Leadership requested on nuclear weapons ban

Survivors, or “Hibakusha,” of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II are now aged in their 80s and 90s, but they are still traveling the world to promote their call for a nuclear-free Japan and for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Over the past week, New Zealanders have marked the 67th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with a speakers tour by two visiting Hibakusha: Ms. Shigeko Sasamori and Mr. Michimasa (Michi) Hirata.

At their Wellington talk on 7 August, Ms. Sasamori talked about her experience when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on the morning of 6 August 1945. At the time she was a 13-year-old student working outside “on a beautiful sunny day” clearing rubble left from previous bombing strikes that had become so common that she did not pay much attention when she heard the plane approach. The blast knocked her unconscious and she awoke in “darkness.” Ms. Sasamori saw unimaginable suffering and devastation as she attempted to leave the city and return to her home. After five nights, her family found her in a school auditorium, identifying her from the sound of her weak voice as the skin on her face “was like burnt toast” from radiation burns.

Ms. Sasamori has experienced years of health problems. A decade after the war concluded, she was brought to the United States where she underwent extensive plastic surgery with many skin grafts and operations. She got cancer in 1974, but survived after 20 inches of her intestine was removed. In her concluding remarks, Ms. Sasamori said, “Life is so precious. I don’t want anyone to suffer what I went through” but emphasized “this is not just peace-makers work – it is everyone’s responsibility” to campaign for nuclear abolition.

Mr. Hirata provided a compelling presentation of the immediate and long-term impacts of the atomic bombs used by the United States in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the “Japanese nuclear experiences” that have followed, such as the nuclear power plant disaster at Fukushima caused by the earthquake and tsunami on 3 March 2011. He commended the Aotearoa New Zealand wing of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (iCAN ANZ) for its work to secure cross-party support for stronger New Zealand leadership on nuclear disarmament.

On 3 August 2012, the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Select Committee issued its report on an iCAN ANZ petition to the New Zealand Parliament that called on the New Zealand government to actively engage with ‘like-minded’ governments to launch “without delay” a process to negotiate a global treaty banning nuclear weapons. The report says, “we believe New Zealand should move beyond a position of general support to the forefront of negotiations towards a nuclear weapons convention.”

The committee issuing the report is comprised of seven members of parliament from both the government  (National) as well as opposition (Labour and the Greens). The report did not include a “minority report,” which means that all committee members agreed with its findings, including chair John Hayes (National, Wairarapa), Parliamentary Private Secretary of Foreign Affairs.

The committee report dismisses current policy advice by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which informed the committee during a  hearing in March 2012 that the time is “not right” for a process to create an international treaty to abolish nuclear weapons. According to the committee:

On balance we believe that the time is right for the New Zealand Government to support a nuclear weapons convention. We see New Zealand’s geopolitical role as one of pushing the boundaries towards peaceful resolutions. It has been traditionally ahead of the pack in matters of disarmament, and this is a good opportunity to take an active role regarding the abolition of nuclear weapons, as it did regarding cluster munitions. New Zealand has had a significant impact in this area and we look for this to continue.

Speaking in support of the iCAN ANZ submission at the committee hearing, Edwina Hughes of Peace Movement Aotearoa said it is it essential that the New Zealand government be prepared to play a leading role in an international process to abolish nuclear weapons. On behalf of the Aotearoa New Zealand campaigns to ban landmines and cluster munitions, Mary Wareham described how New Zealand played a central leadership role in the fast-track diplomatic processes to tackle both landmines and cluster munitions, despite initial reservations about embracing an immediate and total ban on antipersonnel mines.

Several countries are currently seeking opportunities and partners to advance international law to abolish nuclear weapons. In April 2012, the Norwegian Foreign Minister, Jonas Gahr Store, announced the government’s intent to hold a conference in Oslo in early 2013 to “highlight different aspects of nuclear weapons as a humanitarian problem.”

New Zealand has legislated a ban on nuclear weapons that requires the government work to advance nuclear disarmament internationally. Yet when the Minister of Foreign Affairs last spoke on nuclear disarmament, he was dismissive of calls for New Zealand to lead an international ban on nuclear weapons. The government now has 90 days to respond to the committee’s report. Will political leadership respond positively to the call from New Zealand civil society, parliamentarians, and the public? Will the government take action to tackle the humanitarian harm that these weapons cause, as Ms. Shigeko Sasamori and Mr. Michi Hirata so ably communicated? Will it provide clear direction and the necessary resources? Watch this space…

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