On 29 August 2023, diplomats, the expert community, and humanitarians from Central Asia and beyond met in Astana, Kazakhstan on the International Day against Nuclear Tests for a regional conference on “Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in Central Asia.”
The conference was co-organised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the Center for International Security and Policy (CISP), Soka Gakkai International (SGl), and ICAN and participants included delegates from the five Member States of the Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty (Semipalatinsk Treaty), namely Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, as well as representatives of communities affected by nuclear testing.
The location and date were of particular significance. The date of the International Day Against Nuclear Tests was chosen to commemorate the closure of the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site in Kazakhstan on 29 August 1991. This day is marked to increase awareness and education “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.”
Attendees had the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of the humanitarian considerations related to the development, testing, and use of nuclear weapons, and applicable international and regional legal instruments, such as the Semipalatinsk Treaty and the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). They also listened to the testimony from a survivor of nuclear tests and heard about the obligations in the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) on victim assistance and environmental remediation, which aim to respond to the legacies of past nuclear weapons use and testing.
“Though it is not possible to provide a humanitarian response that can undo what has happened to people and the environment, it is still a humanitarian imperative to work to address the impacts in communities today as much as states and their partners are able to,” stated Elizabeth Minor, of Article 36 and ICAN steering group member, during the session on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. She also stressed the role that the TPNW can play in addressing and remediating these impacts. “Articles 6 and 7 of the TPNW, on victim assistance, environmental remediation and international cooperation and assistance, establish a framework of shared and collective responsibility and solidarity amongst states parties, which aims to support affected states parties to address the ongoing impacts of past nuclear weapons use and testing.” She highlighted that affected communities and their expertise must be centered in these efforts, which need to be inclusive and transparent.
Kazakhstan, in particular, is playing a key role in implementing the treaty, as the designated president of the third meeting of states parties of the TPNW, and the co-chair of the working group on victim assistance and environmental remediation, alongside another state affected by nuclear tests, Kiribati.
The meeting also provided an opportunity to encourage the attending states to join the TPNW, as a way to build on their commitment to disarmament seen in their adherence to the Semipalatinsk Treaty. As Celine Nahory, ICAN’s Advocacy Coordinator, exhorted: “ICAN hopes that other Central Asian states will join Kazakhstan in representing the Semipalatinsk Treaty. Just as Mexico is presiding over the second meeting of states parties to the TPNW with the support of the whole Latin American and the Caribbean region and parties to the Tlatelolco Treaty, we believe it would be a powerful message if Central Asian states could stand behind Kazakhstan as states parties when it succeeds Mexico at the end of the second MSP, which will take place from 27 November to 1 December.”
Read more about the role of the Central Asian States in a nuclear weapons free world in our briefing paper here.