Inclusivity in United Nations Nuclear Weapons Treaty: Diversity & Disarmament

By Katia Altern

UN delegates give a standing ovation after the UN adopts a historic treaty to ban the use and testing of nuclear weapons.

UN delegates give a standing ovation after adopting the treaty.

On Friday, July 7th, 2017, 122 countries approved a new treaty to ban the use, testing, production, and possession of nuclear weapons. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is a legally-binding and long overdue treaty to promote nuclear disarmament around the world. This treaty is a critical step toward ensuring that nuclear weapons no longer pose a threat to present and future generations.

Although the Treaty is crucial to create a safer world for all living things on Earth, many countries intentionally abstained from negotiations. Those countries that boycotted the negotiations include the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea, and a number of those countries’ allies. In other words, all the countries who have access to nuclear arms and thus wish to maintain a nuclear arsenal. The United States, United Kingdom, and France issued a statement declaring that they “have not taken part in the negotiations of the treaty… and do not intend to sign, ratify, or ever become party to it.”

Two Japanese origami cranes placed behind the United States' nameplate during the UN negotiations for a Treaty to ban nuclear weapons.

Japanese origami cranes were placed on the United States' nameplate during the negotiations.

The Treaty not only takes a big step in securing a world without nuclear arms, but also takes a step towards a more inclusive conversation in regards to racial justice issues; Reaching Critical Will observed that this treaty was “perhaps the most inclusive process related to nuclear weapons that the United Nations has ever seen.” Normally when we hear about conferences pertaining to nuclear arms, the people involved in these conversations are affluent white men from affluent white countries who speak about how nuclear arms provide necessary security. For this Treaty, the process was unlike the typical conference; indigenous people, women’s rights advocates, and survivors of nuclear testing were actively present and prominent throughout the negotiations. Voices were brought to the forefront of people of color who experienced firsthand the effects of nuclear weapon use and testing, as opposed to their being “represented” by people who often do not share or understand their experiences. Because the nuclear states boycotted the negotiations by not attending, it allowed for the rest of the 122 countries to develop an even stronger treaty that was not inhibited by the nuclear states’ desires or solicitations.

Ambassador Caleb Otto, the former Representative for the Republic of Palau to the United Nations, shared frightening stories at the UU-UNO's 2017 Intergenerational Spring Seminar of Palau's experience as a site where the United States tested nuclear weapons.

Watch Seminar Panel

Between 1946 and 1996, more than 2,000 nuclear weapons tests were administered by the US, UK, Soviet Union, France, and China. These tests took place in locations that belong to indigenous peoples who still face the devastating harm to not only their health and environment, but also to their social communities, their culture, and their economies because of their forced dislocation. Many of these people were prevented from following certain cultural traditions because their land and their connections to their land were lost forever. Furthermore, these indigenous people often felt “humiliation and alienation from society” due to the social stigma surrounding radiological exposure. One of the examples of this alienation can be seen through the women survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings who experienced marriage discrimination, despite no clear evidence of genetic or reproductive damage in children born from bomb survivors.

Cartoon illustration of a nuclear bomb explosion

Cartoon nuclear bomb explosion.

The moral issue of whether or not the US should have dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is still a widely debated topic. According to the Pew Research Center, opinions about the moral implications of the bombings are continuing to change. In 1945 immediately following the bombings, a poll was released that revealed 85% of Americans approved the using of the atomic weapon. In 1991, 46 years after the bombings, the poll published that 63% of Americans said that bombings were justified. Just 24 years later, a 2015 poll reported that only 56% agreed that the use of the nuclear weapon was justified. Pew Research Center states that unsurprisingly, there is a “large generation gap among Americans in [their] attitudes”. This shift in thought is because of the gradual change in the negative attitudes towards Japanese people. The anti-Japanese mindset was endemic throughout World War II, as revealed through the internment of Japanese Americans, racially disparaging propaganda, and openly discriminatory laws. Because of the dehumanizing racism that existed, the morality of the decision to drop the nuclear bomb was more widely accepted by American society.

Photo of a nuclear bomb exploding on Bikini Atoll

An atomic bomb explodes on Bikini Atoll.

Although the moral issue of nuclear weapons is still heavily contested, it can not be denied that the large majority of nuclear weapons are tested in areas that are predominantly people of color. The nuclear weapons tested in developing countries is mostly done by white people. Testing sites like Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, Pokhran in Rajasthan, and Semipalatinsk in the Republic of Kazakhstan are some of the places that the indigenous people still suffer from the impacts of nuclear testing. Due to the Soviet Union’s 465 nuclear detonations in Semipalatinsk, the 220,000 residents there “inherited a wealth of health and environmental problems that may take generations to be fully calculated”. The Indian government claimed that their nuclear test in Pokhran was “in a remote desert area” but was actually near a population site of 15,000. After worldwide condemnation, India claimed that their interest in nuclear weapons was purely for peaceful purposes and that they would no longer build nuclear weapons. On May 11, 1998, however, India carried out another test at the same site. Then, two days later, another test at the same site occurred. Any evidence of Pokhran residents’ health and environment being affected by the nuclear tests has been concealed by the Indian government. In Bikini Atoll, Bikini Islanders and generations after them have “lived in exile since they were moved for the first weapons test.” Almost ten years after US scientists told the former residents that the island was safe for resettlement, the Islanders were once again removed due to ingesting high levels of radiation from eating foods grown on the former test site. The US has awarded limited money in personal injury and damage claims but became unable to continue the compensation due to “exhausted funds.”

Although the 2017 Treaty has not immediately eliminated nuclear weapons, it marks an important shift in allowing more voices to be heard that are often stifled by the Western rich white countries.

About the Author

Katia Altern

Katia Altern is the Racial Justice Intern at the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office during summer 2017. She started at the UU-UNO in late June and will continue till December 2017. She is currently a sophomore studying Public Policy and Social Work at New York University. She is third...


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