The Russia-Ukraine War. Uranium Mining. Nuclear Testing. Climate Justice.
Some of these are familiar news headlines, others not so much.
But all are linked.
From March 9th-10th 2023, The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN – of which Scottish CND is a partner organisation) hosted the Act on It Forum in Oslo. At this gathering, nuclear disarmament activists, advocates, researchers, and politicians gathered to address the nuclear threat currently looming over our planet.
The first day began in hygge Norwegian style. As campaigners congregated in the peaceful candle-lit hall of Sentralen, live classical music set a relaxed tone for the forum. (At least as relaxed as discussing the potential end of the world can be.)
The first session covered “The Nuclear Taboo” by which there is international stigmatization of nuclear weapon use. With the adoption of The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) in 2017, the nuclear taboo meant nuclear weapon use went beyond taboo.
It made every aspect of nuclear weapons activity illegal.
That is, at least in the countries that signed and ratified the treaty. As such, encouraging countries to do so is a central tenet of ICAN’s mission.
Thus far, they’ve been successful. At time of writing, 68 countries have ratified the treaty. This means that manufacturing, possessing, or storing nuclear weapons is prohibited by their national legal systems.
Some countries, while not possessing nuclear weapons of their own, allow their country to be used as a storage ground and potential launch pad for weapons of mass destruction.
As explained in another session, this is known as “nuclear sharing” and affects many European countries, including Italy, Belgium, and the Netherlands.
According to Article 4 of the Treaty,
“…each State Party that owns, possesses or controls nuclear weapons or other
nuclear explosive devices shall immediately remove them from operational
status, and destroy them as soon as possible but not later than a deadline to
be determined by the first meeting of States Parties… including the elimination
or irreversible conversion of all nuclear-weapons-related facilities.”
At present, Scotland is the only place that the UK’s nuclear weapons can be stored from a geographical and logistical standpoint. This would mean that, if Scotland were to sign the Treaty in the case of Scottish independence, the Trident nuclear programme would have no place to go.
At the heart of the treaty, however, is the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. While other nuclear treaties have been devoid of this component, shrouded with words like “security” and “deterrence”, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear gives a different perspective. The experiences of the Hibakusha* and nuclear testing victims are acknowledged, and clear timelines are set for disarmament.
In short, it’s about keeping people safe, not maintaining power through force.
At the Nuclear Testing panel, Dr Mary Olson, Alimzhan Akhmetov and Saima Akhtar discussed how Article 6 and 7 of the TPNW address the harms caused by nuclear weapons to people and the environment. These include:
· disproportionately high cancer rates among women and children exposed to radiation
· the exploitative use of the lands of indigenous peoples by colonialist powers
· destruction of wildlife habitats
In the evening, we were honoured with an invitation to the City Hall by the Mayor of Oslo Marianne Borgen.
It was here in 2017 that ICAN was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
Ice swimming in the Oslo Fjord hailed in the second day of the forum. After thawing off in the sauna, we were ready to get going again. It was time to discuss a serious point of tension – the Russia-Ukraine War.
Is it true that if Ukraine hadn’t “given up” its nuclear weapons, Russia would never have invaded?
According to Yelyzaveta Khodorovska, a Ukrainian student at Odessa University, “Keeping the nuclear weapons was never under discussion. Ukraine made the political choice not to isolate itself but to depart from an authoritarian state system to become a European player.”
The truth is, while Ukraine had a nuclear arsenal stationed on its soil, it was a Soviet arsenal, not a Ukrainian one. It’s dubious as to whether Ukraine had the power to take control of these nuclear weapons practically or politically. Instead, Ukraine joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear state.
Underlying the risk of a nuclear weapon being used in a war context comes a twin threat: climate change.
Nyukliya Eureka, a diaspora of African Youth advocating for nuclear disarmament, did a deep dive into the links between nuclear weapons and climate change. Here’s a summary:
1. Uranium mining releases radioactive dust into the environment, leaves toxic and radioactive “tailings”, contaminates water supplies and damages the health of living beings.
2. From the 1950s-70s the testing of nuclear weapons vaporised wildlife and natural habitats, sending radioactivity round the globe. In some places the environment will take thousands of years to recover, if ever.
3. Nuclear industries have a record of secrecy about accidents, failure to clean up, unsafe disposal of waste, radioactive leaks and contamination of surrounding areas. Climate change adds to the difficulties. If sea levels continue to rise, they will engulf facilities near the sea and spread their harm.
As grim as this sounds, there is hope.
If we act on it now, collaborating across the climate justice and peace movements, we can prevent this from going further than it already has.
By signing to Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, countries around the globe are, as pointed out by Hiroshima survivor Setsuko Thurlow, contributing to “the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons.”
*Survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings of 1945.