SARCASTIC LAUGHTER erupted when a civil society representative expressed his "admiration for the delegate of the United States, who with one insensitive, ill-timed, inappropriate and diplomatically inept intervention" had "managed to dispel the considerable goodwill the US had garnered by its decision to participate" in Vienna Conference on Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons.
The speaker was Richard Lennane, who prefers to call himself the "chief inflammatory officer" of Wildfire, a Geneva-based disarmament initiative. He was making a statement at the final session of the conference in the Austrian capital on 8-9 December – the third after the Oslo (Norway) gathering in 2013 and Nayarit (Mexico) earlier this year.
Unlike the previous conferences, the United States and Britain – two of the five members of the nuclear club, along with France, Russia and China – participated in the Vienna conference.
But Washington's diplomatic jargon was far-removed from the highly emotional impact of statements by survivors of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and of nuclear testing in Australia, Kazakhstan, and the Marshall Islands. They gave powerful testimonies of the horrific effects of nuclear weapons.
Ambassador Adam Scheinman, special representative of the US president for non-proliferation, assured that "underpinning all of our efforts, stretching back decades, has been our clear understanding of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use."
This claim not only left a large number of participants unimpressed but also failed to give reason for hope that the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference next year would bear fruit.
All the more so, because as the US-based Arms Control Association, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, Nuclear Information Project of the Federation of American Scientists, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and the Union of Concerned Scientist pointed out in a joint statement, "nearly five years after the successful 2010 NPT review conference, follow-through on the consensus action plan – particularly the 22 interrelated disarmament steps – has been very disappointing.
"Since the entry into force of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) in 2011," the statement added, "Russia and the United States have failed to start talks to further reduce their still enormous nuclear stockpiles, which far exceed any plausible deterrence requirements."
2015 will also mark the 70th anniversary of the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the consequences of which are still being felt by hibakusha (survivors) and their families, as Setsuko Thurlow, Hiroshima Peace Ambassador and survivor of the atomic bombing explosion on 6 August, 1945, illustrated in an impassioned statement.
"The consequences of any nuclear weapon use would be devastating, long-lasting, and unacceptable. Governments simply cannot listen to this evidence and hear these human stories without acting," said Akira Kawasaki, from the Japanese NGO Peaceboat.
"The only solution is to ban and eliminate nuclear weapons and we need to start now," Kawasaki added.
US ambassador Scheinman sought to reassure in a statement prepared for the general debate: "The United States fully understands the serious consequences of nuclear weapons use and gives the highest priority to avoiding their use. The United States stands with all those here who seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons."
Irrespective of the veracity of the US claim, Scheinman's dry and rather formulaic remarks stood in stark contrast to passionate pleas made by representatives of 44 out of 158 participating states, that as long as nuclear weapons exist, the risk of their use by design, miscalculation or madness, technical or human error remains real.
Echoing worldwide sentiments, Pope Francis called in a message to the conference for nuclear weapons to be "banned once and for all."
In a message delivered by Angela Kane, High Representative of the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that the Oslo, Nayarit and Vienna initiatives had "brought humanitarian considerations to the forefront of nuclear disarmament. It has energised civil society and governments alike. It has compelled us to keep in mind the horrific consequences that would result from any use of nuclear weapons."
Questioning the rationale behind nuclear weapons, Ban – who is known to be committed to nuclear disarmament – said that keeping the horrific consequences of nukes in mind was essential in confronting those who view nuclear weapons as a rational response to growing international tensions or as a symbol of national prestige.
In his widely noted message, he criticised "the senselessness of pouring funds into modernising the means for our mutual destruction while we are failing to meet the challenges posed by poverty, climate change, extremism and the destabilising accumulation of conventional arms."
Besides, he added, maintaining forces on alert does not provide safety, but it increases the likelihood of accidents. Upholding doctrines of nuclear deterrence does not counter proliferation, but it makes the weapons more desirable.
Growing ranks of nuclear armed-states do not ensure global stability, but instead undermine it – a view with which also faith organisations gathered in Vienna agreed.
KARLOS ZURUTUZA – IPS
LEHTIKUVA / SARI GUSTAFSSON