From New York to DC – The Civil Society Divide on the Nuclear Ban

I’m sharing excerpts from an interview with Toshiki Fujimori, a Hiroshima bomb survivor and assistant secretary general of HIDANKYO (Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations), who sits squarely in the humanitarian camp.

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The controversial negotiations on a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons kicked off its first session last week at the United Nations. The negotiations are often cited as evidence of the growing polarization between nuclear weapons states and their allies and non-nuclear weapons states. Indeed, of the 132 countries to participate in the talks, not one possesses nuclear weapons and only one (the Netherlands) is a member of NATO.

However, the divide on the nuclear ban extends beyond states into civil society and academia. On this level, the difference between supporters and opponents rests on their conceptualization of nuclear weapons. Supporters, including many civil society representatives attending the negotiations, focus on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapon use and testing while opponents, including most Washington think tanks, place nuclear weapons primarily in an international security framework.

The indiscriminate impact of a nuclear attack violates International Humanitarian Law, maintain those with a humanitarian view. They put nuclear weapons in the same camp as landmines, cluster munitions, and chemical and biological weapons, all of which have been outlawed under international law.

A treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons won’t eliminate any weapons without the participation of nuclear weapons states, claim those with an international security focus, adding that it could undermine existing non-proliferation legal frameworks and distract from practical and concrete steps to eventual disarmament.

As a Washingtonian who attended the negotiations at the UN, I witnessed this conceptual gap first hand. In an attempt to bridge the two perspectives, I’m sharing excerpts from an interview I conducted last week with Toshiki Fujimori, a Hiroshima bomb survivor and assistant secretary general of HIDANKYO (Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations), who sits squarely in the humanitarian camp.

I would like to thank Yayoi Tsuchida for her translation during the interview. Fujimori’s address to the opening session of the negotiations on a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons at United Nations is available here.

Sanders-Zakre: Tell me your story of the Hiroshima bombing.

Fujimori: I was 1 year and 4 months old when the bomb was dropped. We were a big family of 12, consisting of my grandfather, father, mother, six elder sisters, two elder brothers, and myself. Two of my elder sisters and my two elder brothers had evacuated out of the city of Hiroshima to avoid air raids. The eight of us who stayed in Hiroshima were exposed to the bomb.

My fourth-eldest sister was 13 years old and was in her first year of an all-girls junior high school. She was around 400 meters from the hypocenter when the bomb was dropped. All 676 of them, including my sister, were killed instantly through direct exposure to radiation, the heat, and the blast from the bomb. It is said that all together in the city of Hiroshima, 8,400 students in the first and second year of junior high schools were being mobilized for similar purposes that day. The lives of 6,300 of them were lost.

I was sick that day, so my mother was heading to the hospital with me on her back when the bomb was dropped. We were 2.3 kilometers from the hypocenter. Fortunately, a two-story house between the hypocenter and us prevented us from directly being exposed to the heat. Yet, we were thrown all the way to the edge of the river bank. My mother, with me in her arms, managed to get to the nearby mountain called Ushitayama. Our family members were in different locations at the time of the bombing, but everyone escaped to the same mountain of Ushitayama, except for my fourth-elder sister. For many days that followed, my parents and my sisters kept going back to the area near the hypocenter to look for my fourth-eldest sister, who was missing. We never found her. We never found her body either. In the meantime, I had my entire body covered with bandages, with only my eyes, nose, and mouth uncovered. Everybody thought I would die over time. Yet, I survived. It is a miracle. I am here at the UN, asking for an abolition of nuclear weapons. I am convinced that this is a mission I am given as a survivor of the atomic bomb.

Two hundred and ten thousand people died by the end of 1945 due to the atomic bombs the U.S. forces dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Hibakusha experienced hell on earth beneath the mushroom clouds. In fact, hibakusha have continued to suffer for the 26,166 days until today, March 27th, 2017.

Nobody, in any country, deserves seeing the same hell on earth again.

Sanders-Zakre: Why do you tell your story?

Fujimori: I was very small when the bomb was dropped. I can only tell my story because since the atomic bombing my mother every year would call all her children on August 6th and speak about her experience, while she was crying. Even though the experience of telling her story was very painful for her, she thought she had to tell the story to her children. She said she didn’t want any people in the world to experience the same traumatic experience she did. At the time I was so small, I didn’t fully understand the meaning of what she said. When I grew up, I understood that what she meant was that there should be no more hibakusha (Hirsohima and Nagasaki bomb survivors). At the beginning of the negotiations, I had the chance to speak before many diplomats and I was happy to convey the desire of hibakusha.

Sanders-Zakre: What would you like to tell people in the United States who don’t support banning nuclear weapons?

Fujimori: I think those who engaged in the production or development of nuclear weapons and those who ordered or engaged in the dropping of bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki knew what would happen when they used nuclear weapons. What happened to Hiroshima on that day was living hell. Perhaps American people don’t want to put their families into a living hell. The United States is the only country that has used nuclear weapons against humanity. Now, even though there are strong voices growing for a total ban of nuclear weapons, the U.S. government is still trying to modernize its nuclear weapons. I cannot be patient on such a movement which is contrary to the desire of hibakusha. The United States must not be like this. Their nuclear weapons can create a living hell again in the world. I want the United States to change its attitude to promoting world peace and the survival of humanity.

Sanders-Zakre: Why is a ban on nuclear weapons so important?

Fujimori: In order for seven billion people in the world to survive, American nuclear weapons must be banned and eliminated. It is the only way to ensure survival of humanity. We welcome this first step of banning nuclear weapons. The hibakusha appeal is not only for themselves by also for people all over the world.

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