On 29 August, participants from the five member states of the Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty (Semipalatinsk Treaty), Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, as well as representatives of communities affected by nuclear testing and civil society, met in Astana, Kazakhstan, for a conference marking the International Day Against Nuclear Tests.

The conference was co-organised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the Center for International Security and Policy (CISP), Soka Gakkai International (SGl), and ICAN, to discuss the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, and the complementarity of the Semipalatinsk Treaty and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

Article 36’s Elizabeth Minor gave remarks to the conference, which are reproduced below.

Humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in Central Asia

Astana, 29 Aug 2023

Remarks by Elizabeth Minor

Thank you to Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan, the Center for International Security and Policy, Soka Gakkai International the International Committee of the Red Cross and ICAN for organising and co-hosting this conference, and to everyone for joining this discussion to consider this important topic on the International Day Against Nuclear Tests

For my presentation, I would like to highlight the role of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons as a response to the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences of nuclear weapons –

– Firstly, I’d like to recall how the treaty was negotiated as a response to the humanitarian imperative to ensure these weapons are never used again

– Secondly, I would also like to draw attention to how the treaty establishes the first international framework that commits states parties to address the ongoing impacts of past nuclear weapons use and testing. I will discuss what this means for states parties and affected communities; the work that has been done to implement these obligations so far; and why states of this region should join the treaty and support for these efforts

Firstly to recall the evidence and considerations that led to the negotiation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

– In the past decade or so, new studies and information from various experts has deepened global understanding of the devastating short and long term impacts of nuclear weapons, and the risks that they will be used again either by accident or design

– And, though some continue to claim that much of this was already known, in fact our understanding of these dangers and consequences continues to evolve as new facts continue to emerge

– Following concern about the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons being raised at the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s Review Conference in 2010, a series of conferences on this subject were convened by Norway, Mexico and Austria, which countries of the central Asian region attended

– Under this ‘humanitarian initiative’ experts including scientists, humanitarian professionals, economists, and people from affected communities – who around the world continue to mobilise to tell the truth about the impact of nuclear weapons, and demand justice – presented compelling evidence

– Some of the key facts highlighted were that there could be no meaningful humanitarian response to even one detonation of a nuclear weapon in a populated area, due to the mass casualties and destruction of response capacity that it would entail; that even a limited nuclear exchange could disrupt the global climate and cause famine affecting billions of people; and that the long term impacts of ionising radiation from nuclear weapons activities already continues to have grave impacts on the health and socio-economic conditions of communities today, as well as on the environment – as our colleague Dmitriy Vesselov powerfully described earlier in the case of the ongoing effects of testing at the Semipalatinsk test site

– The humanitarian initiative culminated in an Austrian-led ‘humanitarian pledge’, a political commitment (which Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan endorsed), to cooperate in efforts to stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons

– Following this focused consideration of the facts and building on this momentum, as well as an ‘Open Ended Working Group’ to consider ways forward on nuclear disarmament, a group of countries proposed the negotiation of Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which was mandated by a resolution at the UN General Assembly.

– They had concluded that the latest evidence shows the humanitarian impacts and risks of nuclear weapons are so grave that they must never be used again; that the only way to ensure this is to stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate these weapons; and that the gap in international law, of a global treaty comprehensively prohibiting nuclear weapons therefore needed to be closed, as part of this effort

The Treaty’s prohibitions – on the development, production, testing, transfer, stationing, use, and threat of use of nuclear weapons, as well as assistance to any such activities – and its framework for elimination, are a direct response to these weapons’ catastrophic humanitarian consequences

But additionally, because the past use and testing of nuclear weapons, as well as other nuclear weapon activities, are still causing suffering in affected communities around the world today – as survivors repeatedly presented throughout these international discussions – the treaty also contains obligations to respond to this.

Though it is not possible to provide a humanitarian response that can undo what has happened to people and the environment, it is still a humanitarian imperative to work to address the impacts in communities today as much as states and their partners are able to

Articles 6 and 7 of the treaty, on victim assistance, environmental remediation and international cooperation and assistance, establish a framework of shared and collective responsibility and solidarity amongst states parties, which aims to support affected states parties to address the ongoing impacts of past nuclear weapons use and testing.

Through article 6, States parties with affected populations commit to provide holistic, non-discriminatory, age- and gender-sensitive victim assistance. States parties with contaminated areas also commit to take steps towards environmental remediation.

Through article 7, all states parties that are in a position to do so commit, voluntarily, to provide technical, material or financial assistance to support these efforts.

These obligations establish a humanitarian and human rights-based framework to respond to the immediate impacts and the needs of communities. It is similar to frameworks developed under the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention and the Convention on Cluster Munitions, and draws from these legal precedents and practice.

This framework doesn’t address measures for justice, reparation, or assistance that affected states or communities might seek from nuclear-armed states that used or tested nuclear weapons but are not party to the treaty. However, it is complementary to such efforts.

The goal of these obligations is not to place an undue burden on affected countries, nor for them to take the blame for the actions of other states. Rather, the aim is to create a framework for practical action amongst those states parties who are willing and able to contribute to addressing urgent humanitarian issues now, in support and recognition of the sovereignty and responsibilities of affected states parties.

This framework, and states parties’ work to implement it, has already drawn increased international attention to the ongoing impacts of nuclear testing and to the need for further responses and for nuclear justice. Through its implementation, states parties have a real opportunity to make a meaningful difference with and for affected communities, including through developing inclusive global norms for victim assistance and environmental remediation, and through increasing the focus and resources the international community devotes to this issue. (This increase in attention and resources has been seen under the previous treaties I mentioned).

At the first meeting of states parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Vienna last year, states parties agreed to a series of actions to start their work on articles 6 and 7, as part of a broader action plan the meeting agreed. These provide a strong, substantive and inclusive framework for implementation and set out a clear plan for activity in the coming years.

– States that consider themselves to have populations or areas affected by the past use or testing of nuclear weapons committed to start assessing these ongoing impacts and developing plans to respond to them in light of the obligations in the treaty

– The commitment of states who are in a position to provide assistance to these efforts to do so was also highlighted in the action plan

– States parties also committed to start discussions on establishing an international trust fund that could support affected states in their work

– And, states parties resolved to implement this framework by the principles of accessibility, inclusivity, non-discrimination and transparency, and to work closely with affected communities and other stakeholders in implementation. We believe this is key to success – affected communities, their expertise and requirements must be centred in these efforts and in policymaking. Collaborative ways of working with all relevant stakeholders and experts, from civil society to international organisations, youth, affected communities and indigenous peoples, are crucial.

As we know, the Central Asian region was the site of nuclear testing during the Soviet Union – foremost in Kazakhstan, but with underground tests also taking place in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Our colleague Dmitry Vesselov has already detailed the devastating consequences of nuclear testing in Kazakhstan.

We also know very well about the efforts of the Kazakh people and their political representatives to mobilise to end nuclear testing on their land, culminating in the closure of the Semipalatinsk test site on this day more than 30 years ago.

And we know the government of Kazakhstan and affected communities continue to work to address the legacies of nuclear testing today, and to seek the support of the international community to do this.

Kazakhstan has also taken a central and crucial role in leading states parties to agreement on the framework for implementation on articles 6 and 7 of the Treaty on the PRohibition of Nuclear Weapons set out at the first meeting of states parties, as well as in pushing forward discussions intersessionally since then. Mandated by the meeting, Kazakhstan co-chairs the treaty’s informal working group on this subject with another affected state party, Kiribati (a Pacific Island nation that suffered nuclear testing by the UK and USA). Kiribati and Kazakhstan have been working closely together on this area since the runup to the first meeting of states parties.

Discussion in the working group since last year has focused on developing the parameters for establishing an international trust fund; formats and guidelines for states parties’ voluntary reporting on their implementation of victim assistance, environmental remediation and international cooperation and assistance; and presentations on the situations in affected countries.

The co-chairs have made efforts to seek views from representatives from affected communities across the world in considering these issues. ICAN has been developing networks and coordination with affected communities and their organisations to advocate for and help facilitate their centring in implementation efforts. We commend the recognition of the importance of inclusivity and efforts to involve affected communities and other stakeholders from across civil society that the working group has demonstrated – whilst acknowledging that for both states parties and civil society we have much more work to do.

Kazakhstan co-leadership to move forward work on the implementation of the framework on victim assistance, environmental remediation and international cooperation and assistance has made a significant contribution to the overall picture of substantive work taking place under the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. In this way, it is a crucial element towards the treaty making a normative and practical impact to address the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, and so towards achieving a nuclear weapon free world.

The treaty is still young and its work is in its early stages, but ICAN is encouraged by the work states parties have done so far. We encourage states parties to continue in their efforts to make sure these obligations have a real practical impact for affected communities – and also encourage all other states that share the humanitarian goals of the treaty to join it and support these efforts in whatever way they are able to, voluntarily, from national statements to practical assistance.

As the treaty moves towards its third meeting of states parties, over which Kazakhstan will preside, we are sure that the president will look for ambitious progress in this area on victim assistance and environmental remediation. In a recent op-ed in the Jerusalem Post, Deputy Foreign Minister Kairat Umarov expressed his optimism that a trust fund could be established during Kazakhstan’s presidency. We encourage states in the region to support these efforts – as parties to the treaty. We already heard there will be an opportunity to sign or ratify the treaty at a ceremony at the UN General Assembly this autumn. Through joining the treaty, central Asian states can affirm their commitment against nuclear testing through both its prohibitions and positive obligations to respond to the impacts of nuclear testing, and show their commitment to those affected.


Featured image: Delegates of the conference, including the Deputy Foreign Minister of Kazakhstan. Photo: ICRC Astana