The Nuclear Disarmament Mess


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On 29 August, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with a group of Japanese journalists ahead of his visit to Tokyo and sought to reassure them about India’s commitment to universal, non-discriminatory and global nuclear disarmament and a unilateral and voluntary moratorium on nuclear explosive testing. The same day, in the far-away steppes of Kazakhstan, former Japanese diplomat Yasuyoshi Komizo joined the locals of Semey, a small town located on the banks of the Irtysh river, bordering Russia, to mark the International Day Against Nuclear Tests by observing a moment’s silence in honour of all victims, living and dead, of nuclear tests.

Komizo, 66, who now serves as the chairperson of Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation and the secretary general of Mayors for Peace, also planted a sapling of the Gingko Bilopa tree, which survived the 6 August 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Present on the occasion was armless Kazakh painter Karipbek Kuyukov, 46, who is a second-generation victim of the nuclear tests at Semey and the face of the anti-nuclear movement in Kazakhstan.

Kuyukov, who holds a brush in his mouth or between his toes to give expression to his creative spirit, was born near Semey and is one of more than 1.5 million people, as per a United Nations estimate, who suffered the consequences of nuclear testing.

Today, he divides his time between painting and campaigning for a global ban on nuclear tests as an honorary ambassador of The ATOM Project (an acronym for Abolish Testing. Our Mission), which Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev launched on 29 August 2012.

The coming together of the victims of nuclear tests such as Kuyukov and the Hibayushas (Japanese for survivors of an explosion) of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only victims of atomic bombings, is instructive for India and the world.

A Study In Contrast

weapons_of_mass_destThe Republic of Kazakhstan was not even born when the late Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi unveiled his now eponymously-named “action plan to usher in a world order free of nuclear weapons and rooted in non-violence”, on 9 June 1988 at the UN General Assembly.

However, since then, while India’s moral heft and political will to pursue the twin issues of non-proliferation and disarmament to a logical conclusion have seen a decline, Kazakhstan — undaunted by the prospect of a David versus Goliath battle or unfazed by the criticism of not making enough progress towards genuine media and political freedoms — has taken upon itself to champion the cause of a global test ban leading to an eventual ban on nuclear weapons. And it has all the right credentials, to boot.

On 28 February 1989, a poet-activist by the name of Olzhas Suleimenov, now 78, founded the Nevada- Semey anti-nuclear movement to mobilise public opinion against the nuclear explosions conducted by the then USSR at the Semey (formerly Semipalatinsk) test site and to show solidarity with similar movements in the US for closing down the Nevada nuclear test site.

A groundswell of public opinion following the launch of the movement ensured that the erstwhile USSR did not conduct another nuclear test at Semey after 19 October 1989 (although it would not be until after the 24 October 1990 test at Novaya Zemlya, an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, that the erstwhile USSR completely stopped all nuclear tests.)

On 29 August 1991, Nazarbayev, president of what was then the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, officially shut down the Semey nuclear test site. (Kazakhstan became an independent country on 16 December 1991.) It brought to an end a 40-year-long history of nuclear tests at Semey, which began on 29 August 1949; a total of 456 tests (including 116 above-ground tests) were conducted at Semey. He followed it up by announcing that Kazakhstan would voluntarily renounce its nuclear arsenal — the fourth largest in the world at the time — that it had inherited from the erstwhile USSR.

testing_timesThat process was completed by 1996 but his ambitious endeavours didn’t stop there. Next on his agenda was a Central Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty, which was signed by all five Central Asian States — Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan — on 8 September 2006 at Semey and came into force in 2009. This May, all five permanent members of the UN Security Council signed the protocol to this treaty, giving negative security assurances and committing themselves not to use nuclear weapons against the Central Asian States.

On 2 December 2009, the 64th session of the UN General Assembly accepted Kazakhstan’s proposal for declaring 29 August as the International Day Against Nuclear Tests. The Resolution 64/35, which was adopted unanimously, called for increasing awareness “about the effects of nuclear weapon test explosions or any other nuclear explosions and the need for their cessation as one of the means of achieving the goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world”. (India and seven other countries — China, Pakistan, the US, Iran, North Korea, Israel and Egypt — are still to sign and/or ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear- Test-Ban Treaty or the CTBT.)

During his visit to Semey in April 2010, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged the leaders of all countries, especially the nuclear powers, to follow the example of Kazakhstan on disarmament and non-proliferation.

Among the latest to join countries such as Kazakhstan and Japan in a concerted campaign for a global test ban leading to eventual disarmament is Marshall Islands, a tiny archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, where the US had conducted a series of nuclear tests, including the detonation of a nuclear device that was equivalent to a thousand Hiroshimas. (In April this year, Marshall Islands filed a lawsuit against India and eight other nuclear-armed countries at the International Court of Justice at The Hague for not disarming themselves.)

In comparison, India’s quest for a nuclear-free world dates back to 1954 when the late prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru became the first statesman to call for a “stand still” agreement on nuclear testing. Three decades later, the late prime minister Indira Gandhi joined five other heads of state and/or government in issuing the Appeal of May 1984 to refocus the world’s attention on nuclear disarmament. However, by then a combination of circumstances and national security imperatives had already begun impelling India towards effecting a shift from a foreign and security policy based on moral considerations to one that was dictated by realpolitik; the nuclear tests by India in 1998 are a case in point.

As Rajiv Gandhi had said in his 1988 speech, “Left to ourselves, we would not want to touch nuclear weapons. But when, in the passing play of great power rivalries, tactical considerations are allowed to take precedence over the imperatives of nuclear non-proliferation, with what leeway are we left?”

Reconciling Dilemmas

To the proponents of non-proliferation and disarmament, the discourse in India today, unlike the time when it sought to punch above its weight in the international arena, has markedly shifted away from a moral self-righteousness to the pursuit of a foreign policy bereft of a moral compass. Yet, there is an overwhelming body of opinion, both within the government and without, that India can and must play an effective role in working towards attaining the goal of disarmament. As Prime Minister Modi himself said in his interaction with the Japanese journalists in New Delhi, “There is no contradiction in our mind between being a nuclear weapon state and contributing actively to global nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.”

He iterated India’s position a second time, this time during the course of an interaction with the students of Sacred Heart University in Tokyo, that India’s commitment to non-violence is total; it is ingrained in the “DNA of Indian society and this is above any international treaty”. Modi went on to assert that “India is the land of Lord Buddha. Buddha lived for peace and suffered for peace and that message is prevalent in India.”

On the face of it, Modi’s remarks are consistent with those of his predecessors, particularly Manmohan Singh, who had wrestled with the pros and cons of disarmament in the light of the relevance (or lack thereof ) of the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan and India’s moral stature in pushing for a global consensus on the issue.

A committee constituted in the second term of Manmohan Singh had recommended, among other things, that India should lead the campaign for disarmament because over the decades, it has been in the forefront of such efforts and its emergence as a power to be reckoned with would further enable it in this endeavour.

The Road Ahead

What Rajiv Gandhi said in his 1988 speech rings true even today: “Humanity is at a crossroads. One road will take us like lemmings to our own suicide. (The) other road will give us another chance.”

Surely, the latter road passes through Semey. The least India can and must do is to lend its voice and weight to the efforts being championed by Kazakhstan and Japan alike. The essential features of the four-fold Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan are similar to the four specific steps that Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida articulated recently in an article published by Foreign Affairs, a leading American magazine on international relations. In the article, Kishida, who, incidentally, hails from Hiroshima, hoped that a consensus could be reached at the 2015 NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty) Review Conference on a new plan of action to reduce nuclear weapons and ensure non-proliferation.

The year 2015 would also mark the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings. New Delhi and Tokyo would do well to dovetail their efforts for greater synergy. Doing so will also endear India to those sections of the Japanese society that remain sceptical of civil nuclear cooperation with a non-NPT and non-CTBT country such as India.

For its part, Kazakhstan has listed nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation among its key foreign policy priorities in the event of its election as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for the 2017-18 period. As for India, Prime Minister Modi’s talks with the leaders of China and the US and his intervention at the UN General Assembly this month should be a good starting point for it to lay out its vision for reducing the salience of nuclear weapons in international affairs. Therefore, going forward, there is ample scope for India, Japan and Kazakhstan to coordinate their positions.

For if, as Modi said, the friendship between India and Japan will determine what the “Asian century” will look like, then it behoves of them to partner like-minded Asian countries such as Kazakhstan for an alternative universality. A 2012 strategy document, titled ‘Nonalignment 2.0: A foreign and strategic policy for India in the 21st century’, published by the New Delhi-based think-tank Centre for Policy Research, had concluded that “India should aim not just at being powerful. It should set new standards for what the powerful must do.”

In a similar vein, Jonathan Granoff, president of the US-based Global Security Institute, had said on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan in 2008 that “the world needs the compass point of leadership”. Will India, and Modi, oblige?

Ramesh Ramachandran is a New Delhi-based journalist

The Armless Crusader
Painter Karipbek Kuyukov is a living testimony to the damage caused by radioactive fallout from nuclear testing, says Ramesh Ramachandran

Trailblazer Karipbek Kuyukov, Photo: AFP
Trailblazer Karipbek Kuyukov, Photo: AFP

The remoteness of Semey (formerly Semipalatinsk) proved to be its undoing. A land that was once home to Kazakhstan’s most famous poet, Abai Kunanbayev, or the place where Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky of Crime and Punishment fame was exiled to, is today infamous for the nuclear pursuits of the erstwhile Soviet Union. The Cold War saw the Soviets use the vast steppe around Semey for conducting a series of nuclear tests. Consequently, this nondescript town, which today has a population of only a little over 300,000, has seen some of the worst human, man-made tragedies.

Karipbek Kuyukov, 46, is a living testimony of the damage caused by radioactive fallout from the explosions. He was born in 1968 in the village of Yegyndybulak, about a 100 km away from Semey, where the former Soviet Union tested its nuclear weapons between 1949 and 1989. Little did his unsuspecting parents know that years of indiscriminate nuclear testing during the Cold War would rob their son of the simple pleasures of life that you and I, who are far removed from the steppes of Kazakhstan, would take for granted. Kuyukov was born without arms — an unwitting victim of his parents’ exposure to nuclear radiation.

“When I was a child, my parents used to tell me stories about how the ground trembled,” Kuyukov recalls. “Growing up, I remember the armoires shaking and the rattling of dishes.”

He spent an early part of his life at an institute in St Petersburg (formerly Leningrad), where his father hoped he would learn to use prosthetic arms. The young Kuyukov tried but failed to master the prosthetic; he wouldn’t tell if it militated against his aesthetic sensibilities but he lets you in on his intimate thoughts and how and why he chose art to give expression to his creative talent. “My soul was looking to create something beautiful,” he reminisces.

What began as a painfully slow and exhausting attempt at redeeming himself eventually transformed into a cathartic, and almost transcendental, experience — one that would not only give meaning to his life but hold him up as a conscience-keeper for generations to come.

“I will be the happiest if I am among the last victims of nuclear tests,” says the diminutive painter, who has made it his life’s mission to encourage people, as opposed to governments, to seek a ban on nuclear tests and to make a world free of nuclear weapons a reality. Left to themselves, governments will forever cite reasons for holding on to their nuclear arsenals but people can turn the tide when they force governments to sit up and take notice of the will of the people, he reasons. And that is the message he seeks to convey through his paintings. Holding a brush in his mouth and between his toes, Kuyukov has painted on themes ranging from fear and loneliness to the mushroom cloud and nature.

“Through my works, I want to share with the people the horrible consequences of nuclear tests, the pain and suffering of the victims of nuclear tests and the agony of mothers,” he says. Today, he spends a considerable part of his time campaigning for a ban on nuclear tests in his capacity as an honorary ambassador for The ATOM Project. (The ATOM Project is a global petition drive to mobilise international public opinion against nuclear tests and to deliver those petitions with signatures to the leaders of the countries with nuclear weapons.)

“The last 25 years of my life have been a battle. When I joined the movement, I remember that in those days when neither the Internet nor mobile phones existed, we collected signatures on sheets of paper from every region,” Kuyukov says. “I don’t have arms to hug you but I have a heart and it belongs to you!”

According to The ATOM Project, “Today, many in the area around the former Semipalatinsk nuclear test site (or The Polygon, as it was known) do not live past 60 and, as a result of exposure to radiation, the genetic code of those parents and grandparents was permanently altered, resulting in horrific birth defects to this day. According to the UN, in all, more than 1.5 million people in Kazakhstan are believed to have suffered premature death, horrible radiation-related diseases and lifetimes of struggle as a result of birth defects.”

The ATOM Project has designated 11.05 am (the local time in respective countries) on 29 August of every year as the occasion to observe a moment’s silence in honour of all victims of nuclear tests. At 11.05 am, the hands of a clock form a ‘V’ for victory and it therefore chose this time to signify a victory of common sense over fear and for global efforts towards a nuclear weapons-free world.


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