In the early 1990s, tens of thousands of people surrounded the SemiPalatinsk nuclear test site in Kazakhstan.
Decades of testing under the Soviets had had a major impact on the area, and residents and their allies demanded the site be closed down. They succeeded – the site was shuttered on the 29th of August 1991. The date has become the International Day against nuclear testing.
The closing of the SemiPalatinsk site was part of a larger movement in the 1980s and 1990s when communities demonstrated against nuclear weapons. From the Greenham Commons Peace Camp in England to demonstrations on the Russian steppe, people demanded changes to policies around nuclear weapons. And it worked. In Western Europe the protests resulted in the ground-breaking Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF).
Weapons of mass destruction
Today, however, the INF treaty has collapsed and some governments still consider nuclear weapons necessary. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons seeks to change this way of thinking. The recent Russian accident during the test of a nuclear powered missile and the US demonstration of a new intermediate ground-based missile show these governments’ reliance on the ability to commit mass murder. This policy is also known as nuclear deterrence.
Setting a new norm
The best way to put an end to the nuclear arms race is to end nuclear weapons. That means establishing and building on the norm against their legitimacy. This has been done before with other weapons systems. No government in this day and age would suggest its national security relied on chemical or biological weapons. So why should anyone accept the suggestion that relying on nuclear weapons is okay?
Time to act!
To change perceptions, and create this norm, we need to activate society. Through our partnership in the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, PAX is reminding people that nuclear weapons are fundamentally unacceptable. Today Kazakhstan is ratifying the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, bringing the treaty more than hallway towards entering into force. Twenty-eight years after getting the SemiPalatinsk test site closed, we can take heart in knowing that it will be the power of the people that ends the nuclear weapons era once and for all.