Can the UN Help the Nuclear Victims, At Last?

Can the UN Help the Nuclear Victims, At Last?

Can the UN Help the Nuclear Victims, At Last?

A new resolution in the General Assembly aims to address the devastating legacy of testing and use.

The very first resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, titled “Establishment of a Commission to Deal with the Problems Raised by the Discovery of Atomic Energy,” was adopted in January of 1946, less than three months after the founding of the United Nations (UN). Recognizing the devastating humanitarian consequences of the United States atomic bombings on Japan half a year earlier, the resolution called for “the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction.” The states that had just come together in a new international forum were clear about the need to prevent the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki from ever happening again.

More than 77 years later, a new resolution aims to address the destruction and harm that nuclear weapons have caused in the intervening decades.

Nuclear Abolition: A Long-Sought Goal

In 1946, the United States was the only country with a nuclear weapons program capable of actually making atomic bombs. The previous year, the US built three weapons—and only three weapons—and used the first in a nuclear test called Trinity in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, recently depicted in graphic terms in the year’s blockbuster Oppenheimer, and then two more in Japan on August 6 and 9. Not only did the US not cease its nuclear program in 1946 in response to the first UN resolution, we would go on to build an arsenal containing over 32 thousand warheads (at its peak in 1967), to develop weapons thousands of times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb (called hydrogen bombs), and to test not just at home but also near those whose protection we were entrusted with, such as the people of the Marshall Islands.

Nor did the first resolution prevent other countries from establishing their own nuclear weapons programs, with the Soviet Union reaching the status of a nuclear weapon possessor in 1949 and the United Kingdom, France, and China, all joining the nuclear club by 1964. Today, nine countries possess nuclear weapons, including Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Although far fewer than the peak numbers in the mid-1980s, when there were more than 60 thousand warheads in the world, today there are still more than 12 thousand, enough to destroy human civilization and potentially even all of life, as a result of nuclear winter.

And yet, the symbolic importance of the first resolution cannot be overstated. Through the decades, it continued to inspire hundreds of resolutions, calling for nuclear disarmament and for a world free of nuclear weapons. As time passed, internationally binding treaties became a part of the picture, including the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which entered into force in 1970 and is currently one of the largest agreements amongst states, and more recently, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which entered into force in 2021, with elimination goals perfectly aligned with those of the very first resolution. While one can certainly conclude that success has eluded us, given the existential threat that nuclear weapons still pose today, the bleak picture may have been far worse had the international community not been as serious about this threat from the very beginning of the nuclear age. We might not have been here to tell the tale.

The Devastating Legacy of Nuclear Testing

That we have avoided a repeat of Hiroshima or Nagasaki is of course good news, but what we have not done is avoided having victims of nuclear weapons. Rather than from direct attacks, the nuclear development and testing programs of all of the nuclear possessors have created millions of victims around the world. This includes the people who suffered radiation exposure from working in or living near uranium mines or nuclear weapon laboratories and the so-called atomic veterans, who were involved in nuclear testing and cleanup programs as part of their military duties. The largest affected groups, however, were and still are the people living downwind from nuclear tests, who, in addition to radiation exposure, in some cases were also forced to relocate, losing their homes. These communities are found around the globe.

Nuclear testing took place on all of the continents except for Central and South America and Antarctica. In North America, the United States and the United Kingdom tested in the American Southwest and Alaska, with Indigenous peoples often downwind, as happened with the Trinity test. In Europe, the Soviets tested in parts of what are Russia and Ukraine today. In Africa, the French tested in Algeria, while in Asia, a massive Soviet nuclear testing site was set up in Kazakhstan and the Chinese tested their weapons in the Xinjiang region. Australia was home to the UK nuclear testing program, but the lion’s share of testing arguably took place in the midst of the Pacific, including the US testing in the Marshall Islands, both the UK and the US testing in the Republic of Kiribati, and the French testing in Maohi Nui or French Polynesia. All in all, over 2,000 nuclear tests were conducted, the vast majority by the United States (1,032) and Soviet Union (715), with France in third place, with 210 tests.

From place to place, the number, type, and yield of the explosions, the length of the programs, and the local contexts all differed, but the heart-wrenching stories of survivors were and remain eerily similar. People fell victim to multitudes of physical health impacts, including numerous cancers, negative maternal health impacts, including miscarriages and birth defects, and mental health effects, sometimes leading to suicide, while simultaneously experiencing loss of land, culture, and sustainable practices. The impacts have been far-reaching and multigenerational.

In the Marshall Islands, the US tested 67 nuclear weapons whose combined energy yield was equivalent to 7,000 Hiroshima bombs (or 55 percent of the total energy yield of all US nuclear tests). Recent research from Columbia University (that one of us, Ivana, was involved in; see for example here and here) suggests that radiation levels remain too high in some locations 65 years after the testing ended, preventing populations that were relocated to make room for the testing, as early as in 1946, from returning home. In 2022, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution to address the Marshall Islands’ nuclear legacy.

In Kazakhstan’s Semipalatinsk test site, 456 tests were conducted, exposing an estimated 1.5 million people to high levels of radiation, leading to an array of birth defects, cancers, and other ailments that still impact the population to this day. In a historic move, the Kazakhstan government shut down the testing site on August 29, 1991, while the nation was still a part of the Soviet Union, and exactly 42 years after the first nuclear test took place there. As an independent country, Kazakhstan would go on to voluntarily give up over a thousand nuclear warheads it had inherited from the Soviet Union.

In the Republic of Kiribati, the UK and the US conducted 33 nuclear tests, most of them just several miles from the coast of Kiritimati Island, where people were living at the time and still live to this day. The testing ended in 1962, the year before the Partial Test Ban Treaty went into effect, a triumph of cooperation between President Kennedy and Chairman Khrushchev. Despite widespread health impacts, neither the UK nor the US have made any radiological measurements or studies available to the people of Kiribati. Kiribati gained independence from the British in 1979 and has been left to deal with this legacy on their own.

In Algeria, the French first established a nuclear weapons program while Algeria was still a French colony. The testing continued into the country’s early years of independence, ending with the French eventually burying radioactive equipment in the Sahara sand. They would go on to test on the other side of the world—in French Polynesia, where recent research from Princeton University suggests the radiation exposure was far higher than what France had previously estimated.

And the stories go on and on and on.

The New Resolution

Two of these affected states—Kazakhstan and Kiribati—have been leading recent efforts to address the devastating legacy of nuclear testing comprehensively, fairly, and with support of the international community.

One such effort has been through the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which not only aims to eliminate all nuclear weapons from the world but also provides humanitarian provisions for those who have suffered due to nuclear weapons use and testing. Articles 6 and 7 of the treaty specifically address the need for victim assistance, environmental remediation, and international cooperation, and Kazakhstan and Kiribati are cochairing the working group on these humanitarian provisions. There are currently 97 states that have either signed or ratified the treaty, and soon more than half of all states at the UN will have done so. Not yet among them are the nine nuclear weapons states. Other ways of making the nuclear weapons possessors confront the devastating legacy of nuclear weapons are needed before they all join the treaty.

Kazakhstan and Kiribati have now put forward a resolution for the UN General Assembly to address these long-standing injustices and give all states the opportunity to express their views. The resolution, entitled “Addressing the Legacy of Nuclear Weapons: Providing Victim Assistance and Environmental Remediation to Member States Affected by the Use or Testing of Nuclear Weapons” emphasizes the commonly shared goal of a world free of nuclear weapons and calls for greater cooperation amongst states on addressing the humanitarian consequences of past nuclear explosions. The two goals are inextricably linked. The harm and suffering tell us why nuclear weapons must be abolished. Getting rid of the weapons is the only way to ensure that similar or far worse catastrophes will never happen.

The resolution is being discussed in First Committee, just as the first UN Resolution on atomic energy control was. This committee deals broadly with disarmament and matters of global security and will vote on a number of resolutions by the end of this month. By supporting this resolution, all states, most particularly those who inflicted harm on peoples around the world through the use and testing of nuclear weapons, can finally begin the hard and long but also necessary process of addressing this devastating history. It would be a step in the right direction not just for those affected but also for international cooperation. Our troubled world needs more cooperation, not less.

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