Test Pattern: The UN Gets a Helpful Reminder on Nuclear Testing

5 Sep

Once again this year, the government of Kazakhstan has capably organized events (www.un.org/en/events/againstnucleartestsday/2013/events.shtml) to highlight the international obligation to abolish nuclear testing as a precondition for abolishing nuclear weapons once and for all.

The highlight for many was an evening reception on the first floor of the renovated UN conference building hosted by Ambassador Byrganym Aitimova and featuring the art work of Mr. Karipbek Kuyukov, a young man who was born without arms and who shared his artwork with diplomats and other UN stakeholders.  The art, it should be noted, was painted with his feet and was in its own way a remarkable testament to the damage that nuclear tests can do to local populations long past the point at which the ‘test results’ have been tabulated by nuclear weapons states.

It should be noted that, despite the lack of universal ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, nuclear testing is being functionally rendered inert.  Tests are few and far between and subject to almost universal condemnation by states.  At the same time, nuclear weapons states continue to modernize their arsenals, a veritable slap in the fact to those who states that have been pursuing a nuclear free world in a variety of settings – through nuclear free zones, in largely deadlocked fora such as the Conference on Disarmament, through ‘like-minded’ processes such as such as was convened last spring in Oslo, through the Open Ended Working Group in Geneva, or through the high level meeting on nuclear disarmament being organized by the GA president’s office during its opening session in late September.

In addition to diverse policy venues, there are also diverse security responsibilities.   As we have noted with respect to nuclear free zones, there is an important difference between honoring a treaty and supporting the security arrangements of a zone.   Lowering violence thresholds and enhancing human security involves multiple complementary activities that can reduce incentives for (and excuses by) the nuclear weapons states to preserve their nuclear monopoly.

There are many pathways to disarmament and all of them have rough patches, some rougher than others. Despite the fact that nuclear testing sits on few of the top priority lists of member state security concerns, it is critically important that there be no backsliding on testing.  As challenging as progress towards disarmament can be, we cannot afford to burden that agenda further, not to mention place new generations at risk of dangerous fallout from the reckless pursuit of such tests.

The ‘path to zero’ articulated during the panel presentations on September 5 has been winding and full of potholes, but still points us towards a nuclear free world.   There are detours required at times, but no dead end.  While it is not always clear how individual events at the UN contribute to preferred outcomes, it is important that we ritualize even more of these powerful reminders of our nuclear weapons responsibilities.  Just as birthdays, religious and national holidays, anniversaries and more are the signposts through which we reaffirm the deep value to our families, friends and other loved ones, such events as those organized by Kazakhstan can help keep us from turning our attention away from our disarmament obligations before our work is done.

Dr. Robert Zuber


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