By Ramesh Jaura
The fact that President Nursultan Nazarbayev shut down the Semipalatinsk test site “against the interests of the Soviet military authorities” even before the Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan became “fully independent”, is not widely known.
The decision reflected a strong political will, the courage to translate it into reality, and put a series of follow-up measures in place which, as Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov says, give Kazakhstan “the moral right to push for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, both globally and regionally”.
The huge site, in the east of the country, was the centre of the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapon testing programme. Its first-ever nuclear test took place there on August 29, 1949. Over the next 40 years, 455 additional nuclear explosions followed, says Idrissov, Foreign Minister in the Government of Kazakhstan since September 2012, a post he also held from 1999 to 2002.
When those first nuclear devices were exploded, the potential effects of radiation or contamination, even when known, were seen as far less important than the arms race. “Elderly residents tell of being encouraged out of their homes to witness the first explosions and mushroom clouds,” recalls Idrissov.
As a result of this ignorance and failure, according to United Nations estimates, up to 1.5 million people in Kazakhstan were exposed to high radiation levels. Not long before, many began to suffer from ill health, early deaths and birth defects.
This dreadful impact remained hidden for many years from the wider public. But as the health and environmental damage became better known, it fuelled fierce opposition at every level across the country to nuclear testing. This led President Nazarbayev to issue a decree closing the nuclear weapon testing site.
As a follow-up, Kazakhstan renounced voluntarily the world’s fourth biggest nuclear arsenal, which it inherited on the break-up of the Soviet Union, says Idrissov, briefing foreign journalists in Astana on the occasion of the International Day against Nuclear Tests, commemorated each year on August 29. This year it coincided with the 25th anniversary of the closure of the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site.
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It was at the initiative of the Republic of Kazakhstan, together with a large number of sponsors and co-sponsors that the 64th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on December 2, 2009 unanimously adopted resolution 64/35 declaring August 29 the International Day against Nuclear Tests.
Closing the testing site and ridding Kazakhstan of nuclear weapons, working “meticulously” with the Soviet Union was only a first step. Both soft- and hardware were involved in ensuring the safe disposal of the weapons and materials.
The persistent need to prevent nuclear material from falling into the hands of terrorists called for unprecedented – and at the time secret – cooperation between Kazakhstan, Russia and the United States, as well as other countries and organizations, over several years.
Kazakhstan’s foreign policy, emphasizing peace, dialogue and international cooperation has been guided by the recognition of the “immorality” of nuclear weapons, “the vision of security”, and “ensuring a healthy environment”, says Idrissov.
It is with this in view that the Central Asian republic has been in the forefront of the global campaign to end nuclear testing and to warn against the dangers of nuclear weapons.
“We have also shown that international influence and stature do not depend on nuclear firepower,” Idrissov adds. Kazakhstan’s election as non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for 2017-2018 – and good relations with a wide range of countries – is evidence of the country’s standing in the world, he says.
“We would bring our perspective to contribute to the work of the Security Council and the UN for the cause of peace and development.” The focus will be on ensuring global nuclear, water, food and energy security.
Kazakhstan will serve on the Council beginning January 1, 2017 as one of the 10 non-permanent members along with Sweden, Bolivia and Ethiopia. The newly-elected countries will replace Spain, Malaysia, New Zealand, Angola and Venezuela.
The Security Council has 15 members, including five permanent members, each with the power of veto: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Other current non-permanent members are Japan, Egypt, Senegal, Ukraine and Uruguay.
Together with Japan’s Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, Idrissov chaired the Ministerial-level Conference on September 29, 2015 in New York for Facilitating the Entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), which was adopted by the UNGA in 1996.
Kazakh President Nazarbayev and Prime Miniser Shinzo Abe of Japan reiterated in a statement issued on October 27, 2015 in Astana the reasons behind their commitment to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) becoming a law.
“As countries which experienced and are fully aware of the threat of nuclear weapons. Kazakhstan and Japan share the moral authority and responsibility to raise the awareness of the people throughout the world about the humanitarian catastrophes nuclear weapons have brought about. With this special mission in mind, Kazakhstan and Japan are determined to work together closely pursuing a world free of nuclear weapons,” the joint statement said.
This objective remains valid, says Idrissiv, adding that concerted efforts would be undertaken to enable the coming into force of the CTBT, which is crucial for ushering in a world free of nuclear weapons. “It’s a shame” that the treaty has not yet entered into force.
Altogether 183 member states of the UN have signed the Treaty and 164 have ratified. But it will enter into force only when 44 countries complete their ratification procedures. Particular attention is being paid to eight countries – China, Egypt, Iran, Israel and the U.S., which have signed the Treaty, and North Korea, India and Pakistan that have until now refused to put their signature on the CTBT.
Nevertheless, with the exception of “ugly” tests carried out by North Korea all countries have abided by the de facto ban on nuclear testing. Despite being pitted against each other in South Asia, both India and Pakistan have declared unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing. The next positive step would be to declare a “bilateral moratorium”.
Kazakhstan’s global status is also underlined by the country’s choice to host the international low enriched uranium bank under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which will start operating next year. The ‘bank’ will ensure supply of uranium for civilian purposes such as building nuclear power plants.
Of equally great importance is the Universal Declaration for the Achievement of a Nuclear-Weapons-Free World tabled by Kazakhstan and co-sponsored by 35 countries. President Nazarbayev initiated the proposal at the first Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C. in April 2010. He reiterated it on September 28, 2015 at the general debate of the 70th session of the UNGA in New York.
The Kazakh Ministry of Foreign Affairs worked hard from 2010 to 2015 with all interested parties to agree on the text of the Declaration, which was finalised at the session of the UNGA First Committee held in October and November 2015.
“The Declaration was not adopted unanimously,” says Idrissov but 133 countries voted for its adoption, 23 countries voted against and 28 abstained.
The document itself calls for a series of steps. First: the total elimination of nuclear weapons as the only absolute guarantee against their use or threat of use. Second: the adoption of a global multilateral and legally binding document that provides for the total elimination of nuclear weapons.
Third: the redirection of the investment of human and economic resources that now go toward the development, maintenance and modernisation of nuclear weapons into strengthening sustainable development, peace and security, as well as saving millions of people from poverty.
Finally, it calls for compliance with the norms of international law, including international humanitarian law, because of the catastrophic humanitarian consequences from any use of nuclear weapons.
Among Kazakhstan’s important activities is the support for the UN’s Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG). 107 nations expressed support for the convening of a UN conference in 2017 to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination. This proposal formed the key recommendation in the working group’s report, adopted in Geneva on August 19 with overwhelming support.
The world has also seen a reduction in the global threat to human lives from nuclear weapons. But there are still 15,000 in existence – enough to destroy humanity many times over. Still, there has been progress.
“We have seen the growth of nuclear weapons-free zones as we now have in Central Asia. The number of weapons, too, has been reduced.” But the threat from nuclear weapons has scarcely ever been as great, because violent extremist groups are actively trying to get their hands on nuclear weapons and technology. If they succeed, they would not hesitate to use them. In their view, the greater the loss of life and destruction the better.
With this in view, President Nazarbayev has called for the mankind to set, as its main goal for this century, ridding our world of nuclear weapons by 2045, the centenary of the United Nations. With his Manifesto: The World. The 21st century, he has produced a blueprint to show how this goal could be achieved.
The last 25 years have shown this won’t be easy. But, as Idrissov rightly points out, “we must step up our efforts to rebuild the trust needed”. The example of Kazakhstan shows both the price to be paid in case of failure and also what can be achieved with vision.
This is underlined by the Declaration adopted by conference on ‘Building a Nuclear-Free World’ ‘The Astana Vision: From a Radioactive Haze to a Nuclear-Weapon Free World’. The Declaration recalls that closure of the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site was “the first such step in the world history of disarmament”.