islands in the Pacific and on the lands of Indigenous nations and poor communities of colour, or others they deemed “inferior” in the United States, Australia, Algeria, and Kazakhstan. “Unaddressed, the dangers of radioactive contamination will persist for centuries, and so too will the harmful legacy of racism that surrounds this tragic chapter of humanity,” wrote Baskut Tuncak.

During the online UN commemorative event against nuclear tests on 26 August, the majority of speakers condemned nuclear testing, highlighting the invariable catastrophic humanitarian and environmental fallout of nuclear weapons. On behalf of the Pacific Islands Forum and the Pacific Small Island Developing States, the ambassadors of Tuvalu and Fiji spoke respectively about the transnational and intergenerational horrors of nuclear weapon use and testing as an existential threat to peace and security, and about the lasting impacts of radiation from nuclear weapon tests across the Pacific, including on oceans and human health. Many government representatives also spoke about the wasted resources spent on nuclear weapon maintenance and modernisation, with Costa Rica and others arguing that this money should instead go toward mitigating the impacts of COVID-19 and climate change.

Prohibiting nuclear testing

It is on these bases that the majority of participants in the commemorative event urged all states to sign and ratify not just the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), which prohibits nuclear testing and establishing a system for international monitoring, but also the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which complements the CTBT’s ban on testing and further outlaws the possession, development, use, and threat of use of nuclear weapons.

The categorial prohibitions of the TPNW are essential for ending the nuclear age in its entirety. Ending the threat of nuclear weapon use requires more than just ending nuclear testing—it requires the total elimination of these weapons of terror. Thus, the President of the UN General Assembly, the African Group, and many delegations in their national capacities highlighted the importance of both the CTBT and TPNW, noting that they are each essential to effectively renouncing nuclear weapons and advancing nuclear disarmament.

The TPNW is also the only international nuclear agreement thus far to address what the UN Special Rapporteur on toxics described as the “harmful legacy of racism” of nuclear weapons. Karina Lester, a Yankunytjatjara-Anangu woman whose family survived testing in South Australia, noted during the commemorative event that the TPNW acknowledges the disproportionate harm caused to Indigenous communities around the world by nuclear weapon activities. The Treaty is also the first of its kind to call for victim assistance and environmental remediation in relation to nuclear weapon activities.

Rejecting nuclear violence

As a counterpart to recognising the harms caused by nuclear weapons, at the core of the TPNW is a rejection of the premise that nuclear weapons bring security. As the Arab Group noted during the commemorative event, the idea that the possession of nuclear weapons is necessary for “strategic stability,” or that the “international security environment” is not conductive to nuclear disarmament, are just stalling tactics by those who are failing in their legal obligations to eliminate nuclear weapons. Opposition to the TPNW, in this context, comes from those who profit off the nuclear system, argued Selina Neirok Leem, a climate justice and antinuclear activist from the Marshall Islands. To overcome these obstacles, urged the Austrian ambassador, we must do away with the notion that nuclear weapons increase security or safety. In reality, “global security is improved through mutual trust, transparency, and disarmament.”

Over the past few months, international diplomacy—like everything else in our world—has faced serious challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the world of disarmament diplomacy, many meetings and negotiations have been postponed. Few have met virtually; where they have, outputs have been minimal at best. Given the aggressive assaults against multilateralism already underway before the pandemic, it is more important than ever that as many governments, international organisations, and activists as possible work together to forge ahead toward the future we can all live in, rather one that privileges the few who adamantly seek to undermine peace, safety, and health for all. The abolition of nuclear weapons remains a critical part of this work—as the delegation of Chile remarked, coexistence in a world without nuclear weapons is not only possible, it is a moral imperative.

For live, non-comprehensive reporting from the commemorative event, see Reaching Critical Will’s Twitter thread. The webcast for the event will be posted on UN Web TV.