Flying into the new national capital of Kazakhstan, Astana, late at night gave me the impression that Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev might have created a Las Vegas on the steps of Siberia. Bright, colored neon lights were everywhere. Once a very rural and agricultural area, Astana has become a vibrant, high-rise, contemporary, bustling city today with western hotels, restaurants, businesses, and clubs. We were here to speak at an international gathering of diplomats, academics, activists, nonproliferation experts, and Kazakh citizens about the possibilities of abolishing nuclear weapons globally.
Kazakhstan, once the fourth largest nuclear weapons country, gave up its 1,400 nuclear weapons shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union. In 1991, it officially closed the former Soviet nuclear testing site at Semipalatinsk, where more than 450 nuclear tests had taken place. This conference and public meeting, held in the Palace of Independence, also celebrated the 20th anniversary of the closure of Semipalatinsk.
Kazakh President Nazarbayev opened the conference with a call for a world free of all nuclear weapons and asked the expert participants to lay out a roadmap to get there. He declared that Kazakhstan and the now-established Central Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone was in the vanguard of the global nuclear-free movement. "We call on all countries of the world to follow our example… and point to the historic closure of Semipalatinsk as a victory over evil."
U.S. President Barack Obama submitted a statement to the conference, read by U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman. "Kazakhstan has been a long-time leader in non-proliferation and a good friend to the United States… Kazakhstan chose the path towards peace and has made the world a safer place. We owe you a sincere debt of gratitude." United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon delivered a videotaped message to the conference. "I will never forget my visit to Semipalatinsk last year -- a powerful symbol of hope for a world free of nuclear weapons."
Three panel discussions were organized after the plenary session: "Achieving a Nuclear Weapon-Free World," chaired by Sverre Lodgaard, former Head of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR); "The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty -- the Role of Governments and Society in Early Entry into Force of the Treaty," chaired by Tibor Toth, head of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO); and "Creation of Nuclear Weapon-Free Zones: Problems and Perspectives," chaired by William Potter, Director of the Center for Non-Proliferation Studies.
I spoke on the second panel with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller, among others. Gottemoeller called for “an end to explosive nuclear testing once and for all” and stated that the U.S. “does not need nuclear testing to maintain its stockpile."
Speaking on behalf of Global Green and the Green Cross Environmental Security and Sustainability Program, I argued for U.S. ratification of the CTBT, for deeper cuts in strategic nuclear weapons arsenals, for a Fissile Material Control Treaty (FMCT), and for permanent closure and remediation of all nuclear testing sites, including Semipalatinsk and Nevada. These national sacrifice zones are a sad and costly reminder of the dangerous legacies of the Cold War and need to be taken back from their radioactive histories.
Our Kazakh hosts also organized a very interesting and informative trip following the conference to eastern Kazakhstan to visit the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site and the city of "Semey." The latter included visits to the research institutes on radiation, oncology, and public health, briefing conference participants on the increased incidence of cancer in the region. A celebration with more than 15,000 participants was also held in the region to recognize the 20th anniversary of the test site closure.
The final Astana Declaration on a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World stated the following: "It is now opportune for all States that possess nuclear weapons to pursue steps toward the total elimination of nuclear weapons at the earliest possible time."