December 16, 2017
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From Hope to Action

By Setsuko Thurlow, WagingPeace.Org


This speech was delivered by Setsuko Thurlow in Toronto, Canada on August 6, 2016.

Setsuko Thurlow

Setsuko Thurlow at the 2015 NAPF Evening for Peace.

August 6th marked the 71st anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.  The calendar never fails to bring me the special reminder each year of the unforgettable day, August 6, 1945, that changed my life and that of the entire world.  As I attempt to ponder the meaning of my survival from that hell on Earth I remember Einstein’s words, “Splitting the atom has changed everything except our way of thinking, thus we drift towards unparalleled catastrophe”.  Try to visualize his words!  It is a chillingly frightening truth.  His words have been ringing in our ears for the past 71 years since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but with more intensity in recent years; as the world we live in is getting more dangerous with over 15,000 nuclear weapons, which are far more destructive than those that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while the majority of the world’s people continue to live in denial, blissfully ignorant and complacent of the reality.

Having lived through such an unprecedented catastrophe, we survivors, Hibakusha, became convinced of our mission to warn the world about the reality of those indiscriminate, inhumane, and cruel nuclear weapons, and their utter unacceptability.  Thus, we have been calling for the total abolition of such devices of mass murder.  We believe that as long as nuclear weapons exist there is no guarantee of security.

It was because of this awe-inducing power of the atomic bombs that some enlightened leaders of the world, foreseeing the potential annihilation of civilization, speedily established the United Nations and called for stringent control on nuclear technologies to ensure that no one would ever use them for weapons again.  The UN General Assembly’s first ever resolution tried to address “the problems raised by the discovery of atomic energy”.  The U.S. enjoyed a monopoly for testing and producing nuclear weapons until the USSR caught up in 1949, and other nuclear weapon nations followed soon after.  As the arms race intensified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty came into force in 1970 and in 1996 the International Court of Justice, the highest court of International Law, was requested to give an advisory opinion on the legality of nuclear weapons and the legal obligations of the nuclear weapon states.  Many of us here remember those days with occasional small “moral victories” we celebrated, but mostly fury and outrage for the lack of progress in the disarmament diplomacy.

In the past several years witnessing nuclear disarmament diplomacy at work in the United Nations and at international conferences has been a relatively new experience for me.  I found it to be profoundly disturbing to see the lack of tangible progress in diplomatic negotiations in spite of the 46 years since the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty came into force.  The nuclear weapon states are not genuinely committed to the treaty as demonstrated by their not having complied with their legal obligations under Article VI to work toward nuclear disarmament in good faith.  They are acting as if it is their right to keep their nuclear weapons indefinitely, and are manipulating the negotiation process to suit their perceived national interest.  This totally unacceptable nuclear status quo has been driving many exasperated non-nuclear weapon states and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) to demand a legally binding instrument to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons.

This condition was conducive to the birth of a rapidly growing global movement, the Humanitarian Initiative, involving 127 non-nuclear weapon states and over 440 non-governmental organizations in 98 countries and the United Nations and its agencies, working together to outlaw nuclear weapons.  Over several years with three successful conferences on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons hosted by the governments of Norway, Mexico and Austria, this movement refocused attention from the military doctrine of deterrence to the humanitarian dimension of nuclear weapons.  The result has been a strong push for a legally binding treaty to ban nuclear weapons.

The Humanitarian Pledge was issued by the Austrian government at the conclusion of the Vienna conference in December 2014, committing Austria to “identify and pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons”.  This pledge has now been endorsed by 127 nations although unfortunately not by Canada.  This reference to the “existing legal gap” is the reality that while chemical and biological weapons are banned, nuclear weapons, the most destructive of all weapons of mass destruction, have not yet been explicitly banned under international law.

In the many years of my work for nuclear disarmament I have never felt as hopeful and as encouraged as I do now.  To witness how the Humanitarian Initiative movement has mobilized people around the world to overcome the resistance by the nuclear weapon states and to move towards prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.  This year the United Nations established the Open Ended Working Group to “substantively address and make recommendations to the United Nations General Assembly about concrete, effective legal measures, legal provisions and norms” to attain and maintain a nuclear weapons free world.  Now, the working group is in its final, crucial phase.  A growing number of non-nuclear weapon states are expressing support for the immediate commencement of negotiations on a legally binding agreement to prohibit nuclear weapons, despite strong opposition from the nuclear weapon states and their allies.  The General Assembly will vote on this report in October.  We are on the verge of a breakthrough for a path for this most significant chance in our lifetime for nuclear disarmament.  We must seize this opportunity.

Now, let me tell you an inspiring and empowering story about the recent successful campaign that our ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, a global coalition of NGOs) colleagues in the Netherlands achieved.  Frustrated by the Dutch government policy of supporting NATO policies a citizens’ initiative by PAX, ASN Bank and the Dutch Red Cross, made great efforts collecting 45,608 Dutch citizens’ signatures for a petition supporting a ban treaty and to calling for a parliamentary debate on nuclear weapons on April 28th of this year.  The result was that a vast majority of their Parliament voted for a nuclear weapons ban, which the government was forced to accept.  The public gallery was so crowded that another room was needed for the overflow of supporters.  The news media extensively covered this huge success of citizens’ action.  The intent of the motion was that the Netherlands should now be working actively to reach out to other NATO member states to build solidarity.  I was gratified to play a small part of this campaign by speaking to the Members of Parliament via a recorded video statement.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Canadian people can follow in the footsteps of the Netherlands?

And now, where does our Canadian government stand in the fast developing international negotiations for a legally binding instrument for the prohibition of nuclear weapons?  Regrettably, Canada presents itself as a subservient defender of the nuclear weapons superstar state south of the border, and its allies with their heavy reliance on the doctrine of deterrence.

For many of us working for nuclear disarmament we rejoiced the arrival of the Trudeau government too soon because this government seemed to have inherited the same retrograde nuclear policies from the previous government.  Foreign Minister Stephane Dion’s letters to Canadian peace groups are full of retrograde ideas and leaves me chilled, and it feels as if we are on different planets.  He is rigidly maintaining the nuclear status quo and has a seeming unwillingness to consider different perspectives of disarmament initiatives.  Sadly, his opposition to the Humanitarian Initiative leaves Canada out of step with the majority of the world.  His total lack of sense of urgency about the increasing risk of nuclear weapons can be seen in this quote from one of his letters:

“Canada has consistently promoted the notion that complete nuclear disarmament can only occur in an environment that guarantees security for all states.”

Is he waiting for an ideal, perfect time to initiate disarmament?  Has there ever been any time as that in human history?  Will there be in the future?

We must wake up the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister and the entire Parliament as our colleagues in the Netherlands have succeeded in doing.  Otherwise, like Einstein says, this beautiful country of Canada, together with the rest of the world, will drift toward “unparalleled catastrophe”.

The Open Ended Working Group is winding up, with the final report being issued in Geneva this month.  The momentum is growing.  Let’s join the historic initiative for nuclear disarmament.  Let’s seize this opportunity.  This action of hope will be the best way to honour those annihilated in Hiroshima and Nagasaki 71 years ago.


- Originally appeared at Wagingpeace.org