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Nuclear Ban Daily, Vol. 2, No. 2

Editorial: Lived experience and the nuclear ban
16 June 2017


Ray Acheson

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Indigenous and women’s rights took centre stage on the opening day of the nuclear weapon ban treaty conference on Thursday. Sound familiar? No? That’s probably because you’re used to all those other multilateral nuclear weapon meetings where a lot of white men talk about how nuclear weapons afford “security” and “stability”—as if security and stability have nothing to do with the lived experience of human beings who have suffered from the production, testing, and use of nuclear weapons for generations. The nuclear ban, as a process and a treaty, is changing that.

First of all, the treaty itself is grounded in lived experience. The three conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons hosted by Norway, Mexico, and Austria from 2013–2014, from which this treaty is derived, focused on the ways that nuclear weapons destroy bodies and devastate the environment.

Second of all, indigenous experiences and gender perspectives have been woven into the discourse of this treaty-making process from its origins. Survivors from nuclear testing and minor trials in Australia and the Pacific Islands have been actively present at every meeting related to the nuclear weapon ban treaty, from the humanitarian impact conferences to the open-ended working group in Geneva to the 2016 UN General Assembly’s First Committee to the negotiations themselves. Women and people of sexual minorities from around the world have been leading many of the most prominent civil society organisations working for the nuclear ban, and have been active in several government delegations championing this cause.

There have been concerted efforts throughout this process, particularly from civil society, to highlight the inherent intersectionality of disarmament, gender, racial justice, and economic justice issues, and to integrate these issues firmly in the nuclear ban process. This has been incredibly important for the credibility of this process. Governments and civil society alike have been relentlessly confronted with accusations of “exclusivity” in the development this treaty. In reality, this is perhaps the most inclusive process related to nuclear weapons that the United Nations has ever seen. Everyone is allowed to participate; the fact that certain states (mostly rich, white, Western states) have chosen not to has in many ways created more space for the voices of the global south to be heard rather than stifled. It has also created more flexibility when it comes to the participation of civil society—which for the most part so far in this process has been extremely active and welcomed.

This is not to say the process is perfect. We are still missing the active participation of many consistently underrepresented ethnic groups. Civil society organisations working on this issue still tend to be predominantly white and Western. In addition, men continue to dominate the conversation—especially on the government side. Of 95 interventions delivered by governments on Thursday, women delivered only 23. That’s only 24 percent—less than one quarter. 35 delegations spoke on Thursday; of these only 12 had a woman deliver at least one of their interventions. That’s only 34 percent.

This persistent problem is what lies behind the suggestion from a number of delegations to include language in the nuclear ban preamble not just about the physical impacts of nuclear weapons on women’s health but also the need for women’s effective and equal participation in disarmament forums. Whether this language draws upon language from UN Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security or UN General Assembly resolution 71/56 on women, disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control, or from the 2017 Non-Proliferation Treaty chair’s factual summary (which encouraged states to actively support the participation of women in their delegations and through support for sponsorship programmes), the nuclear ban treaty must say something—and do something—about the serious underrepresentation of women in nuclear disarmament.

It is also imperative that the treaty accurately reflects the gendered impacts of nuclear weapons. While welcome, the current language in the preamble does not sufficiently reflect the myriad of ways in which the production, testing, and use of nuclear weapons disproportionately impacts women. Health effects from ionizing radiation are acute, but more broadly, women are also more susceptible physically to absorb radiation and socially to be exposed to it. There are also ways in which social stigma around exposure to radiation has uniquely affected women and girls.

While the draft treaty at least tries to address this issue in relation to gendered impacts, it is currently silent on the disproportionate impacts on indigenous communities. In many places, due to racist and colonial policies and attitudes, indigenous communities have borne the brunt of nuclear experimentation. There have been well over 2000 explosive nuclear weapon tests, as well “minor trials,” at more than 60 locations around the world since 1945. Today, these sites continue to face persistent radioactive contamination. The tests have also irradiated downwind and downstream communities, increasing the risk that their people will one day develop cancers and other chronic diseases as a result. In many cases, those residing near test sites have been permanently displaced from their homes. Uranium mining, nuclear weapon production facilities, and nuclear waste storage sites have also historically impacted indigenous communities disproportionately, due to targeting of politically disenfranchised communities.

This is why it’s so important for the preamble to recognise the disproportionate impact of nuclear weapons on indigenous communities around the world. As with gendered impacts, impacts on indigenous communities is vital for ensuring that victims and survivors are afforded appropriate assistance, for understanding their place in the nuclear legacy, and for further motivating the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.

At the end of the day, as the Indonesian delegation stressed on Thursday, it’s important for the nuclear weapon ban treaty to delegitimise nuclear weapons as an object and nuclear deterrence as a concept. The recognition and reflection of the horrific, discriminate, disproportionate impacts of these weapons on women and indigenous peoples will help achieve this objective. It’s for humanity, and for our shared planet, that we ban nuclear weapons.

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