At the age of 21, I was invited to travel to Japan from 13-21 November 2000 and speak in the Youth Forum of the Nagasaki Global Citizens’ Assembly for the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. It was an extreme honor to be a speaker at the Assembly. For me, the trip was more of a pilgrimage to the crime scene of the last atomic bomb dropping and it reminded me why I chose to work on nuclear abolition. Being in Nagasaki was a time to commemorate and honor those who have suffered so long from the production and development of nuclear weapons and energy.
More than 200 young people and adults attended the Youth Forum held at Shiroyama Elementary School, a symbolic place for the workshop because the original was devastated on 9 August 1945, when the atomic bomb, code named “fatman” was dropped on the city. I was asked to speak at the Youth Forum because I believe that young people have a tremendous responsibility to effectuate the change needed to abolish war and all weapons of mass destruction. Peace and security are age-old issues that have been around since the advent of war. The existence of war and nuclear weapons evidences our insecurity and our inability to understand how our actions affect others. As human beings, we desire to be secure, yet we have some-how deemed it in our nature to live in fear of each other and therefore we try to justify our urge to resolve conflicts through violent means. Today, we have the greatest opportunity to make peace and security a reality in this globalized world and we as young people have the obligation to achieve it.
Like many young people in countries that are termed “developed,” I did not grow up truly understanding the threat that nuclear weapons pose to the existence of Earth and its inhabitants. In fact, to the contrary, I grew up falsely believing that we need nuclear weapons to protect us and that war was necessary to resolve conflict. However, when I was 12 years old, I had the opportunity to visit Guatemala for the first time. In Guatemala, I experienced first-hand the devastation that war and weapons cause. It was there that I first began to understand how fortunate I was to grow up in a prosperous country where most people live free from the threat of war. However, it was not until I was studying Spanish and Global Peace and Security at the University of California at Santa Barbara that I realized how the belligerent, arrogant and willfully ignorant behavior of “developed” countries prevented “developing” countries from ever realizing lasting peace and security.
After graduating from UCSB in 1999, I became the Coordinator for Abolition 2000, a global network of more than 2000 organizations and municipalities working together to achieve a nuclear weapons convention and redress the environmental devastation and human suffering caused by the nuclear cycle. There are many people around the world who believe this is possible and many of the international leaders of the nuclear weapons abolition movement participated in the Nagasaki Assembly. Despite growing international consensus for nuclear weapons abolition, there are very few young people who know about the nuclear issue and even fewer who are actively working to abolish nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, many young people do not understand that the nuclear cycle affects them and will continue to affect them for many years to come.
The Youth Forum of the Nagasaki Assembly demonstrated that young people do care about making a difference, especially after they gain consciousness of an issue. Knowledge may give individuals power, but it also obligates responsibility. As young people we are responsible to share what we know about peace and security issues with our friends, our families, our communities and all those with whom we come in contact. We must realize that as individuals, the knowledge we have gives us the power to make a difference and we must not be afraid to stand up and be a voice for positive change. As Mahatmas Ghandi said, “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.” Learning about an issue is the first step to realizing the responsibility we have as young people, but knowing is simply not enough. We must also actively work to achieve the secure and peaceful world we envision.
At the close of the Youth Forum, I asked the participants as young people and as citizens of Nagasaki to be a strong voice for the abolition of nuclear weapons and to remind the world of the horrors that these indiscriminate weapons cause. The citizens of Nagasaki can speak from experience of the unjustness and devastation of the use of nuclear weapons.
As a token of my appreciation, I gave each participant of the Youth Forum a packet of sunflower seeds to plant as a symbol of hope and a vision of a world free of nuclear contamination. Sunflowers became the symbol of the nuclear abolition movement on 4 June 1996, the day the US, Russia and the Ukraine celebrated the last missile being removed Ukrainian soil, making it a nuclear weapons free country. William J. Perry, former US Secretary of Defense stated on this day, “Sunflowers instead of missiles in the soil will ensure peace for future generations.” On the inside of the sunflower seed packet, was a petition calling upon the leaders of the nuclear weapons states to immediately begin negotiations to abolish nuclear weapons and redress the environmental degradation and human suffering caused by more than 55 years of nuclear weapons testing and production. The participants were asked to sign the petition and to return the petition to Abolition 2000 in care of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, which has collected signatures on this petition from more than 13.4 million individuals world-wide.
During my speech, I also encouraged the young people to be involved politically. Many young people, especially in the US, tend to be apathetic to how their government acts. But governments only have the authority to rule based on the will of the people it governs. We must constantly remind our governments of their responsibility to us their citizens as well as their obligation to citizens around the world. Many participants made a commitment to write letters on a regular basis to their Prime Minister, urging him to support a treaty to abolish nuclear weapons.
It is very easy to be apathetic to peace and security issues as, unfortunately, many young people are, but even taking the smallest action will make a world of difference. As youth, we have the greatest challenge, but also the greatest potential to create a world that is just and secure for all.