Nuclear survivors' testimony: from hell to hope

Author(s): Dr Rebecca Johnson
9 December 2014, Open Democracy

Participants at the HINW Conference were screened for nuclear contamination yesterday, before listening to testimony from survivors mobilising for the abolition of nuclear weapons in what Pope Francis called "our common home."

This is the second of three reports by Rebecca Johnson from the HINW conference in Vienna this week. Read article one: Gathering speed to ban nuclear weapons

As I arrived at the famous Hofburg Palace in Vienna to attend the Third International Conference on the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons (HINW) I was met by Austrian Red Cross personnel in full radiation suits.  As civil society and government representatives reached the entrance, we were told that we had to be checked for nuclear contamination before going any further.  A Geiger counter was passed up and down my body, especially focussing on my face, hands, legs and feet.  The Red Cross official was speaking to me, but I couldn’t hear him well through the radiation mask covering his face.  I felt my anxiety levels rising as I struggled to understand that he was telling me that I had suffered “some exposure to radioactive contamination” and would need to get “decontaminated”. He gave me a white tag to wear, marked “Victim Contamination Control Record”, showing the hotspots on my body. More radiation-suited officials escorted me to another line, where I was “decontaminated” – at least theoretically. The exercise ended there.  Instead of being stripped and showered, my skin scrubbed and scoured, and my clothes destroyed, as a real decontamination process would require, I was ushered through today’s “normal security” checks – a bag search and metal detector.  

The Austrian Red Cross action was extraordinarily effective as a way to make the Conference delegates wake up and think about what life would be like for survivors after nuclear bomb detonations. Watching the reactions of some of the diplomats going through this Victim Contamination Control process, I saw some try treating it as a joke, while others played along, and some even showed impatience – important people with a big conference to go to, not liking to be delayed by people wielding radiation detectors, even if they were from the Red Cross. Whatever their initial reactions, however, their faces reflected anxiety and nervousness.  “It makes you think” I overheard one diplomat say, and hoped the thinking would lead to constructive action. 

The Conference was opened by the Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, who reminded everyone that there are over 16,000 nuclear warheads, distributed among 14 countries (9 nuclear armed states and 5 NATO hosts). He emphasised that “As long as nuclear weapons exist, the risk of their use - on purpose or by accident - remains real”. 

The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon’s statement welcomed that the humanitarian “initiatives” had “energized civil society and Governments alike”. Noting that conferences like this have “compelled us to keep in mind the horrific consequences that would result from any use of nuclear weapons”, the Secretary-General expressed his hope that “all participants come away with new resolve to pursue effective measures for the achievement of nuclear disarmament”. 

For the first time, Pope Francis also sent a message about nuclear weapons, in which he stated: “Spending on nuclear weapons squanders the wealth of nations.  To prioritise such spending is a mistake and a misallocation of resources which would be far better invested in the areas of integral human development, education, health and the fight against extreme poverty.  When these resources are squandered, the poor and the weak living on the margins of society pay the price.”  Referring particularly to the “unnecessary suffering” brought on by the use of nuclear weapons, as well as their capacity for “mass killing”, Pope Francis argued that “if such suffering is banned in the waging of conventional war, then it should all the more be banned in nuclear conflict.”   Expressing the hope that “the desire for peace and fraternity planted deep in the human heart will bear fruit in concrete ways to ensure that nuclear weapons are banned once and for all, to the benefit of our common home”, Pope Francis called on governments and civil society to take responsibility “for a world without nuclear weapons is truly possible”. 

Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) argued: “the global and long-term humanitarian consequences of nuclear