The Courage to Ban Nuclear Weapons

Judith McDonald is an active member of Medact and has been so for many years. She recently attended the civil society forum that preceded the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons. Below are her reflections.

The feeling of anticipation, expectation and hope was palpable. Six hundred people, mainly young, from around 70 countries representing 100 organisations, including Medact, were gathered in the Hall of Sciences in the Centre of Vienna. This was the third such conference organised by ICAN ( to raise awareness of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and to move towards their elimination. It preceded the Governmental Conference, hosted by the Austrian Government, on 8th – 9th December.

A welcome was given by Beatrice Finn, ICAN Executive Director, and Nadja Schmidt of ICAN Austria who informed us that the Austrian ICAN group had begun in 2012 with just three students who undertook a letter writing campaign – and yet here they were today organising a conference! Heinz Fischer, Austrian Federal President, sent words of encouragement to the opening ceremony by video message, urging civil society to have the courage to engage, the courage to be active and the courage to speak out.

This was followed by a very moving account by 82 year old Setsuko Thurlow of her experiences following the bombing of Hiroshima when she was a 13 year old Grade A student who had been deployed by the military to decode messages. She was about 1.8 Kilometres from the epicentre and was fortunate to be pulled out from the rubble of the building she was in. She went on to describe the horror of what she witnessed and endured and how it haunts her to this day.

We were reminded of the humanitarian, environmental, and economic effects of nuclear weapons by Werner Kerschbaum of the Austrian Red Cross, Paul Walker of Green Cross International, Ira Helfand of IPPNW, and Greg Mello of Los Alamos Study Group. This was followed by a panel of representatives of different faiths including a message by video from General Lee Butler, Rtd., previously Supreme Commander of US Nuclear Forces and Nuclear Adviser to the President, but now an ardent campaigner for disarmament through the Second Chance Foundation – reminding us that we won’t get a third chance! He described how he came to see the elimination of nuclear weapons as a moral obligation and the ‘ultimate measure of our worth as a species, as human beings’. Another powerful contribution to this part of the proceedings was from Judge Christopher Weeramantray from Sri Lanka, who had presided over the ruling on the legality of the use or threatened use of nuclear weapons at the International Court of Justice at The Hague in 1996.

Another highlight of the first day of the Conference was a presentation by Tony de Brum, Foreign Minister of the Marshall Islands. He spoke about the lawsuit his small country of just 70,000 people has filed through the International Court of Justice against the nine nuclear states. The law suit asserts that the nine countries have failed to comply with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. At the end of his talk he was presented with a petition of support from Japan, with 5 million signatures, as an act of solidarity.

An emotional day was ended with a keynote speech by Eric Schlosser, an investigative journalist from the USA and author of ‘Command and Control’. He spoke of the two greatest threats of our time: climate change and nuclear weapons. He highlighted that nuclear weapons are man-made machines; that every man-made machine ever made fails or goes wrong at some point; and that nuclear weapons are the most dangerous machines ever invented. But more than that, they are controlled by human beings all of whom are flawed. His book outlines a litany of ‘close calls’ some of which he described to us.

There were several other discussion groups and events held over lunchtime on both days. We had the opportunity to meet with the Director and the Producer of a new film which has been released entitled ‘The Man who Saved the World’ which will be shown on the first evening of the Governmental Conference. Another lunchtime event I attended was a talk by the organisers of the Don’t Bank on the Bomb divestment campaign whereby one way of raising awareness is to challenge our financial institutions.

The second day of the Conference focussed more on action to be taken and by whom. Early on in the day words of encouragement were relayed by video from Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, who described the movement to work for a ban on nuclear weapons as a ‘just and moral’ cause. He encouraged us to pursue this for the sake of humanity and in honour of the late Nelson Mandela.

We heard from Parliamentarians about what they are already doing and also about how we could work together. The strong message was that they need civil society to keep up the pressure.

In her closing speech, Nosizwe Baqwa of ICAN Norway reminded us that “We are the ones that we have been waiting for”.

Reports of the Governmental Conference are available from ICAN and IPPNW.

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