HELSINKI, Oct. 20 – Leading international experts, diplomats, representatives of international organisations and nongovernmental organisation (NGO) activists in the field of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament gathered on Oct. 18-19 at the historic Paasitorni Congress Centre in the Finnish capital to discuss the political and NGO processes that have led some countries to forego nuclear weapons and how these experiences can be replicated in other countries.
The event was organised by the International Peace Bureau and the Physicians for Social Responsibility Finland and endorsed by the Nobel Peace Prize-winning organisation International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). It drew participants from as far as Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Sri Lanka, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, South Africa, Sweden, the UK and the US.
The international congress was titled “Nuclear Exits: Countries Foregoing the Nuclear Option” included panels such as “Why Is There So Little Research on Nuclear Exits?”, “Nuclear Disarmament and Conversion Process in Practice”, “Nuclear Exit Decisions”, “Non-Nuclear Geopolitics”, “Long-Term Health Consequences of Nuclear Weapons” and “The Role of NGOs and Civil Society”.
Nobel Peace laureate and former President of South Africa Frederick de Klerk, former Deputy Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Olli Heinonen, former UN Under Secretary General and current President of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Pugwash Conferences Jayantha Dhanapala, Chair of Middle Powers Initiative and former Mayor of Hiroshima Tadatoshi Akiba, Member of the European Parliament and Chair of the European Parliament’s Iran delegation Tarja Cronberg, IPPNW Co-President Tilman Ruff, Global Coordinator of Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Alyn Ware, former Chair of the UN Advisory Board of Disarmament Ho Jin Lee, International Peace Bureau Co-President Ingeborg Breines and many other experts and officials from more than 20 countries participated in the two-day event.
In her opening address, Jutta Urpilainen, Minister of Finance and president of the Social Democratic Party of Finland, underlined the importance of the congress, as it could contribute to strategic thinking about how to accomplish the goal of banning and totally eliminating nuclear weapons globally.
De Klerk, recalling the history of nuclear disarmament by South Africa in the early 1990s, also said “decisions by Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan not to pursue efforts to retain nuclear arsenals [inherited after the break up of the Soviet Union] deserve admiration.” He stressed that only further coordinated efforts of the international community and the active participation of those countries that have already renounced nuclear weapons will be sufficient to make any progress in nuclear disarmament.
In his remarks to congress participants, Ambassador-at-large at Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Roman Vassilenko spoke about the tragic legacy of Soviet nuclear weapons testing in Kazakhstan and the independent republic’s history of nuclear disarmament, particularly noting the political will of the country’s president and the people of Kazakhstan as key to its choice of a nuclear-weapons-free future.
Kazakhstan’s nuclear disarmament experience can be shared with the rest of the world and possibly even influence potential member states of the so-called nuclear club to give up their ambitions and take appropriate steps toward abandoning nuclear weapons, Vassilenko said.
He explained that despite the temptation to become the world’s “first Muslim nuclear weapons state” and receiving offers of financial support from wealthy suitors in the turbulent times of the early 1990s, most famously by then-leader of Libya Muammar Gadhafi, Kazakhstan has gone through a political process to take a different course of action and has taken a “nuclear exit.”
“So the question of whether or not Kazakhstan would remain a nuclear weapons state was really more a question of political will,” Vassilenko said.
“Despite technical capacities and promised financial assistance, President Nursultan Nazarbayev showed the political will to move in a different direction and made the irrevocable decision for Kazakhstan to choose a nuclear-weapons-free future,” he added.
He stressed that the closure of the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site in Kazakhstan and the renunciation of the world’s fourth-largest nuclear arsenal have opened a new chapter in regional and global processes of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, and today, along with Ukraine, Belarus and South Africa, Kazakhstan has a special moral right to champion the cause of nuclear disarmament at a global level.
Vassilenko went on to tell congress participants about Nazarbayev’s initiatives in non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament, including the establishment of the Central Asian nuclear-weapons-free zone and his proposals to adopt a Universal Declaration of a Nuclear-Weapons-Free World at the United Nations and to ensure the universalisation of the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and the early entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT).
“Kazakhstan was among the first to sign the CTBT when it was opened for signing 17 years ago under the auspices of the United Nations. Since then, 183 countries have joined and 159 countries, including three nuclear-weapon states, Russia, the United Kingdom and France, have ratified the treaty. However, as we know, the treaty will only come into effect when it is signed and ratified by the remaining eight countries that are listed in Appendix II of the CTBT: Egypt, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the People’s Republic of China, Israel, India, Iran, Pakistan and the United States. We in Kazakhstan urge those countries that have not yet done so to sign and ratify this important instrument,” the Kazakh diplomat said.
He further explained Kazakhstan’s efforts pursued on the international level to galvanise global support to achieve the entry into force of the CTBT, including through the ATOM Project.
“We have seen unwavering support for the [ATOM Project] initiative, not only in our country, but internationally,” Vassilenko said of the project launched by President Nazarbayev on August 29, 2012, the UN International Day Against Nuclear Testing. “Already, people from more than 100 countries have signed the petition [calling for the entry into force of the CTBT and a permanent end to nuclear weapons testing]. But we can and must achieve greater results. That is why we call on all people of goodwill to support the АТОМ Project and make the realisation of a nuclear-weapons-free world our primary purpose for a better tomorrow.”
During the two-day congress, politicians, diplomats, medical doctors, non-proliferation experts and activists focused on possible further steps the international community could take to bring closer the goal of a world without nuclear weapons. In particular, the examples of countries that have renounced nuclear weapons, weapons programmes and ambitions and the possibility of using their experience in other countries; prospects for convening a conference on a Middle East zone free from weapons of mass destruction; the possibility of resolving the conflict on the Korean peninsula and the chances of the renunciation of nuclear weapons by North Korea as well as international efforts to settle the situation around the Iranian nuclear programme were reviewed. Special attention was paid to the role of NGOs and civil society in promoting nuclear disarmament processes internationally.
The general feeling of congress participants about any immediate successes in disarmament efforts was cautiously optimistic. Speakers cited the recent major breakthrough of Syria’s acceding to the Chemical Weapons Conventions and positive signs from Geneva regarding the P5+1 talks (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) with Iran over its nuclear programme as potentially an important opening for the progress regionally in the Middle East and globally. Others focused on the difficult situation on the Korean peninsula as evidence that progress there would be quite unlikely. According to participants, though, it was obvious that the path towards building a nuclear-weapons-free world lies through the resolution of the world’s most intractable conflicts and political differences.
“The Kazakhs have a saying: ‘Adam adamga zhat emes,’ meaning ‘A man is not born to be a foe to another man.’ This saying is a very plain yet very precise description of the fundamental principle of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy,” Vassilenko said. “But I am sure there are similar sayings in all other languages of the world, and, as we know, all major religions of the world also preach peace and tolerance, not war and hatred. We believe the more leaders and the more nations return to these basic principles of human relations, the greater chance we will have of breaking the vicious cycles of war, conflict and mistrust, and reaching the ultimate goal of building a safer world, a world without the threat of nuclear annihilation.”