Highlighting the Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons

3 Jan

The debate around nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament has taken many forms over the last several decades as the shifting security circumstances of the post-Cold War era have demanded a change in the discourse surrounding these indiscriminate and massively destructive weapons. Although the examples of Hiroshima and Nagasaki continue to remind all of humanity of the catastrophic and holocaustic consequences of the use of these weapons, continual references to the necessity of a nuclear “deterrent” as well as the claims of some states so-called prerequisite of first “creating the conditions” for nuclear disarmament often eclipse the focus on the disastrous nature of these weapons and ultimately the need to eliminate them at the earliest possible moment. It is incontestable that nuclear weapons have the capacity to threaten the survival of humanity and their mere existence ensures that this risk remains. The notion that a “limited nuclear exchange,” in itself a contraction in terms (as noted by several delegations during the 2010 NPT preparatory committee), is a valid argument for sustaining a nuclear “deterrent” is wholly inadequate.

Each year, delegations to the First Committee of the General Assembly continue to call for nuclear disarmament and, even more bluntly, a “world without nuclear weapons” through plenary statements and annual resolutions. The Non-Aligned Movement sponsored a new resolution during the 2012 session calling for a High-Level Meeting on nuclear disarmament to underscore its importance on the global security agenda. Furthermore, President Obama’s commitment to such a goal in April 2009 in a speech in Prague is continuously referenced as a bold and paramount change in the commitment to global nuclear disarmament. Nevertheless, as nearly four years have passed since President Obama made this commitment, little tangible progress has been made in the disarming of these weapons by the nuclear weapon states (NWS) and proliferation risks remain, not the least of which in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and Iran. The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Action Plan adopted at the 2010 Review Conference represents concrete steps that must be taken to achieve nuclear disarmament, in particular full implementation of Article VI. Nevertheless, agreeing to steps is not the same as taking them.

The discussion often missing from the many times abstract discussion of these weapons is that of the tangible, humanitarian consequences that would ensue if these weapons were indeed used by any of the possessor states. These consequences include those of a medical, environmental, and humanitarian nature. One of the most important takeaways from the first session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the NPT was the joint statement delivered on behalf of sixteen delegations (Austria, Chile, Costa Rica, Denmark, Holy See, Egypt, Indonesia, Ireland, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Philippines, South Africa, Switzerland) on the humanitarian dimension of nuclear disarmament in May 2012 at the UN in Vienna.

At this session, the government of Norway also announced that it would host an international conference on this topic in Oslo in March 2013. The discussion around these consequences has grown over the last few months leading up to the Oslo conference among governments as well as civil society. Civil society will also engage in a forum in Oslo prior to the government sessions to discuss the humanitarian dimension of nuclear weapons.

Research on the humanitarian dimension has also grown over the years. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has already concluded that international organizations providing emergency relief following a nuclear explosion would be unable to adequately fulfill their mandates and other studies have shown that the radiation by a single nuclear weapon affects populations, resources, infrastructure, and agriculture over a vast area constituting a serious threat to many generations to come. Indeed, some would argue that the ability of States and civil society to address successfully the current, security-related challenges facing the majority of the global community, including poverty eradication, health accessibility, climate change, terrorism, and other aspects of transnational crime, is limited at best . Others have noted that the financial demands of maintaining nuclear arsenals directly drain resources from other social and economic programs for development. As 2015 draws nearer and the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) agenda is revised and reformulated, the spending on maintaining and even modernizing nuclear arsenals seems even more irresponsible. Clearly, a nuclear detonation on top of existing humanitarian obligations would cause unthinkable problems.

Moreover, inherent in the discussion of the humanitarian dimension of nuclear weapons is that of the applicability of international humanitarian law (IHL) (see more here in an article by John Burroughs, Charles Moxley and Jonathan Granoff). Many international lawyers, civil society advocates, and government officials have rightly asked the question—can the use of weapons with such horrific effects on humanity be compatible with IHL? When the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued its Nuclear Weapons advisory opinion in 1996, the court affirmed the applicability of IHL to these weapon systems. IHL applied to these devastating weapons is but another tool that must utilized to deconstruct the argument that possession of these weapons does not pose a threat to the survival of humanity and, even more, somehow contributes to peace and security. Even the threat to use such weapons arguably has its own set of IHL-related problems as it has been established by many that such weapons cannot be used compatibly with established law.

With the Oslo conference and the corresponding civil society forum, the global community has the opportunity to underscore the urgency of ridding the world of these weapons in a timely and responsible manner through a total, irreversible, and verifiable process. This event represents the latest opportunity to put the devastating humanitarian consequences of weapons of mass destruction at the forefront of discussions on steps to bring about nuclear disarmament.

—Katherine Prizeman

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: