If you think of a country with a vast experience in nuclear non-proliferation, Kazakhstan will certainly be on the list. The Central Asian nation, with a territory nearly the size of Western Europe and a population of 18 million, voluntarily dismantled its nuclear arsenal that it had inherited following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was the world’s fourth largest at the time, including 1,040 nuclear warheads for 104 SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missiles and 370 nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, which could have had a terribly devastating effect on the world if they were to fall into the wrong hands, but not in the case of Kazakhstan.
The population in Kazakhstan knows the horrors of nuclear weapons well, as the Semipalatinsk test site located in the country’s once remote eastern part had served as the site for more than 450 nuclear tests conducted by the Soviet authorities from 1949 to 1989 with more than 1.5 million people ending up impacted by the tests. To this day, an estimated 200,000 of local residents, in the first and second generations, still suffer the consequences.
The closure of the Semipalatinsk test site by President Nursultan Nazarbayaev in August of 1991, marking the crucial step in the young nation’s history even before its independence in December the same year, sent the nation on a decade long, yet powerful journey promoting global nuclear disarmament ideals until present days.
Kazakhstan has since signed and ratified major international nuclear non-proliferation treaties, including the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1993), the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (2001). In 2012, Kazakhstan launched its international ATOM (Abolish Testing Our Mission) Project seeking to call on global governments to end legally the nuclear weapons testing and to build a nuclear weapon free world.
Serving as the nation’s important nuclear non-proliferation mechanism reaching out to the international community, The ATOM Project is also among 486 partner organisations of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) that was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize award this year.
Encompassing international efforts from 101 nations worldwide to endorse international legal mechanisms on banning nuclear weapons, the campaign’s landmark achievement so far was the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons adopted by an overwhelming majority July 7 at the United Nations headquarters, yet to be ratified by the UN member states.
The Nobel committee awarded the prize to the ICAN to mark its decade long activities resulting in the adoption of the treaty, which finally signifies some progress in multilateral nuclear disarmament activities that had witnessed little progress over the years.
Representatives of The ATOM project and its Honorary Ambassador, famous Kazakh artist and nuclear non-proliferation activist, Karipbek Kuyukov have been actively involved in the campaign’s activities, thereby demonstrating strong commitment of the Kazakh people to the campaign’s objectives.
Kuyukov, who was born without arms as a result of his parents’ exposure to nuclear testing at the Semipalatinsk test site, paints with his mouth and feet. He captures on canvas the striking images of nuclear weapons testing victims. He travels throughout the world on behalf of The ATOM Project calling on people to sign a petition seeking to ban nuclear weapons.
On behalf of The ATOM Project, Kuyukov participated in the first International Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons organised by ICAN in Oslo on March 2-3, 2013, where he delivered his remarks along with other prominent nuclear activists, such as American actor Martin Sheen, who were either involved in nuclear disarmament process or were victims of nuclear bombings or tests like Kuyukov.
The forum drew particular attention to the humanitarian dimension of nuclear detonations calling on nuclear-armed nations, in particular the so called P5 governments, representing five nuclear-weapon states that are permanent members of the UN Security Council, to join the negotiations.
Telling the story of his life to the forum participants, Kuyukov stressed the nation’s decisive steps in nuclear disarmament. “My parents, who unfortunately passed away, witnessed everything what was happening at the test site. Today, however, I can proudly say that my little-known nation has achieved what has been too much for the great powers – we made the first real step towards universal nuclear disarmament [closure of the Semipalatinsk test site],” said Kuyukov in Oslo calling on governments to follow his nation’s lead.
Galvanising global efforts and public opinion in the field is essential, according to him, in achieving the key goal of eliminating nuclear weapons.
While in Oslo, the Kazakh delegation took the opportunity to present The ATOM Project and organise a photo exhibition “A Lesson in Peace: Dismantling the Soviet Nuclear Weapons Program in Kazakhstan.” The Norwegian capital also hosted an art exhibition “I Have Only My Heart to Hold You: The Art of Karipbek Kuyukov” featuring Kuyukov’s beautiful paintings, which according to him, reflect his “call for a nuclear weapon free world.”
Promoting his message further, Kuyukov travelled around the world with The ATOM Project and his art exhibitions, visiting Geneva, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Moscow, Berlin and many other locations. He went to Vienna to take part in the ICAN Civil Society Forum on Dec. 7, 2014 and the third international Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons on Dec. 8-9 along with the Kazakh delegation.
The third conference was of particular importance to ICAN, as delegations from China, the United Kingdom and the United States, three out of five recognised nuclear weapon states, were present in the Austrian capital, marking a milestone in ICAN-led international efforts.
The year of 2014 was also important for the Kazakh nation as it marked 25 years since the last Soviet nuclear test was conducted at the Semipalatinsk test site, with the memories of devastating effects still being fresh in people’s minds.
Karipbek at a anti-nuclear weapons bicycle tour
The civil society forum featured the discussions on a wide range of aspects of the nuclear debate, including the sessions with Kuyukov and Hiroshima survivor Setsuko Thurlow, during which speakers shared their emotional stories.
“I have seen many children born with deformations. My own parents had two children before me who did not live to be one year old. I want to ask you, dear delegates, how can you allow for these weapons to exist?” said Kuyukov addressing the conference participants.
The message promoted by The ATOM Project and Kuyukov’s story also reached the Euro Mediterranean Forum the same year in Ankara on June 21-22. Organised by ICAN, the forum brought together more than 70 activists, experts and representatives of governments from 23 nations to exchange ideas about the ways to draw attention of the international community to the humanitarian dimension of the nuclear disarmament.
The rally in New York organized by ICAN was the last stop of the four-day Bike Away the Atomic Bomb ride in April 2015, during which participants rode from Washington, D.C. to New York spreading their vibrant and powerful message to rid the planet of nuclear weapons.
Supported by The ATOM Project, the bike ride was coordinated by Bike for Peace, a Norwegian non-governmental organisation, and Mayors for Peace, an international organisation bringing leaders of nearly 7,000 cities to accomplish the common nuclear-weapon-free world agenda.
Though Kuykov was not able to ride, he still accompanied the participants along the way.
As part of the programme, the permanent mission of Kazakhstan to the United Nations also held an exhibition of Kuyukov’s paintings in New York.
“I want to use my art to fight against nuclear weapons in the world. Kazakhstan is a good example to explain this to other countries. I am proud of my homeland, which was the first state to give up nuclear weapons,” Kuyukov said at the event.
He admitted he might not witness his dream coming true during his lifetime, but he expressed his strong commitment to making his best to achieve the goal.
“We have made a great journey from Washington, D.C. to New York City, engaging with many people along the way. I hope the message we are trying to convey to world leaders is being heard: we demand a world without nuclear weapons. I hope to be the last born with the after-effects of nuclear testing,” added Kuyukov.
Though the nuclear disarmament process comes with numerous significant obstacles as practice shows, there is still hope that eventually the will for peace and stability will trump the will for power, ensuring a bright future for the entire planet.