JEREMY CORBYN reports from the Human Effects of Nuclear Weapons Conference in Vienna, where Britain and the US have been refusing to play ball
THERE was a fascinating moment during the Human Effects of Nuclear Weapons Conference in Vienna on Tuesday.
The British delegation’s surprising but nevertheless welcome attendance was called upon to make a government statement.
Essentially the British position was support for a nuclear-free world, pointing out Britain’s continuing support for the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and its reduction in the number of nuclear warheads it holds.
In response to the many demands for a nuclear weapons convention and a global treaty to ban all nuclear weapons, the British government’s position is that a timetabled mechanism to make weapons illegal would risk instability and a loss of trust.
This unsurprising statement was received in stony silence by a very large conference.
The South African representative proudly announced that South Africa was the first and only state ever to develop nuclear weapons, then voluntarily decommission them and declare itself a non-nuclear country, as well as then joining the NPT process as such.
He went on to say how Africa had thus become a nuclear weapons-free continent, expressing his belief that possession of nuclear weapons created instability around the world.
In conclusion he described the possession of weapons by the five permanent members of the security council plus four other states to be a form of nuclear apartheid.
South Africa’s moral and principled position received loud and sustained applause, not just from civil society organisations but also from many states which were represented at the conference.
At the end of Monday’s presentations by esteemed nuclear scientists and medical experts led by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the chair asked for questions only from state delegations.
The US delegation was called first and calmly told the assembled gathering that they weren’t going to ask any questions but that they would make a statement.
The ambassador said the US recognised the environmental effects of nuclear explosions, supported a comprehensive test ban treaty and drew attention to President Barack Obama’s relevant speeches in Prague and elsewhere.
To growing scepticism the ambassador went on to say that the US was driven by a real enthusiasm to achieve a nuclear-free world but could not support a convention or treaty with a fixed timeline for the achievement of the nuclear-free world it claims to want.
The conference was preceded by an excellent weekend gathering of 500 supporters of the International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons, held at one of the historic university buildings in central Vienna.
It was impressive in its attendance, but perhaps even more impressive was the youth and enthusiasm of people from all over the world who were campaigning for a global nuclear weapons treaty.
The Austrian government, which organised the conference, had gone to great pains to ensure that the state representatives were appropriately seated in proper conference format in one of the grand halls of the Hofburg Palace. Behind them was a big media attendance and the rest of the hall was taken up with a huge contingent of peace campaign and civil society organisations from all over the world.
We were welcomed to the palace by a large group of Red Cross rescue workers dressed as if they were trying to rescue people from a nuclear explosion, and they remained and took part in the conference for the next two days.
The ICRC information paper included many photos of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and outlined the effects and casualties of the heat and blast waves.
The heat casualties alone were documented as:
“The earth below the epicentre of the blast would be heated to a temperature of approximately 7,000°C, which would vaporise all living things in that area.
“Tens of thousands of those people who will not have been vaporised would be burnt, with most people suffering horrific full thickness skin burns. Severe burns could occur up to 3km from the blast.
“In addition, many people looking in the direction of the explosion would suffer temporary flash blindness for up to 40 minutes or even permanent eye damage, including retinal burns and scarring affecting the visual field, from looking at the fireball with the naked eye.”
A cold analysis of the levels of death and destruction from a nuclear explosion is truly frightening.
A number of very well-presented papers pointed out that even a limited nuclear war would result in enormous climate change, as darkened skies would lead to a rapid cooling of the Earth’s temperature, damaging agriculture and fish stocks.
“The radiation levels would last for years and lead to huge refugee movements and civil unrest all over the planet. However, there have been 2,000 nuclear explosions over the past 70 years as part of weapons testing programmes, both underground and atmospheric, and the consequences are being felt daily by those who experience them. Significant levels of radiation-induced cancers, ground pollution and crop problems still continue to this day.”
The colonial mentality surrounding the tests needs to be borne in mind.
Britain, for example, undertook its first nuclear test in Australia commencing on the Montebello Islands, as well as the mainland.
The Australian government recognised the damage to the population and the British and Commonwealth servicemen and women who witnessed the tests have either died or are suffering the consequences of it.
For the people of the Pacific the suffering goes on and on.
Nuclear test victims come from all over the world. There was a superb presentation from a Nevada woman called Michelle Thomas in her wheelchair, explaining what it was like growing up with more and more children being born deformed, and the continuing deaths through cancers as a result of the US testing in that state.
There were also witnesses from Russia, who discussed the long-lasting effects in the area surrounding the Soviet Union’s main testing site at Semipalatinsk on the Myakka river where 450 nuclear explosions took place.
Over 500,000 people were affected by fallout from those tests.
The victims include those who mined and transported uranium and those who suffer the consequences of insecure storage of nuclear waste from processing to create plutonium.
The Hidankyo Movement has become an international organisation of atomic bomb nuclear survivors.
They were among many others who persuaded first the Norwegians and then Mexican governments to host earlier human effects of nuclear weapons conference.
The Marshall Islands, virtually destroyed by US testing, have now taken their case against the declared nuclear weapons states to the international authorities.
They are quite rightly claiming that the Non-Proliferation Treaty requires existing nuclear states to take steps towards disarmament. Britain is in the frame for prosecution by the Marshall Islands.
In February the permanent five of the UN security council will meet in London to plot their strategy for the NPT Review Conference to be held in New York in May.
At Tuesday’s parliamentary roundtable organised by the Parliamentary Network for Nuclear Disarmament we discussed the need for concerted parliamentary action around the world to achieve a WMD-free Middle East, as well as supporting a convention to bring about a worldwide ban on nuclear weapons.
We could make a good start here by refusing to replace the Trident nuclear missile system and fulfil our obligations, freely entered into, in order to take steps towards nuclear disarmament.
These weapons killed countless numbers at the end of the second world war, but there’s also the whole ghastly legacy of testing, pollution and destruction that the weapons industry has bequeathed to the world.