Kazakhstan: Disarmament is key

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

With the threat of global terrorism escalating, can it be guaranteed that extremist groups will not get their hands on the destructive power of a nuclear weapon? [United States Department of Energy/ Wikimedia]

Recent terror attacks should renew international leaders’ determination to defeat extremist groups and the ideology that propels them, writes Erlan Idrissov.

Erlan Idrissov is the Foreign Minister of Kazakhstan.

Last year reminded us that violent extremism is a global problem. Recent terror attacks have spanned the globe, from the deserts of Syria and Iraq to the boulevards of Paris, and the streets of Jakarta. 

Yet, even as the world stands against these outrages, we must recognise that the terrorist threat is growing, not receding. Terrorist organisations are evolving. They are more technically capable and have gained access to vast financial resources. They recruit members on a global basis and some seek to mimic nation-states by controlling territory and imposing their will on local citizens.

In spite of efforts by the international community to prevent the spread of nuclear technology, can we assure the world that sophisticated terrorist organisations like these will never acquire the means of mass destruction?

Doing so will require the complete elimination of nuclear weapons from our world. The recent nuclear test by North Korea, in violation of numerous UN Security Council resolutions, only reminded us of the urgency of this goal. 

For Kazakhstan, a nuclear weapons-free future is not just a slogan. It has been at the centre of our national identity since before our independence. For over four decades, Kazakhstan was used as a testing ground for Soviet nuclear weapons. Almost 500 explosions had the cumulative effect of more than 2,500 Hiroshima bombs.

The UN estimates that 1.5 million Kazakh people were exposed to harmful radioactive fallout. Thousands died, and the high rate of cancer and birth defects among local people are a painful legacy of these tests. Over 18,000 square kilometres of our country remains radioactive.

Our own experience shows that a nuclear weapons-free world will never be achieved without citizens demanding it. Few outside Kazakhstan know that during Soviet times, ordinary people rose up against nuclear testing. Thousands protested and presented authorities with 1 million petition signatures. In November 1989, the Soviet government yielded to the people and suspended nuclear testing on our soil.

This explains why, even before we achieved independence 24 years ago, President Nursultan Nazarbayev launched a people’s campaign to stand against nuclear weapons. We closed the Semipalatinsk test site, renounced the world’s fourth largest arsenal of nuclear weapons and eliminated its infrastructure under the Nunn-Lugar program.  

But our campaign did not stop there. With our partners in the region, Kazakhstan worked to establish the Central Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone. In 2013, we hosted two rounds of talks between the P5+1 and Iran in search of a nuclear agreement, and recently helped facilitate the removal of enriched uranium from Iran to begin implementation of the deal. 

We have also joined with the International Atomic Energy Agency to establish the world’s first Low Enriched Uranium Bank in Kazakhstan, under international control.  This long-sought facility will assure fuel supplies for nuclear power plants, thereby eliminating the need for a country to enrich uranium themselves, which poses proliferation and security risks. 

The movement is growing. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, a country that knows the horror of nuclear weapons, recently visited Kazakhstan where he and President Nazarbayev declared themselves “individually and jointly” committed to completing ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). They urged eight countries – China, Egypt, North Korea, India, Iran, Israel, Pakistan and the United States – that have not joined the rest of the world by signing and/or ratifying the treaty to do so and finally allow it to go into force.   

The world’s citizens are demanding an end to nuclear testing. In answer to them, the United Nations accepted Kazakhstan’s proposal to establish the International Day Against Nuclear Testing each 29 August, the anniversary of the closure of the Semipalatinsk test site. Kazakhstan also launched The ATOM Project (Abolish Testing. Our Mission) to enlist the support of citizens from all countries. People from 120 countries have joined the effort.   

Now the United Nations is renewing its leadership so that the promise of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) can be realised. Last September, President Nazarbayev urged the UN General Assembly to agree that a world free of nuclear weapons “should be the main goal of humanity in the 21st century.” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared that nuclear disarmament is a “public good of the highest order.” 

The UN responded by approving the Universal Declaration for the Achievement of a Nuclear-Weapons-Free World. Offered by Kazakhstan and co-sponsored by 35 countries, it received support from 133 countries. However, the fact that 23 countries voted against it and 28 more abstained, shows that the campaign must continue.

The world will be at risk as long as nuclear weapons are deployed. We look to our European friends and partners to take concrete steps in reducing the threat of nuclear fallout, especially at a time when non-state actors and terrorist groups are seeking evermore devastating weapons. If anything, the Iranian nuclear agreement showed what can be achieved through negotiations, intermediation and diplomacy.

By working together to stop testing, to control nuclear materials and to build the political will to support their eventual elimination, we can offer a better future for all peoples.

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