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It's Time To Ban Nuclear Weapons For Good

This has been unfinished business for far too long.

26/06/2017 9:38 AM AEST | Updated 26/06/2017 11:19 AM AEST

First the ground started shaking, and then a black mist rolled into the camp from the south. Then came skin rashes, vomiting, diarrhea and blindness. People so weak they couldn't make it down to the waterhole and they died of thirst.

Yami Lester was 10-years-old when he saw this black mist roll in from the desert and engulf his family's camp in the Yankunytjatjara homelands near Marla in South Australia. As men, women and children in his community fell ill, Yami himself became sick and started to lose his eyesight. The black mist that Yami saw in 1956 was the fallout from British nuclear tests at Maralinga and Emu Field in South Australia. The effects of these tests are still being felt today.

Yami's community is not the only one to suffer the effects of nuclear weapons. Yami's daughter, Karina Lester, has been at the United Nations (UN) in New York for historic negotiations to develop a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. She read, to the conference, a statement by 30 Indigenous organisations from the Pacific, North America, Europe and Australia about the harm suffered by Indigenous peoples from nuclear weapons tests. Survivors from the Marshall Islands and French Polynesia are also sharing their experiences with the assembly.

This final round of UN negotiations for a treaty to ban nuclear weapons is history in the making. Since the shocking 1945 nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we have known that whole cities can be violently destroyed by these weapons. Numerous times since then, it has been sheer luck or the courage of just one person that has stopped nuclear weapons being used. But, the risk of nuclear war still exists between NATO and Russia, India and Pakistan and in the Korean peninsula.

We know that the only way to prevent the unimaginable human suffering and environmental catastrophe caused by nuclear weapons is their elimination and tight international controls on the fissile materials that can be used to make them.

While nuclear weapons exist, so does the utterly unacceptable danger of their use. The world has made substantial progress in reducing the risks posed by other types of weapons that have inhumane and indiscriminate effects. Treaties are in force that prohibit and provide for the elimination of biological and chemical weapons, antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions.

These weapons are being progressively eliminated, and the relevant treaties have changed the game, even for those states that have not joined them. In each case, the first step has been stigmatising the weapons as unacceptable for anyone to possess and codifying this in law. As former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, "There are no right hands for the wrong weapons."

Yet the glaring anomaly remains that nuclear weapons, by far the most destructive, inhumane and indiscriminate of all, remain the only weapon of mass destruction not comprehensively banned under international law. This has been unfinished business for far too long.

The very first resolution of the United Nations General Assembly in January 1946 was to establish a commission to draw up a plan "for the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons". But progress since then has been far too slow, until now.

The negotiations now underway in New York were mandated in December 2016 by the UN General Assembly by a majority of over three to one. The conference was charged with negotiating "a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination". Alarmingly, none of the states possessing nuclear weapons or those that claim dependence on U.S. nuclear weapons -- the 28 members of NATO, Australia, Japan and South Korea -- are participating constructively in the negotiations.

A nuclear ban treaty will delegitimise these weapons and the policies that threaten their use, including nuclear deterrence, and will affect even states that don't sign the treaty. Disappointingly, Australia has been one of the most active states in opposing such a treaty, claiming that nuclear weapons should only be prohibited once they've been eliminated, and refusing to say that they should never be used again under any circumstances.

The current negotiations are the first UN nuclear disarmament negotiations in over 20 years. Sadly, this is the first time that Australia has ever boycotted multilateral disarmament negotiations. It is commendable that Australia is a signatory to the Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions, the treaties banning landmines and cluster munitions, and the Arms Trade Treaty. On some of these, Australia has been a leader.

Our Government must move to the right side of history regarding nuclear weapons, the only weapons that pose an existential threat to all humankind. We know that the only way to prevent the unimaginable human suffering and environmental catastrophe caused by nuclear weapons is their elimination and tight international controls on the fissile materials that can be used to make them.

Our organisations have worked to regulate the trade in conventional arms, to prohibit and eliminate landmines and cluster munitions. We call on every government, including the Australian Government, to seize this historic opportunity to ban nuclear weapons.

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