UNITED NATIONS - Japanese women in kimonos carrying signs urging "No More Hiroshima", an 80-year-old grandmother, and 18 mayors from around the world were just some of the almost 15,000 people who marched in New York City Sunday to rally for the abolition of nuclear weapons.
The hot, humid weather did not deter the protesters, who walked from Times Square, passing the United Nations on their way to Dag Hammarskjold Plaza for a peace festival with music and heated discussion over the month-long review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which begins Monday at the U.N.
The crowd viewed the issue from different angles, but they were firmly united on one thing: the urgent need to end the nuclear arms race.
"It is now time to rid the world of all weapons of mass destruction. No more nukes, no more wars. Yes we can, yes we must," said Judith Le Blanc, an organizer with the group Peace Action.
Aug. 9 will mark the 65th anniversary of the atomic bombing of the Japanese city of Nagasaki, said its current mayor, Tomihisa Taue.
"We are all connected and must share the faith that we must protect citizens from nuclear weapons. If we are united we can make governments move forward and make the world change. Let's make Nagasaki the last city to have a nuclear attack," he said.
Isao Yoshida, who came from Nagasaki, was only four years old when he lost his grandmother and friends when the U.S. bombed the city in 1945. Coming to New York for the NPT review was a deeply personal visit for him.
"I hope this year's conference will be successful because a lot of people feel a longing. Last April, [U.S.] President [Barack] Obama said he looked forward to a world without nukes. I hope for success, for the world and for all the Hibakusha, which are survivors of the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima," he said.
The human costs of nuclear weapons are not limited to their deployment, but also include the environmental and health impacts of their production, noted Nadine Padilla, a community organizer from the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment.
She called for the shutdown of uranium mines and an end to radioactive waste, which causes cancer and miscarriages, among other problems. "We must fight to protect our lands," she said.
Stopping uranium mining in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo was also a high priority for Yaa-Lengi Ngemi, a Congolese professor based in New York.
"Uranium was used in Hiroshima. Now the Congolese president is selling it to Iran. I am marching because the president is supporting terrorists and he needs to be removed. He is killing the Congolese," Ngemi told IPS.
Others said that as world leaders come here for the review, the U.S. should come clean on its own record.
Tennessee has one of the three remaining nuclear weapons plants in the U.S., said Ralph Hutchinson from the Oakridge Peace Alliance, urging that the plant be shuttered.
"We have the most nuclear weapons and we are still building more. We have 1,500 in our active stockpile and have several more in reserve. Until we get honest, we won't rid the world of nukes," Hutchinson told IPS.
"Why is it okay for the U.S. to have them but not others? What justifies that morally?" he asked. He added that the U.N. would have leverage this time around because there were hints that the General Assembly would take the U.S. and Russia to task over their nuclear weapons arsenals.
Dan Lombardo, a member of Peace Action of Detroit, agreed. He said he wanted to see the U.S. abide by the disarmament vision set out when the NPT was created in 1970.
"The NPT is low hanging fruit," he told IPS. "In addition, I'm here to support the NPT from a religious perspective, because war and the preparations of war are against the will of God."
Aaron Tovish, international director of the Mayors for Peace 2020 Vision Campaign, said it is time to complete the promise of the eliminating nuclear weapons - one that has been embraced, at least in theory, by President Obama.
"The facilities to assemble nuclear weapons are the same to disassemble them. By 2019, all of them could be dismantled. It is a political challenge and it is time to do so. Within 10 years, we could have a verification and monitoring system to oversee the elimination of weapons," he said, adding that the question remained whether this conference would bring about a more comprehensive approach to the nuclear threat.
Erika Bagnarello, a Costa Rican filmmaker who screened her film "Flashes of Hope: Hibakusha Traveling the World", at the U.N., noted that there are currently enough nuclear weapons to destroy every city in the world seven times over.
She hoped the conference would produce a specific document to advance the issue, one that was stronger than the last NPT review in 2005.
"There is an awareness worldwide of the 23,000 weapons, mostly in the U.S. and Russia, and we need to decrease that number," she said.