Day one of the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons had a very full programme and a huge attendance. More than a dozen experts presented views in a series of panels to a packed Hofburg Palace on the impacts of nuclear weapon explosions and nuclear weapons testing, the risks of deliberate or accidental nuclear weapon detonations, and the challenges that would confront the international disaster relief system of nuclear weapon use.
Those expert presentations were followed by question and answer sessions that took place against the backdrop of an opening ceremony that included messages from the Pope, the UN Secretary-General, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the Conference host, the Federal Minister for Europe Integration and Foreign Affairs of Austria, Sebastian Kurz.
Movingly, the 900 plus attendees representing almost 160 states and civil society also received testimonies from survivors of the Hiroshima atomic bomb explosion of 6 August 1945, and victims of nuclear weapons testing in the Marshall Islands, Australia and the United States.
In short, this two-day Conference showed its seriousness of purpose, intent and intensity right from the outset. For the most part, the opening day of the meeting involved a conscious accumulation of the evidence of a range of humanitarian impacts of the detonation of nuclear weapons, the facts-based approach pioneered by its predecessors in Oslo (March 2013) and Nayarit (February 2014).
Dominant themes in comments from panelists and speakers from the floor were concerns about increased international tensions, about the heightened risk of nuclear weapon use arising from those conflicts as well as from accidental causes, and about the very limited capacity of states and the international community to provide assistance in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear weapon detonation (with many mentions of UNIDIR’s research on this matter).
As noted, there were also opportunities during the day’s programme for question-and-answer sessions between the audience and the panelists. Not all of the interventions from the floor were so couched. Representatives of several states and international organisations chose, instead, to make general statements pitched at the audience in general rather than to the expert panelists. In one instance, in a reversal of roles, a statement from the floor by the International Atomic Energy Agency drew an impromptu correction from the Algerian co-chair of the panel of the moment.
In another instance, a statement by the United States delegation, participating for the first time in this series of conferences, appeared to have been written in isolation from the session on testing in which it was delivered. In any event, it was somewhat removed from the theme of evidence of human consequences to which panelists on that session had either personally experienced and testified or had researched. Yet, the United States delegation acknowledged, as a new participant in this sequence of meetings, that it had “come to listen”, its presence being widely seen within the meeting as a positive development for the humanitarian approach to nuclear weapons.
Certainly, the first day offered an intensive listening experience for all participants. In the general debate that follows the panel on legal issues on day two, we can expect to begin to gauge what participants make of what they heard and where it should lead. This will be the focus of our next posting on the conference’s second day.