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

Ray Acheson
16 September 2021

On 7 September 2021, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) held an event to commemorate the twelfth International Day against Nuclear Tests, which marks the closure of Semipalatinsk test site in Kazakhstan on 29 August 1991. The site was used by the Soviet Union for hundreds of nuclear tests between 1949 and 1989, wreaking environmental damage and human harm. This pattern of harm is reflected everywhere in the world where the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, and the other nuclear-armed states tested their nuclear weapons. Most recently, a study on French nuclear testing in the Pacific, the Moruroa Files, demonstrate horrific impacts and an historic failure to provide appropriate compensation or reparations for those impacts.

As the then-UNGA President Volkan Bozkir noted during his opening remarks, nuclear testing has been catastrophic for the environment, impacting sea levels and climate change, and has devastated and displaced communities. On behalf the UN Secretary-General, the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu also highlighted the tremendous environmental damage from decades of nuclear tests, while the Executive Secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) Organisation agreed that “pain and anguish” is representative of the sad legacy of the era of unrestrained nuclear testing.

Learning from survivors

While that era may be over (for now and hopefully forever), the damage is far from over. It continues to gravely impact survivors and affected communities, who grapple today with the health and environmental consequences of nuclear testing. Sue Coleman-Haseldine, a Kokatha elder who was two years old when the British and Australian governments began testing nuclear bombs on her people’s land, explained, “There is so much cancer around my country, as well as thyroid disease, defects in babies…. The impacts of the Maralinga and Emu Fields testing is still being felt today, over 60 years later.” She also noted that this testing was conducted in secret, and pointed out that now there is the threat of a nuclear waste dump on country, which she sees as “another form of radiation poisoning just waiting to happen.” Calling on all states, including Australia, to join the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), Coleman-Haseldine said: “Just remember the future forever belongs to the next generations, and it would be great if they had animals to share with. It’s up to us now to make sure that we finally put these destructive weapons where they belong—in the past.”

Danity Laukon, a former member of the Marshall Islands Student Association, likewise explained how US nuclear testing created harms in the Pacific region. The tests erased several islands, contaminated water and food, and burned people. Today, communities remain displaced and are fighting to heal from cancer, while the dome the US built to store radioactive waste from the tests is leaking into the sea. Combined with the effects with climate change, she argued, the situation is even more concerning. Nuclear-armed states must adopt nuclear justice, said Laukon, and show regard for those whose lives they altered with nuclear testing. “We don’t want the tragedies of nuclear testing to be the stories we pass to our children,” she said. “We want to leave a legacy of peace instead.”

Outlawing nuclear weapon testing and possession

It was to help build this legacy of peace that in 2017, 122 governments voted for the adoption of the TPNW. This treaty outlaws nuclear weapons, and, along with the CTBT, prohibits all nuclear weapon testing. The entry into force of the TPNW in January 2021 “gives reason for hope,” said Kazakhstan’s president during the commemorative event. Countless other delegations, including the African Group, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS), as well as Austria, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, Indonesia, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Nigeria, highlighted the importance of the TPNW and urged all states to accede to it. Brazil described the TPNW as an “evolutionary leap for the non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament regime,” as it “significantly raises the moral barriers” against nuclear weapons.

Cuba highlighted the first meeting of states parties of the TPNW, currently scheduled for March 2022, as an important occasion to advance nuclear disarmament. This upcoming meeting also provides an opportunity for states parties to determine how best to implement the TPNW’s provisions on environmental remediation and victim assistance, which relate directly to the legacy of nuclear weapon testing. Indonesia highlighted the importance of these provisions, calling on nuclear-armed states to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. The PSIDS called for justice for victims of nuclear testing.

Virtually all participants also called on all states to sign and ratify the CTBT, which has still not entered into force because it requires ratification by certain intransigent states, including the United States. The appeals to these countries to join have been repeated ad nauseum by the rest of the international community since the CTBT’s adoption in 1996 to no avail, which is why the states that negotiated the TPNW ensured that the final version of the agreement categorically outlawed nuclear testing along with all other nuclear weapon activities. As Austria noted, the majority of countries in the world did not want to wait any longer to work for a nuclear weapon free world.

Condemning dangerous and unlawful behaviour

Despite the growing body of international law against nuclear weapons, activities for their production and proliferation and preparation for use continue in all nine of the nuclear-armed states. The Western European and Other States condemned the nuclear tests conducted by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The European Union, Germany, and others also condemned these tests and called on the DPRK to abandon its nuclear weapon and missile programmes. Other delegations condemned all nuclear weapon tests and nuclear arsenals, with Ecuador noting that all tests cause grave damage to the environment and people, and all tests contribute to the development of a prohibited weapon.

In this context, several delegations, including Austria, Ecuador, Indonesia, and others, condemned nuclear weapon modernisation efforts, including through subcritical or other forms of testing. Indonesia urged all states to reject nuclear weapon modernisation and signal their refusal of this strategy, including the so-called nuclear umbrella states, which hold the same responsibility to achieve nuclear disarmament and foster good international relations. There is no worthy legacy arising from the use or testing of nuclear weapons, said Indonesia, no moral ground to possess nuclear weapons, and now, with the entry into force of the TPNW, no legal ground either. States should direct resources to deal with climate change, it argued, not misallocate them on an arms race.

Pursuing collective security through disarmament and climate justice

As research conducted by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) has shown, the nuclear-armed states spent about 72.6 billion USD on their arsenals in 2020—increasing their allocation of funds to these bombs even in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic. “While the pandemic has dominated public debate,” noted ASEAN during the event, “the dangers of nuclear weapons must continue to capture our utmost attention.” Highlighting “great power” rivalry, modernisation of nuclear arsenals, and tensions on the Korean peninsula as particularly disturbing, ASEAN argued that the continued existence of nuclear weapons “may increase the sense of security of a few but is truly harmful to the collective security of us all.”

As the PSIDS argued, the more than 2000 nuclear tests conducted globally have impacted the lives of millions of people around the world, including in relation to economic development, environmental sustainability, and human rights. Communities remain displaced and continue to face restricted access to marine resources; intergenerational health impacts continue to be felt with intensity; radioactive waste is now exposed to rising sea levels; and contamination will impede progress to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), said the group.

This is why a collective approach to security is so imperative. The PSIDS highlighted its vision for a Blue Pacific as an ocean of peace. This goal is even more important to the planet as it fights the impacts of climate change, noted PSIDS, impacts which the legacies of nuclear testing compound. Nuclear justice, through recognition of harms, reparations to affected communities, and investments in environmental sustainability and climate change mitigation, is an important aspect of achieving collective security and building a safer world for all.