What follows is an unavoidably long report on what happened in Oslo last week. I hope you’ll make time to read the whole thing, but here are the headlines:
1) The government conference and the ICAN Civil Society Forum were both successful beyond our expectations. The humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons are now at the center of the abolition debate not only for civil society but also for a large and growing number of States.
2) IPPNW and ICAN played a major part in the success of both conferences, and we can be proud of what we accomplished.
3) Oslo was only the beginning. Mexico is next, and there’s a lot of new work to do, starting now.
So here are the details:
Last week, ICAN and IPPNW participated in two extraordinarily successful conferences in Oslo on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. That, in fact, was the title of the two-day intergovernmental conference hosted by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was attended by 127 States, several UN agencies, the Red Cross Red Crescent movement, and a 50-person civil society delegation coordinated by ICAN. An ICAN-organized Civil Society Forum took place on the two days before the government conference, and drew 500 participants from 70 States, including about 40 of us from IPPNW.
This was the first time that States had come together — inside or outside the UN — to focus entirely on the nature and consequences of nuclear weapons, and to consider them as an existential threat requiring collective action. While Norway carefully arranged the conference as a scientific meeting and did not want to raise expectations too quickly that the conference might lead to a process to ban and eliminate nuclear weapons, the State delegations lost little time in calling for just that as the only responsible course of action. We had hoped that this conference would redirect the discourse about nuclear weapons toward their catastrophic and unacceptable consequences, and away from the disingenuous arguments offered by the nuclear-weapon states. That hope was more than fulfilled. The one concrete outcome that we wanted from the conference — and that was only in a little doubt until near the end — was an offer from Mexico to host a followup conference as soon as possible — perhaps within this calendar year, or early in 2014. This offer came at the end of meeting, with a declaration that the momentum achieved in Oslo had to continue and that the humanitarian perspective on nuclear weapons required action from States, particularly the non-nuclear-weapon states.
You have all heard that the P5 boycotted the conference. This was a deliberate decision that the US, the UK, and France took in consultation with each other, while Russia and China were happy to go along. India and Pakistan sent representatives to Oslo. Israel, of course, did not. This was inexcusable behavior on the part of the P5, but if the intent was to marginalize the conference and diminish its significance, the result was exactly the opposite. Foreign Minister Eide told the press before the conference began that the reasons given by the P5 for their absence (basically, that the conference was a “distraction” from their important step-by-step disarmament initiatives inside the NPT) were “not convincing.” With some strategic counsel from ICAN, most States at the conference easily came to understand that they would be in a stronger position to discuss the real issues and to set an agenda that could lead to meaningful progress without the predictable “distractions” from the P5. And that’s exactly what happened!
The program of the conference, including the plenary presentations, many of the government statements and interventions, the Chair’s summary, and streaming video of all the sessions on both days, can be found on the conference website. Many of the same materials, and an excellent report on the conference
, are at Reaching Critical Will
I won’t try to summarize all of that separately here, but I do want to highlight a few things of special interest to IPPNW:
- The content of this conference, from beginning to end, echoed and amplified IPPNW’s core message for the past 30 years — that the consequences of nuclear weapons use and nuclear war would be unimaginably catastrophic; that not only do we lack the capacity to mount a medical and humanitarian response to the victims of nuclear detonations, but that any attempt to prepare such a response capacity is infeasible; and that the only appropriate and responsible course of action is prevention.
- While some concerns had been expressed in the run-up to the conference that there would be an equivocal (or even damaging) message about preparedness planning in the event that a nuclear weapon were used against a city, those concerns turned out to be unwarranted. There were a couple of presentations by UN disaster-response agencies unfamiliar with the extreme challenges presented by nuclear weapons use, during which they suggested that the systems in place for responding to major natural and industrial disasters are a good basis for planning a coordinated response to a nuclear attack. That poorly informed notion was quickly refuted by the ICRC, by several States during their interventions, and by Foreign Minister Eide in his factual summary.
- IPPNW was very well represented from the podium. Sir Andy Haines, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a veteran of our UK affiliate, Medact, gave a textbook IPPNW bombing run, in which he described the medical and environmental catastrophe that would follow the detonation of a nuclear weapon. Masao Tomonaga, the director of the Japanese Red Cross Hospital in Nagasaki and IPPNW’s regional vice president for North Asia, described his experience as a Nagasaki survivor and explained the acute and long-term effects of radiation exposure. What we heard repeatedly from many participants, however, was that the most compelling presentation of the conference was made by IPPNW co-president Ira Helfand. Speaking as a representative of ICAN, Ira gave one of his most powerful presentations to date on nuclear famine and the long term medical, environmental, and humanitarian catastrophe that would result from nuclear war. There’s a short clip on our YouTube channel that I was able to capture on my little point-and-shoot camera, but I urge you to watch the whole thing on the streaming video from day one, at the MFA link above.
The ICAN Civil Society Forum on March 2-3 set out to explicitly link the humanitarian perspective with campaign
objectives. The first day was devoted to scientific presentations and personal narratives, with well crafted talks by Patricia Lewis, Andy Haines, Ira Helfand, and Rutgers climate scientist Alan Robock. I had never seen Ira and Alan work as a team before in making the nuclear famine/nuclear winter presentation, and they were simply brilliant together! For those of us who have been working on this issue since the 1980s or even longer, much of this material was very familiar. But for many of the participants — the majority of whom, by my reckoning, were under 30 — this was new information, and they soaked it up eagerly. I would have to say, in fact, that an important subtext of this Forum (and ICAN as a whole, for that matter) was the way in which a new generation of activists has taken the nuclear weapons issue to heart and has made abolition their own cause. If this really is the next (the last?) big push, the kind of youthful energy apparent in that room is exactly what we’ll all need.
It’s hard to keep this brief, given all that happened in Oslo, but I do need to say something about next steps. ICAN met for the better part of a day after the conference to discuss the outcome and to sort out some priorities for the rest of this year. We also talked about this a bit at an IPPNW meeting right after the Civil Society Forum. Here are the essential points:
- Media coverage of the conference was limited and rather sparse. Use the ICAN press statement as a basis for op-eds and letters to the editor, and continue to talk about the importance of the events in Oslo among your networks, including your social media networks.
- If your country sent a delegation to Oslo (you can get the list of countries and the names of the delegates from both the MFA and RCW websites), follow up with them. Find out what they thought about the conference, what they plan to do with the information they acquired, and how they will feed back what they learned to national decision makers.
- Just as important, urge your country to attend the next conference in Mexico and to send a well prepared delegation ready to take practical next steps. All States that attended the Oslo conference need to be in Mexico, and we want to add new ones. We’ll talk more over the coming months about how they can best prepare for this important follow-up conference. (The dates and exact location have not yet been announced. We’ll keep you informed as new information becomes available.)
- If you live in a P5 nuclear-weapon state, tell your government that its absence from Oslo was a serious mistake in judgment, and that you expect it to send a delegation to Mexico.
- The ICRC and the Red Cross Red Crescent movement played a prominent role in Oslo, and will undoubtedly do so again in Mexico. Nevertheless, only a few national RC societies took part. We can use the time between now and Mexico to build our relationship with our Red Cross Red Crescent colleagues at every level, and to help national societies promote the Oslo message as an outgrowth of the IFRC resolution.
I’m bound to have left some things out, but I’ll leave it there for now. It’s a lot to absorb, but this is going to pretty much define our nuclear abolition work for the foreseeable future.
Here are some additional links to Oslo resources and commentaries, compiled by Bea Fihn of Reaching Critical Will:
Congratulations to everyone who participated and contributed to this big milestone on our path to a nuclear-weapons-free world. Let me (or any of the other IPPNW members of the ICAN steering group, i.e., Tilman Ruff, Bob Mtonga, Andi Nidecker, or Josefin Lind) know if you have any questions about what happened in Oslo, or want more information about where we go from here.
International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War
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IPPNW Peace and Health Blog:
International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)