Last week was the 63rd anniversary of the atomic bombing of the city of Hiroshima. I’ve just spent four days in a city where the memories are not only fresh, but engraved in stone, protected in world heritage-listed monuments, and taught urgently to young and old, local and foreign alike.
The Japanese have a word for the survivors of the twin atomic attacks on August 6 and 9, 1945. They call them Hibakusha, those for whom nuclear weapons signify something other than peace marches.
An elderly gentleman stood at the front of the workshop room and took us back there, smiling, exquisitely polite. A warm morning in 1945. A brilliant white flash. Thunderous darkness, moments of blind unconsciousness. Waking in bewilderment in the remains of a building thrown sideways. He describes columns of silent ghost people, streaming out of the ruined city with skin and clothing hanging in shreds, a firestorm rising behind them.
One bomb, a whole city erased with 16kg of highly enriched uranium stolen from Native American lands. In an instant 90,000 people murdered; incinerated or pulverised in the blast wave of a single weapon detonated 600m above the domed roof of the Industrial Promotion Hall. Three days later, with Imperial Japan still reeling in confusion, another nuclear weapon opens up the sky above the city of Nagasaki. All told, perhaps a quarter of a million people are felled in the blasts or succumb in the coming days and months to the unknown horrors of radiation sickness.
Much of the world has forgotten August 1945. Buried beneath our collective consciousness in the shallowest of graves, lies the uncomprehending knowledge that humanity now shares the planet with 26,000 nuclear weapons, most of them vastly more powerful than the devices of the 1940s. It is bad enough that they are in the hands of at least nine states, but unknown quantities of potential weapons-grade materials are also seeping through the porous borders of the world’s black economy. Australia, Canada, and others are selling the crucial bomb fuel uranium freely to nuclear weapons states under a fictional safeguards regime.
It is time we took a proper look at the reality that confronts us. Unless they are formally abolished, one day, nuclear weapons will be upon us again; either in the tip of a cruise missile or in the back of a truck parked in some familiar city. The correct number of nuclear weapons on a small planet facing big challenges is exactly zero.
The May 2005 review conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was perhaps the lowest point in the history of the campaign to rid the world of nuclear weapons before they rid the world of us. The Bush Administration crashed a 30-year dialogue to the dismay of the tight knit community of officials, diplomats and activists who have made it their lives’ work to wrench some progress from these tortured negotiations.
The Bush presidency is now little more than a cruel joke, and the global abolition community is re-emerging with a new determination. There is a change in the air.
Senator Barack Obama has put the abolition of nuclear weapons on the agenda of a US Presidential race for the first time. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has put Australia into the frame with a proposed new Commission on nuclear weapons. Japanese campaigners are particularly interested in how the collaboration between their government and ours will work.
Announced after Rudd’s visit to Hiroshima, the Commission will be chaired by former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, and co-chaired by former Foreign Minister of Japan, Yoriko Kawaguchi. The Australian peace movement has a crucial role to play as watchdog and adviser as this commission unfolds.
Speaking at the 2008 conference to ban atomic and hydrogen bombs the 7,000 participants in the World Conference Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs here in Hiroshima are focused on the next opportunity for decisive action: the April 2010 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in New York. We have a 20-month deadline to disarmament, which will be characterised by a new wave of peace efforts, petitions, demonstrations, fundraisers, and planning all around the world. In Australia, our job is to ensure that our delegation to New York is given a crystal-clear mandate to bring the age of nuclear weapons to a close.
Today we witnessed the memorial ceremony in the Hiroshima peace park. We watched as the names of 5,100 additional people who died in the last 12 months were added to the cenotaph. The total number of dead: 258,310 officially recognised Hibakusha.
It is hard to describe the sense of unswerving determination that the dignified elderly Hibakusha have instilled in the representatives of the global peace movement. There are now three generations of Hibakusha speaking up: those who witnessed the blast first-hand, their children and now their grand children. The subtle permanence of the damage wrought by radiation on the human genome means that the impact of atomic warfare spans across generations. And so the campaign to abolish these weapons also spans across generations.
Spurred on by dedicated local campaigners, the international community has had the foresight to ban chemical and biological weapons. The abolition of landmines and cluster munitions are advanced works in progress. Nuclear weapons are next.
A Nuclear Weapons Convention - already drafted by expert non-government organisations - shows us how. Until the job is done, the Hibakusha will be here to remind us why.