Why the world must commemorate 29 August – International Day against Nuclear Tests
Approximately seventy years ago, the Soviet Union began to use a site at Semipalatinsk to test nuclear weapons. Over the next four decades Soviet authorities conducted 456 nuclear tests at this nuclear test site in Kazakhstan. Nearly a quarter of all nuclear explosions were triggered under and above the ground.
The tests were carried out in the context of a Cold War, and the Soviet authorities believed that these tests were in the national interest. Yet few considered the devastating impact they would have on Kazakhstan and its citizens, including future generations.
More than 1 million people in Kazakhstan were exposed to radioactive fallout during these atmospheric and underground tests, and vast tracts of land are now contaminated in Semipalatinsk and surrounding areas. To this day Kazakhstan is still struggling with the environmental and health fall-out of these explosions. For example, as very few precautions were taken during the tests, there is a very high incidence of health problems such as birth defects and cancers which sadly continue to be passed down through generations.
Having experienced first-hand the gruesome and shattering impact of nuclear testing, Kazakhstan, under the leadership of its First President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, made a brave decision to become a staunch advocate to ban nuclear testing, as well as to ensure nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. Kazakhstan did not have to go down this path. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhstan was left with the fourth largest nuclear arsenal in the world. Perhaps some countries, believing that such an arsenal will provide firm security for decades to come, would have decided to keep these weapons. Yet Kazakhstan made the right decision to renounce and decommission its nuclear arsenal and shut down the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site.
The country’s efforts to push for global nuclear non-proliferation did not stop there. In 2009, at an event dedicated to the 20th anniversary of the cessation of nuclear tests at the Semipalatinsk test site, First President Nursultan Nazarbayev took the initiative to declare August 29 the International Day against Nuclear Tests. At the initiative of Kazakhstan, the Day was officially established on December 2, 2009 at the 64th session of the United Nations General Assembly by the resolution 64/35, which was adopted unanimously. The resolution calls for increasing awareness “about the effects of nuclear weapon test explosions or any other nuclear explosions and the need for their cessation as one of the means of achieving the goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world”.
To this day, the International Day against Nuclear Tests remains a key date in the international calendar. Though nuclear tests are rare these days, they are not extinct. For instance, the most recent confirmed nuclear test occurred in September 2017 in North Korea. Perhaps even more worrisome, the threat of the use of nuclear weapons remains high. The stand-off between Russia and the United States remains a global danger. Furthermore, there is uncertainty surrounding the Iranian nuclear deal, signed in 2015, after the United States pulled out from the agreement in 2018.
Kazakhstan played an important role in the success of this Iranian nuclear deal by hosting two rounds of negotiations between Iran and P5+1 in 2013, as well as by directly participating in the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. It is therefore disappointing that the agreement may be on the brink of falling apart, thus leading to a potential proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.
For these reasons, it is vitally important to remember the horrors of nuclear tests and nuclear weapons by commemorating the anniversary of the closure of the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site on 29 of August, and by celebrating the International Day against Nuclear Tests. In this regard, Kazakhstan has continued on an annual basis to bring to the global attention the issue of nuclear disarmament.
Under the leadership of President, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Kazakhstan is continuing to push for global nuclear disarmament. During his first speech at the UN General Assembly in September 2019, President Tokayev stated that Kazakhstan stems from the firm conviction that nuclear weapons are no longer an asset but a danger to global peace and stability, adding that achieving a nuclear-free world has become an essential part of Kazakhstan’s national identity. This position is becoming more mainstream globally. Through initiatives such as the International Day against Nuclear Tests, as well as through actions taken by Kazakhstan and other proponents of nuclear non-proliferation, the dream may one day become a reality.