Report on the UN commemorative event for the International Day Against Nuclear Tests 2023

Emma Bjertén and Laura Varella
1 September 2023

On 29 August, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) held a high-level plenary meeting to commemorate and promote the International Day against Nuclear Test. The meeting was devoted to enhancing public awareness and education about the effects of nuclear weapon test explosions, as well as the need for their cessation, as one of the means of achieving the goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world. During the meeting, statements were delivered by the President of the 77th session of the UNGA, by the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, representatives of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), governments, and a youth advocate. This report provides an overview of interventions made and is not necessarily a comprehensive accounting of all positions.

Humanitarian and environmental consequences from nuclear testing

The High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Ms. Izumi Nakamitsu, speaking on behalf of the UN Secretary-General, reminded that 29 of August pays tribute to the closure of the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site in Kazakhstan, where the harmful legacy of nuclear tests still remains. She also recalled the Trinity test, the first US nuclear weapon test, which marked the beginning of an era of over 2,000 nuclear tests that caused “lasting and devastating impacts on our collective environment, health, and security.”

Similarly, Kazakhstan reminded that since “the time when the first atomic bomb was detonated in 1945, at least eight nations have carried out a total of 2056 nuclear tests, around one quarter of them in the atmosphere, causing severe long term harm and suffering to humanity and entire planet.” It said that the total destructive power of these tests was equal to 29,000 times the Hiroshima bomb.

Several delegations, including the African Group, Argentina, Austria, Guatemala, Italy, Kiribati, Mexico, Nigeria, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Ukraine, expressed their deep concern about the existence of nuclear weapons and their humanitarian and environmental consequences. A number of states also highlighted the specific impact of nuclear weapon tests on social and economical development.

Paraguay highlighted the devastating consequences of nuclear testing on the atmosphere, the environment and people's health, from radioactive fallout to deformities and fatal diseases. The Philippines highlighted the detrimental effects of nuclear testing, including “Radiation exposure and health risks, causing genetic mutations and health issues; Radioactive fallout contaminating ecosystems and the food chain; Global political tensions escalating arms races and endangering global stability; and Environmental damage, disrupting ecosystems, fracturing land and other humanitarian consequences affecting communities near testing sites.” Guatemala made similar remarks. 

Kiribati experienced 33 nuclear tests carried out by the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US) in the 1950s and 1960s. At the time, the people living in Kiritimati received little protection and inadequate warning about the danger of the tests. The delegation of Kiribati described how its citizens “were not provided with proper individualised protective gears but advised to take shelter in open spaces with tarpaulin cover spread over them and warned to cover their eyes with their hands”. Today, its population still suffers from physical problems caused by radiation exposure, as well as from post-traumatic and intergenerational harm. The delegation highlighted the lack of proper data collection and scientific research analysis of nuclear-related diseases. It expressed hope that the Scientific Advisory Group and the Voluntary Trust Fund currently being established under the framework of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) “would help address this institutional deficiency as well as medical needs of nuclear related patients and environmental remediation actions.” 

Kiribati called on the relevant nuclear-armed states “to provide targeted support for these affected people and for the radiological cleanup of the island.” A number of delegations, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Philippines also emphasised the need for the international community to assist regions and communities that experience nuclear testing, with Guatemala and the Philippines also recognising the multigenerational suffering due to nuclear testing. Ms. Nakamitsu said that she was encouraged by the near-unanimous support shown by states parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) at the recent Preparatory Committee for the need to bolster support for the victims of nuclear tests and prioritise environmental remediation. Mexico stated that it is impossible to ignore the testimonies of the victims of these nuclear tests and emphasised the need to always keep the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons in mind.

Mr. Elias Mera Taouli, a youth activist representing Reverse the Trend: Save Our People, Save Our Planet, called on the international community to acknowledge the legacy of nuclear testing worldwide. He recalled the tests conducted in Algeria, Kazakhstan, the Pacific, and other regions, saying that they continue to cast a shadow over impacted communities, and that reconciliation and remediation measures by nuclear-armed states is long-overdue. The Holy See stated that the effects of nuclear tests have “disproportionately affected indigenous peoples, women and children, who have received scant assistance, most of which has benefited soldiers,” and stated that states that rely on nuclear deterrence have moral and legal obligations to restore the lives, communities, and ecosystems harmed by testing. 

Condemning dangerous and unlawful behaviour

Increased geopolitical tensions  

Many delegations addressed the increase in geopolitical tensions and the deterioration of the current security environment. “Trust is the backbone of Peace,” stated Kazakhstan, while Sri Lanka emphasised the need for meaningful dialogue to build trust and confidence between nuclear-armed states. Mexico stated that the changing context of international security cannot be an excuse for questioning the value of the international architecture of disarmament and non-proliferation. Similarly, Guatemala stated that in the current security context, it is more urgent than ever to pursue the goal of nuclear disarmament. 

The increase of nuclear risks and dangerous nuclear rhetoric was also raised by delegations. Ms. Nakamitsu warned that the “rising tide of nuclear risk threatens to engulf the hard-won gains in nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation achieved over the last three decades.” Austria highlighted how the Doomsday Clock stands at an unprecedented 90 seconds to midnight. It said working towards the universalization of the CTBT, the TPNW, and strengthening the NPT can help achieve a world without nuclear weapons. 

Several states, including Argentina, Italy, Japan, and Kazakhstan, expressed concern over the increase of aggressive rhetoric and threats of using nuclear weapons. Argentina and Guatemala emphasised that the threat of use of nuclear weapons constitutes a crime against humanity and a violation of international law, including international humanitarian law as well as the UN Charter.

A number of delegations, including the Group of Western European and Other States, condemned Russia’s invasion and war against Ukraine. The European Union (EU) and others called on Russia to cease its war of aggression and withdraw all its forces and military equipment from the entire territory of Ukraine. The Group of Western European and Other States said that Russia’s threats of nuclear use and testing seriously undermine and have a significant negative impact on the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament architecture. Ukraine stated that “Russia’s unprovoked, unjustified and full-scale war of aggression against Ukraine has significantly increased nuclear risks” and warned “all responsible UN member states not to fall for this country’s nuclear blackmail.” 

The EU, France, and the US expressed concern over Russia’s announcement of its readiness to conduct a nuclear test, highlighting that this would be inconsistent with the CTBT, which Russia has ratified. Austria said that “Some States’ weighing of withdrawal of their ratification is counterproductive and deeply worrying.”

Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)

A number of delegations, including ASEAN, the Group of Friends of the CTBT, the Group of Western European and Other States, Austria, Italy, Japan, the Philippines, and Ukraine, expressed concern with or condemned the six nuclear tests conducted by the DPRK, with many also condemning its ballistic missile launches. The Group of Friends of the CTBT and the Group of Western European and Other States, among others, highlighted that the DPRK is the only country to have conducted nuclear tests this century.

ASEAN, Austria, and Italy urged the DPRK to take action to de-escalate tensions and called for peaceful dialogue among concerned parties, including to create a conducive environment towards the realisation of lasting peace and stability in a denuclearised Korean Peninsula. Many delegations also reaffirmed their support for the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. 

ASEAN, the EU, the Group of Western European and Other States, Austria, Japan, the Philippines, Ukraine, and others also stressed the importance of full compliance with all relevant UN Security Council resolutions and of abiding by international law.

A number of delegations also urged the DPRK to sign and ratify the CTBT and to return to full compliance with the NPT as a non-nuclear-armed state and to its Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA. 

Nuclear weapon modernisation and spending

Several states, including Argentina, Costa Rica, Kazakhstan, Paraguay, and the Philippines, emphasised their concerns regarding nuclear-armed states modernisation of nuclear weapon programmes. Costa Rica referred to the estimates made by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), that the nine nuclear-armed states spent 82.9 billion USD on the maintenance and modernisation of nuclear weapons during 2022, which Costa Rica described as “immoral and unacceptable”. The delegation of Costa Rica called on states to comply with Article 26 of the Charter of the United Nations to “establish a security system with the least possible detour of human and economic resources towards armaments.” The Philippines made similar remarks, advocating for channelling limited resources away from nuclear weapon expansion and investing in “social protection, economy, climate resilience, and the environment instead.”

Paraguay said that investments in nuclear weapons are a waste of time, resources, and effort that could be spent on improving the lives of people and on sustainable development. Mr. Kőrösi, UNGA President, also questioned the amount spent on nuclear weapon modernisation, highlighting its incompatibility with the goals of overcoming poverty, curbing pollution, and addressing climate change. He called for a human centred-approach in disarmament, focused on preventing suffering and environmental destruction. 

Outlawing nuclear weapon testing and possession

Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT)

Despite 186 states having signed and 178 having ratified the CTBT, several delegations addressed their concern that the Treaty has still not entered into force after over two decades since it opened for signature. 

Japan stressed how a “legally binding, universal, and verifiable ban on any nuclear explosions will inhibit the proliferation, development, and qualitative improvement of nuclear weapons.” Italy made similar remarks. Argentina also stressed how the CTBT constitutes a crucial tool to prevent modernisation of nuclear weapons. 

The majority of delegations called for states that have not yet done so to sign and ratify the CTBT. Several, including the African Group, the Arab Group, ASEAN, the EU, the Group of Friends of the CTBT, Argentina, Austria and Costa Rica, El Salvador, France, Guatemala, Italy, Japan, the Philippines, and Ukraine, particularly called on the Annex 2 states to do so.

Austria stressed the need for states to ratify the CTBT without further delay since “this is particularly important for global security at a time when other important progress, agreements and commitments on disarmament and non-proliferation are being reversed, explicit nuclear threats made and nuclear arsenals are being upgraded or expanded.” Austria emphasised how the CTBT’s entry into force could play an important element in preventing a new nuclear arms race.

Japan stressed that further substantial progress can be attained through resolute political determination and pointed at the High-Level Meeting of the Friends of the CTBT hosted by the Prime Minister of Japan last September to advocate “for stronger political commitment to bolster the Treaty and its verification regime and to expedite its entry.”

 The US, which has not yet ratified the treaty, called on other states to do so. Similarly, China, which also has not ratified it yet, expressed hope for the Treaty’s fast entry into force.

Several delegations, including the Group of Friends of the CTBT, the Group of Western European and Other States, Argentina, Austria, Costa Rica, Italy, Japan, Mexico, and Ukraine, also welcomed the recent ratification of the CTBT by Equatorial Guinea, São Tomé and Principe, Solomon Islands, and Sri Lanka, with some expressing that this symbolises a positive step towards the universalisation of the Treaty.

Dr. Robert Floyd, Executive Secretary of the Preparatory Commission for the CTBTO, welcomed that both Somalia and South Sudan made public commitments to sign and ratify the treaty.

Italy argued that, despite not yet having entered into force, the CTBT has already created a highly effective global verification regime. Similarly, several states including Argentina, Austria, Italy, Japan, and Russia also underscored the essential role of the CTBTO International Monitoring System in detecting and reporting suspected nuclear explosions worldwide. Japan said that “over 20 years of consistent development of a reliable International Monitoring System have served as an effective deterrence against nuclear testing” and Russia stated how the CTBT with its verification regime has been an instrument to ensure security for the majority of states. Ms. Izumi Nakamitsu, the EU, the Group of Friends of the CTBT, France, and the US also expressed support for the CTBT’s verification regime.

Ms. Izumi Nakamitsu, while commending the unilateral moratoria against tests adopted by the nuclear-armed states, said that they are no substitute for a legally binding prohibition against all nuclear tests. The EU, the Group of Friends of the CTBT, the Group of Western European and Other States, Italy, and the US urged all states to declare or maintain their existing national moratoria on nuclear weapon test explosions and other nuclear explosions, with some also asking for states to refrain from any action that would undermine the CTBT’s objective and purpose. 

The Group of Western European and Other States encouraged states to support the annual CTBT resolution at the First Committee this year and to support the upcoming Conference to facilitate the entry into force of the CTBT that will take place on 22 September.

Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW)

Many delegations, including the African Group, ASEAN, Austria, Bangladesh, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, the Holy See, Iran, Kiribati, Mexico, Nigeria, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka, expressed support for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and emphasised its contribution to global nuclear disarmament.

Guatemala emphasised how the banning of nuclear weapons is an important first step in eliminating them and described the TPNW as a milestone and a fundamental step towards nuclear disarmament. The youth activist Mr. Taouli said that the TPNW is the best hope for a world free of nuclear weapons, and that the humanitarian focus as contained in articles 6 and 7 serve as a beacon of hope. El Salvador reiterated that the TPNW strengthens the international disarmament and non-proliferation architecture and represents a contribution of non-nuclear armed states to the goal of a safer world where nuclear weapons become a thing of the past. 

The African Group, Austria, Bangladesh, Kiribati, and the Philippines encouraged all states that have not yet done so to sign and ratify the TPNW. Several delegations also highlighted how the Treaty complements other existing nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation instruments and noted the upcoming meeting of the Second Meeting of States Parties to the TPNW that will take place in New York in November under the presidency of Mexico. 

The African Group, Costa Rica, Kiribati, and the Philippines highlighted how nuclear tests are explicitly prohibited in article one of the TPNW, and Kiribati emphasised how the TPNW “provides a means for affected states to seek international nuclear justice.”

Nuclear Weapon Free Zones (NWFZ)

The Group of Western European and Other States welcomed the prohibition on nuclear testing contained in all NWFZ treaties. Several delegates also mentioned regional NWFZs as an important tool for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. Kazakhstan called for the need to expand such zones.

ASEAN specifically mentioned the role of the Treaty of the Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ) and mentioned that the Executive Committee of the SEANWFZ Commission is continuing to explore the possibility of allowing individual nuclear-armed states that are willing to sign and ratify the Protocol to the SEANWFZ Treaty to go ahead with the signing.

Guatemala expressed how it was proud to belong to the first densely populated area in the world to be declared a NWFZ and stated that the NWFZ in Latin America and Caribbean, which recently celebrated its fifty-sixth anniversary, not only has contributed to nuclear disarmament but also regional and global peace and security. The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and El Salvador also reiterated their support for the Treaty of Tlatelolco.

The African Group reiterated its support for the Treaty of Pelindaba. Nigeria explained how the Treaty prohibits the stationing of nuclear explosive devices and their testing in the entire African continent and called on all states to emulate Africa in making their respective regions NWFZs.

The African Group, the Arab Group, and others expressed support for a NWFZ in the Middle East. The Arab Group welcomed the previous sessions of the Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction, and wished success to the fourth session to be held in November.

Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)

 The African Group, the Arab Group, Iran, and others reiterated their concern over the slow pace of progress by nuclear-armed states in complying with their obligations under the NPT to eliminate their nuclear arsenals. Several delegations regretted the failure of two consecutive Review Conferences in reaching consensus on a final outcome document. The African Group called on the nuclear-armed states to “demonstrate the necessary political will to enable the Review Conference to reach concrete recommendations towards achieving nuclear disarmament and the universality of the Treaty.” The Arab Group called on NPT states parties to build on important discussions that took place in August at the Preparatory Committee in Vienna, and for nuclear-armed states to fulfil their obligations to eliminate nuclear weapons in a specific timeframe. 

The Arab Group called on Israel to join the NPT without preconditions and subject its nuclear facilities to the IAEA’s safeguard agreement. Iran stated how Israel, with its possession of nuclear weapons, poses a grave threat to regional peace and security. In a right of reply Israel accused Iran for being accountable for the insecurity in the region. Iran replied by saying that the “gravest peril to regional stability” arises from the nuclear weapons maintained by Israel and referred to Israel as the only state within the Middle East that has refrained from aligning itself with international accords like the NPT, the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the Biological Weapons Convention. Iran called on the global community to hold Israel accountable “for its widespread violations of human rights and to pursue measures that prevent any further acquisition of nuclear armaments.”

Promoting Inclusivity to Advance Nuclear Disarmament

A number of delegations addressed the importance of considering inclusive processes in order to advance the work towards a world free from nuclear weapons. ASEAN, Kazakhstan, and Kiribati emphasised the need to include participation from relevant stakeholders, including women and youth.

The EU encouraged further engagement with civil society to promote the CTBT and commended the work of the CTBTO Youth Group. Mr. Taouli highlighted the critical role of youth voices in disarmament and non-proliferation forums, advocating for their participation and for support to their initiatives. El Salvador commended educational initiatives, particularly those aimed at young people, and recognised the leadership of the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs through its “Steps to Disarmament” campaign.

Kazakhstan also highlighted that it is critical to focus on education and greater awareness through joint undertakings involving policy and decision makers, public and private sector, science and education, media, and civil society. It argued that increasing public knowledge could be mobilised into demanding that governments take action. Kiribati highlighted the importance of encouraging participation of young people from affected communities through different forms of expression, such as art, and stressed how international visits to test sites provide an educational experience to young people from around the world. The delegation of Kiribati also encouraged the international community to visit former test sites and engage with affected communities in order to fully grasp the humanitarian and environmental impact of nuclear weapons.

Addressing States Moral Obligations for Future Generations  

78 years have passed since the first nuclear weapon test was conducted by the US in the desert of New Mexico, which, as Austria highlighted, has been brought back to the public’s attention due to the movie Oppenheimer. Austria stressed how new studies show that the consequences of radiation of these first tests were more widespread and more dangerous for people’s health than initially acknowledged.

A number of delegations recalled how the International Day against Nuclear Tests provides an opportunity to raise the voices of victims of nuclear weapon testing and use, and to highlight the need for victim assistance as well as to accelerate the work of nuclear disarmament. Several delegations also stressed how this day constitutes an important reminder of the moral responsibilities that states have to prevent future nuclear tests, as well as their use. Bangladesh argued, “national security of countries cannot be achieved without ensuring collective global security for all; and this is our moral obligation to create a nuclear weapon and other WMD free, peaceful and secure world for our next generation.”