Presentation to the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association on victims assistance in a ban treaty
On 16 May 2015 ICAN UK and Article 36 spoke at the AGM of the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association on a treaty banning nuclear weapons. Rebecca Sharkey, coordinator of ICAN UK, introduced the humanitarian initiative on nuclear weapons, with a video on the catastrophic humanitarian consequences and a discussion of current international progress, including the three recent conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. Elizabeth Minor of Article 36 introduced the principle of including victim assistance in a treaty banning nuclear weapons and the implications for UK-based survivors, in remarks reproduced in full below:
The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons is advocating for a nuclear weapons ban treaty, as an effective step towards the global goal of nuclear disarmament that all states have agreed to. Within this, we advocate that provisions for the assistance of victims should be included in a treaty banning nuclear weapons. I will introduce this idea and its implications.
The rights and needs of many of those affected by nuclear weapons explosions worldwide have not yet been adequately addressed. Victims’, survivors’ and veterans’ health needs and the social and economic marginalisation suffered as a result of the effects of nuclear weapons are unevenly catered for, by divergent systems across the world. This is despite the rights to health, work, and remedy for harm, which all people, including those affected by nuclear explosions, have. The needs of people who have been affected by nuclear weapons are diverse, can affect whole families, and can reach across generations as you all know.
We have heard testimonies from survivors about the inadequate response to their needs, and discrimination and marginalisation, at the humanitarian impact conferences. The globally inadequate response to survivors has also been recognised by over 100 states that have committed to take new action to achieve the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons, through joining the international ‘Humanitarian Pledge‘.
A treaty banning nuclear weapons has the aim of making sure that the impacts of a nuclear weapons explosion are never suffered again. The aim of including obligations on victim assistance is to respond to harm that has already occurred. It applies the duty of states to ensure the full realisation of the rights of all individuals under their jurisdiction to the specific circumstances of the victims of nuclear weapons. The aim is to strengthen the recognition and response of states towards these victims, including through international cooperation and accountability.
There are already a range of international rules and regulations that specifically describe the rights of victims and survivors of violence, and the victims of certain weapons. These cover for example meeting the needs that individuals have as a result of the harm they have suffered, redress for this harm, justice, and restoring environments that have been affected by violence. The sources of these rights include International Human Rights Law, International Humanitarian Law, international criminal standards, and international rules on state responsibility.
However, there is currently no international legal instrument that gives a framework for survivors of nuclear tests and the atomic bombings of Japan to collectively seek assistance towards the full realisation of their rights, or that gives them specific recognition. There are also currently no specific international obligations to decontaminate or remediate areas affected by nuclear weapons detonations.
Including victim assistance provisions in a ban treaty would mean drawing specific attention, through treaty obligations, to the need to ensure the existing rights of victims are fulfilled – this focus, and the reiteration of these rights, aims to strengthen the position of victims. The approach is not specifically concerned with financial compensation to victims. It aims to be much wider, to help ensure that states who have responsibility towards them address their full range of needs, for example in health, employment, inclusion and the needs of their families (similarly to your Recognition Campaign) – as well as and not precluding the right to seek compensation and other forms of remedy and reparation, at a national level, for the harm caused.
Provisions in a treaty would likely address ongoing negative health effects, social and economic marginalisation, decontamination and the rehabilitation of communities, and transparency on past use of nuclear weapons, to address these issues. A basis in data is key to victim assistance, as the state needs to be fully aware itself of the problem. Of course, there can be challenges to this, with evidence contested or not acknowledged.
Including victim assistance in a treaty banning nuclear weapons would also likely involve creating structures for international cooperation, support and sharing of standards for good practice between states, to help them achieve the fulfilment of their responsibilities towards their populations. This would give structures for accountability, and create obligations both on individual states and on the broader international community to assist them.
The development of victim assistance provisions during treaty negotiations should be inclusive of survivors in order to adequately address their needs, and all survivors’ groups and individuals that wish to participate should be part of this process, based on the principle of “nothing about us, without us”. Ongoing treaty processes should also offer a collective voice and means of representation for survivors, on the issues that specifically affect them. Developing solidarity and connection between victims’ organisations in different countries can also be useful, potentially, to the work of individual organisations at a national level, through the sharing of useful experiences and successes it facilitates.
Including these kinds of victims’ assistance provisions is an approach that has developed over the past two decades in disarmament treaties that originate from humanitarian concerns – for example, treaties that banned anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions based on the unacceptable harm these weapons cause – as well as elsewhere, such as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Many states have supported this approach before.
Testimony from survivors and the need to address their rights have not generally been included in international discussions on nuclear weapons however – these have generally focused on discussing state security and deterrence, rather than human impact and the need to respond to the human suffering caused by nuclear weapons. Though it may be unfamiliar approach to nuclear disarmament, the inclusion of victims’ right is integral to a prohibition of nuclear weapons that is based on their unacceptable humanitarian consequences.
Though creating an international legal framework alone would not guarantee adequate victim assistance , it would strengthen the position of survivors to have an explicit recognition of their experience, and a framework in which to pursue their rights collectively. It has in other cases (such as for survivors of landmines) been helpful for improving assistance to survivors in any particular country.
We expect that some states will not initially join negotiations on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons: these are the nuclear-armed states and their allies. This means that some states with particular obligations to the survivors of nuclear explosions, and to whom victim assistance provisions would apply, may not be present at initial negotiations. This is significant to the negotiations of these provisions. It also means that any victim assistance provisions agreed would be unlikely to have an immediate practical impact for people affected by nuclear weapons in the UK, as no treaty can compel action by states not party. However, by setting a new international standard, measures agreed on in a nuclear weapons ban treaty may still have an indirect impact.
Despite the opposition of the UK government to a ban treaty, there would be nothing to stop UK veterans and descendants engaging with the humanitarian initiative on nuclear weapons and being involved in a future process to shape victim assistance provisions in a treaty banning nuclear weapons, given that you are part of the global community of survivors with valuable experiences to contribute on the development of victim assistance provisions – and given that the goal in time is for the nuclear-armed states and allies to sign up to the ban treaty (and eliminate their arsenals). In principle you should be involved if you wish to be. We would be very happy to keep in touch if you are interested in what we have been talking about today, and wish you all the best with your work for your members in the UK.