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Kazakh artist brings advocacy for nuke-free world to UN

Kazakh artist Karipbek Kuyukov, who was born without arms due to the effects of radiation from nuclear testing, poses alongside his painting at his country's permanent mission to the United Nations, on Sept. 5, 2018. (Kyodo)

NEW YORK (Kyodo) -- Kazakh artist Karipbek Kuyukov, who was born without arms due to the effects of radiation from nuclear testing, brought his passionate message and artwork to the United Nations recently to help bolster the fight for a world free of nuclear weapons.

"As a creative person, I express my pain and my protest by drawing pictures holding the brush in my teeth or my toes," Kuyukov told an audience of diplomats at a high-level meeting held Thursday to promote the International Day Against Nuclear Tests, observed annually since 2010.

At a reception the same day, the artist displayed a number of his works including "Mother's Mission," an oil painting that depicts himself as a baby under his mother's care as a mushroom cloud blooms on the horizon. The two are shown outdoors in the grassy steppe near the artist's birthplace -- then part of the Soviet Union, presently northeastern Kazakhstan -- where his mother was exposed to radiation from nuclear tests conducted at the Semipalatinsk site.

Kuyukov told Kyodo News that he took an interest in art from a young age. He first picked up a pencil with his toes as a child of five or six, and later adopted an antinuclear stance in his art and activism following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"Recently I turned 50, and I have devoted 25 years of my life to the fight against nuclear weapons," he said. "Our country has the moral right to promote global antinuclear initiatives."

At the Semipalatinsk site, one of the main locations for Soviet nuclear weapons testing, more than 450 tests were conducted between 1949 and 1989, including hundreds of detonations both above and below ground.

Although Kuyukov's family lived roughly 100 kilometers from the site, his parents told him about seeing mushroom clouds and experiencing a raining down of "dark pebbles" from the sky following tests. He also remembers waking up at night as a child due to the earth-shaking underground blasts.

After joining a movement to bring attention to Semipalatinsk, where testing was carried out with little regard for human health impacts, Kuyukov began creating images of local families like his that suffered from disabilities and birth defects as a result of the nuclear fallout.

Since the dawn of nuclear weapons testing in the United States in 1945, over 2,000 tests have taken place around the world, with North Korea carrying out the only instances so far in the 21st century. Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test in 2006 and its sixth and largest in September of 2017.

Although a global ban on such tests, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, or CTBT, was opened for signature in 1996, it has yet to reach the threshold for entering into force. A total of 183 countries have signed the pact and 166 have ratified it, with cooperation still required from eight nations -- China, Egypt, India, Israel, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan and the United States.

Kuyukov added his voice to those of U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, General Assembly President Miroslav Lajcak and Lassina Zerbo, head of the CTBT organization's preparatory commission, in calling for the eight countries to take action.

"Undoubtedly this will serve as an additional impetus to advancing the common case on a prohibition of nuclear testing in the world," the activist said, noting the heightened impact of his message at the international body.

"We must take the most bitter lesson of the history of the consequences of nuclear testing and strive for the total elimination of nuclear weapons."

Beyond his efforts at the United Nations, Kuyukov has also traveled to Japan and drawn inspiration from Japanese atomic bomb survivors he met in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He attended the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo last year when the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons received the prestigious award, and recalls his interactions with Hiroshima survivor and noted antinuclear activist Setsuko Thurlow who was also in attendance.

"I regard these people as heroes and realize the movement of the hibakusha is important because we have to bring all these memories to the future generations, to the young people of Japan to know about this tragedy and what happened to the people," Kuyukov explained, using the Japanese word for atomic bomb victims.

As the honorary ambassador to the ATOM project, an international campaign seeking to abolish nuclear testing, the activist believes his own country and Japan are uniquely poised to convince the world that nuclear armament must be put to an end so as to prevent further tragedies.

"Every sane person understands that it is the only way to leave the world in security and sustainable peace, without a nuclear weapon," Kuyukov said. "(Achieving denuclearization) is just a matter of time, I believe."

The International Day Against Nuclear Tests, established in a 2009 U.N. resolution put forward by Kazakhstan, is officially observed on Aug. 29 in commemoration of the Semipalatinsk site's closure on this date in 1991.

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