Report by Christian N. Ciobanu, Jefferson Y. Sheng, Fanely Caba, and Tong Gao

Images by Jefferson Y. Sheng 

On January 18, diplomats, civil society, academics, and youth celebrated the upcoming second anniversary of the entry into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and discussed the treaty’s promises and its future, particularly as they pertain to affected communities. The event, entitled “From the Pacific to the Steppes: Engaging with Frontline Communities on the TPNW,” was graciously hosted by the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Kazakhstan in New York, with a sizable audience joining virtually as well. NAPF was proud to help and participate in the event, which was co-organized by Kiribati and Kazakhstan, the Co-Chairs of the Informal Working Group on Articles 6 and 7 of the TPNW. Our youth initiative, Reverse the Trend: Save Our People, Save Our Planet, The Prospect Hill Foundation, and the Marshallese Educational Initiative (MEI) also co-sponsored the event. 

In his introductory remarks, Christian N. Ciobanu, the Policy and Advocacy Coordinator of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and TPNW Adviser for the Mission of Kiribati, discussed the significance of Articles 6 and 7 in providing assistance to the victims of nuclear tests. Mr. Ciobanu emphasized the Convention on Cluster Munitions and the Mine Ban Treaty’s provisions on victim assistance served as a precedent for the TPNW’s provisions. 

Following Mr. Ciobanu’s remarks, Ambassador Akan Rakhmetullin of Kazakhstan highlighted the need for the TPNW states parties to establish an international trust fund to help all victims of nuclear testing, including second and third-generation survivors. The crux for a tangible outcome lies in the international community’s ability to stand united in compensating the victims. 

Offering a perspective on the Marshallese experience, Benetick Kabua Maddison of MEI shared the tragic legacy of U.S. nuclear tests that rendered parts of the Marshall Islands uninhabitable and decimated the country and its people ecologically and culturally. However, Mr. Maddison reminded the audience that the Marshallese were not passive victims and had stood up to the United States both during and in the aftermath of the tests. In this regard, he discussed his perspectives on the current COMPACT negotiations between the U.S. and the Marshall Islands. Examining the international community’s support for victims, Mr. Maddison asserted that the TPNW remains the best hope for the international community to eliminate nuclear weapons, giving survivors of nuclear testing one of the best tools to regain socio-political agency against their perpetrators.

Continuing on the theme of the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and the need for international institutions to support nuclear justice efforts, Dr. Togzhan Kassenova recounted the situation for communities living near the Semipalatinsk former test site in Kazakhstan. Dr. Kassenova shared a heartbreaking story of love and loss in the life of Bolatbek Baltabek, a victim but also a lifelong nuclear disarmament activist. Connecting to Mr. Maddison’s remarks, Dr. Kassenova stressed that listening to stories of nuclear legacy from around the world in parallel provides a catalyst for inspiration and resilience-finding.  Her remarks relayed the timeline of Kazakhstan’s powerful decision to dismantle and destroy Soviet nuclear weapons stationed on its territories and the Kazakh commitment to the TPNW as one of the first 50 states to ratify the treaty.

Veronique Christory, ICRC’s Senior Arms Adviser to the UN, affirmed that the destructiveness of nuclear weapons had increased dramatically, while the ability of the international community (i.e., states and the ICRC) to assist has not. She reiterated the importance of victim assistance to communities affected by nuclear weapons as well as the TPNW’s symbolism of a world free from such destructive weapons. Ms. Christory emphasized that nuclear weapons are ultimately about “how much suffering we are willing to permit – and inflict – on civilian populations.” Such suffering is simply incompatible with international humanitarian law. 

President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, Dr. Ivana Nikolić Hughes, discussed the findings of a research team that she was a part of at Columbia University, which conducted several studies to understand the current radiological conditions in the Marshall Islands.  Dr. Hughes highlighted, in particular, the measurements conducted in Bikini Atoll, the site of the first nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands, and the most powerful test, Castle Bravo. Measurements of radiation in the food, as well as background gamma radiation measurements (the first published measurements since 1978), all suggest that Bikini is not suitable for population by a multi-generational community at this time. She finalized by stating that this kind of work is important in helping us to right the historical wrongs but that it is also a reminder of the need to rid the world of nuclear weapons and to enable the TPNW to achieve all of its objectives. 

At the end of the panel event, Josephine Moote, the Deputy Permanent Representative of Kiribati, expressed gratitude to Kazakhstan for co-chairing the informal working group with Kiribati. She further highlighted the need for the international community to work together on getting rid of nuclear weapons.

Following the panel discussion,  both the universalization of the TPNW, in particular the likelihood of the Marshall Islands signing onto the TPNW, and in providing context for the positive obligations under nuclear justice.

Benetick Kabua Maddison expressed his hope that the Marshall Islands will sign onto the TPNW. He acknowledged that due to current security arrangements, the Marshall Islands has yet to sign the TPNW.

On environmental remediation, Dr. Ivana Hughes expressed her personal belief that a cleanup may be possible in Bikini. She remains hopeful that with the TPNW process, there will be an opportunity for states to come together, alongside the scientific advisory committee and the international community, to address the parallel issues of both victim assistance and environmental remediation. 

Dr. Togzhan Kassenova further elaborated on the situation in Kazakhstan, where an enormous geographical area was impacted by the tests. Dr. Kassenova stated that a proper clean-up would allow large pieces of land to be released for use by the public (or natural resources). As such, communities need access to the remediated lands that are within the parameters of the new Kazakh law on nuclear safety zones, while uninhabitable hot spots should be properly blocked off, limiting any potential for the harm they could cause. 

Concluding the general sentiment of the discussion was Dr. Togzhan’s acknowledgment of the need for the public to trust the scientific findings when assessing the proper and responsible use of land. 

Recording of the event can be accessed  HERE