A 70 year old story can make a difference

A version of this post was published in the Times Colonist on 14 August 2015, available online here.

On the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Victoria's The Times Colonist, published a decades old secret. Rudi Hoenson, a leading philanthropist in Victoria, had been a 22 year old Dutch prisoner of war in Nagasaki the day the bomb fell. You can read the whole story here. Mr. Hoenson had never shared his story publicly before. 

"Ask him why he has never talked about it before, he squirms a little, grimaces. Maybe he didn’t want to sound like he was showing off, he says. He is, in truth, reluctant to tell his story now, wants to know what good will be done by telling the tale."

As someone born and raised in Victoria, I was incredibly surprised to read this article; I never considered that the Government House Team Room's elderly Dutch namesake could be a hibakusha. As a disarmament campaigner, I was saddened to read that Mr. Hoenson questioned what good sharing his story would do. Working on campaigns to ban landmines, cluster munitions and nuclear weapons has shown me quite clearly that there is incredible power in survivors of indiscriminate weapons sharing their stories. 

So to answer the question about what good telling your story now will do, Mr. Hoenson, your story has the power to change policy and sharing it this year is incredibly important.

Every year since 1945, the world has said “never again” and every year since 1945 nuclear weapons continue to threaten all life on earth. Generations of school children have folded paper cranes while the survivors have shared their painful memories of the horror inflicted upon them and their cities. In response, leaders read statements of sorrow and vowed to pursue disarmament. Mere days later, the memories of the memorial event fade and the vows are forgotten until the next year when it is time to say “never again” again. In the meantime, 16000 nuclear weapons continue to threaten all of us and risk catastrophic climate change. With that state of affairs, anyone could be forgiven for wondering what good another survivor story could do.

But things are changing.

For the first time in decades, a world wide effort to ban nuclear weapons is gathering momentum. There have been three highly successful conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons where states gathered with academics, civil society organizations, the Red Cross and UN agencies to examine the risks and probable results of another nuclear weapon detonation either by design or by accident.

These conferences have challenged the sanitized and passive understanding of what happened to Hiroshima and Nagasaki that has taken hold. The actual horror of these weapons has been put aside for too many years. Testimony from survivors of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and nuclear weapons tests have been crucial to challenging that sterile discussion of nuclear weapons. Mr. Hoenson’s story provides evidence to back up the consensus among experts that the humanitarian consequences of a nuclear weapon detonation would be catastrophic and no state or humanitarian organization is capable of providing assistance to the victims. Survivor testimony and expert analysis has led many to the conclusion that nuclear weapons must be prohibited and eliminated.

Based on these findings, the Government of Austria issued the Humanitarian Pledge calling on states to “fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons” in December 2014 (remember nuclear weapons are the only weapon of mass destruction not yet banned). The Humanitarian Pledge has been endorsed by 113 states and that number is growing.  These states are supported by the International Committee of the Red Cross’ call to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons and the actions of the over 300 organizations making up the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. We, as a global community, now have the opportunity to take concrete action and turn our annual vows of “never again” into permanent reality.

Shamefully, Canada is not on board with this world-wide effort to ban nuclear weapons. At the United Nations, our government objects to language in statements that says “It is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances.” Furthermore, our government has not endorsed the Humanitarian Pledge despite treaty obligations to pursue nuclear disarmament and a unanimous parliamentary motion calling for Canada to take a leadership role these efforts. Our government is squandering this opportunity to take concrete action towards nuclear disarmament. 

Maybe Canadians have been quiet on this issue because Hiroshima and Nagasaki happened long ago to unknown people far away. But upon reading Mr. Hoenson’s story of horror and of survival, we know exactly what that nuclear bomb did to one of our own.  Now that we know, how can we sit by while 16,000 nuclear weapons remain around the world? Now that we know, how can we not ask our government to be a leader? Now that we know, how can we not act? 

Erin Hunt is the Program Coordinator at Mines Action Canada.