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Politics Clouds Efforts to Ban Nuclear Testing

Elizabeth Whitman

UNITED NATIONS, Sep 5 2011 (IPS) - On Aug. 29, 1949, the Soviet Union conducted the first of 456 nuclear tests in Semipalatinsk in Eastern Kazakhstan, at the site where it ultimately held over two-thirds of all Soviet nuclear tests without warning inhabitants of the region of the impact of exposure to these tests.

On Aug. 29, 1991 the site closed, yet the devastating health and environmental effects continue to plague the region to this day.

With last week marking the 20th anniversary closure of the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site and the second International Day Against Nuclear Tests, world leaders and U.N. officials gathered to discuss the issue of nuclear testing.

They convened in a high level workshop on Thursday and an informal meeting of the General Assembly on Friday.

In the wide array of views and concepts presented in these gatherings, however, consensus seemed clear on only one point: the fact that efforts to ban nuclear testing and indeed, to entirely eliminate nuclear weapons around the world, are clouded with political overtones and motives.

Meanwhile, states with nuclear weapons continue to depend upon those capabilities for strength and influence in areas of international security and relations, and politics overshadow the fact that nuclear testing poses serious hazards to human and environmental health and nuclear weapons have the ability to destroy the planet.


In Semipalatinsk, for instance, the death rate is extremely high and the rate of cancerous diseases there is at critical levels. Serious birth defects are common, with incidences of mental retardation three to five times higher than average, and the average life expectancy is less than 50 years.

“No one can say what will be the results after one, or two, or three generations” of living in a region contaminated by four decades of nuclear testing, Ermek Kosherbayev, deputy governor of East Kazakhstan, which contains the Semipalatinsk region, told IPS.

The government there continues efforts to assist people with their traditional livelihood of agriculture, yet doing so is not only difficult but also dangerous when the very dirt and water can be tainted by radiation.

Perhaps because its people understand firsthand the horrors of living with the effects of nuclear testing, Kazakhstan has fully supported efforts to ban nuclear testing and nuclear weaponry, and has given up its nuclear arsenal.

The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) went into effect in 1970, during the middle of the Cold War, when concepts of security were driven by the idea of nuclear deterrence – that if a state possessed nuclear weapons, it would not be attacked.

Today, 189 states are party to the treaty, with five of them possessing nuclear weapons. Those countries are China, France, Russia, Britain and the United States. Three states – India, Israel and Pakistan – are not party to the treaty, although India and Pakistan have declared that they possess nuclear weapons and Israel has undeclared but widely acknowledged nuclear capabilities. North Korea withdrew from the treaty in 2003.

A Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was approved in 1996 but is not in force, and this week, officials stressed the importance of implementing the CTBT and its obligations.

Joseph Deiss, president of the 65th General Assembly, stated Friday, “The current international moratorium on nuclear tests, respected by almost all states, is not a substitute for the full implementation” of the CTBT.

In a high-level workshop on Thursday, participants noted that implementation of the CTBT was a long overdue and crucial step towards global nuclear disarmament, especially since most countries have agreed that nuclear testing is no longer useful. Rather, suggested Annika Thunborg, representative of the executive secretary of the Preparatory Commission for the CTBT, keeping open the option of nuclear testing is a status symbol for countries.

Committing to nuclear disarmament, or to a ban on nuclear testing, often ends up being more about power than about nuclear weapons themselves, participants of the workshop noted. Several of those who commented suggested that weapons played perhaps a symbolic role, and that those who did not want to see progress in non-proliferation could block progress.

Another issue in non-proliferation and test ban talks was the preoccupation with which states possessed nuclear weapons and whether they were categorised as good or bad states, rather than the acknowledgement that nuclear weapons are inherently dangerous, no matter who possesses them.

In addition, “the concept of deterrence does not work”, said Libran Cabctulan, chair of the 2010 NPT Review Conference in Thursday’s workshop, citing the fact that in the future, nuclear weapons users are more likely to be non-state actors rather than states. “Non-state actors have no return address,” he added.

All in all, the fact that numerous preconditions and political concerns detracted from concrete progress and productive discussion was made quite clear.

At the informal GA meeting on Friday, Eshagh Al Habib, Iranian ambassador to the U.N., urged Israel, without naming the country, “to place promptly all its nuclear facilities under the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) full-scope safeguards.” Yet Iran itself has come under fire for not cooperating with IAEA inspectors.

The IAEA is an international body responsible for ensuring that nuclear capabilities are used for peaceful purposes.

At the same meeting on Friday, Enkhetsetseg Ochir, Mongolian ambassador to the U.N., posed the question, “Are military and political considerations more important than the health and well- being of people?” They are not, she said emphatically.

For now, however, in efforts to end nuclear testing, those considerations do take priority. Whether that agenda will change remains to be seen.

 
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