International Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons

11 Mar

From 4-5 March, the government of Norway hosted an International Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in Oslo. Representatives of 127 member states were present as well as UN secretariat officials, civil society, and other humanitarian response technical experts detailing the environmental, health, and developmental impact of nuclear weapon explosions. It was noted throughout that member states must continue to seize opportunities to act responsibly to prevent any accidental or intentional use of these weapons, a goal guaranteed only by virtue of their abolition. The Foreign Minister of Norway, Espen Barth Eide, offered a Chair’s Summary at the conclusion of the conference that, although it did not offer any concrete recommendations for future movement, did note clearly that, “It is unlikely that any state or international body could address the immediate humanitarian emergency caused by a nuclear weapon detonation in an adequate manner and provide sufficient assistance to those affected.”

While the ‘official’ Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) chose not to attend the conference as a collective group (although India and Pakistan sent delegations), there was a clear sense that the status quo of nuclear disarmament discourse can be neither tolerated nor sustained any longer. The argument by the NWS (also the Permanent 5 [P5] members of the Security Council) was that the conference served as a “distraction” from current disarmament efforts. As Ambassador Laura Kennedy of the United States noted to the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva, “We [the US] are focusing our efforts and energy on practical steps we and others are taking to reduce nuclear weapon arsenals while strengthening nuclear security and the nonproliferation regime.” Likewise, the government of the UK stated that it was pursuing disarmament through “existing mechanisms” such as the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the CD. In response to this argument, Foreign Minister Eide noted in his opening statement that this conference was not intended to serve as a substitute for any existing process, but also noted that the established fora for nuclear weapons deliberations are all “under serious pressure.” Furthermore, as has been rightly noted by colleagues from Reaching Critical Will, the Nuclear Security Summit process is one example of an “alternative process” that has been enthusiastically embraced by the NWS and thereby clearly illustrates the inherent weakness (if not hypocrisy) of the NWS absence from Oslo. Furthermore, the “step by step” and “practical” approach to nuclear disarmament has clearly not been effective and has remained predicated on an inflexible agenda since the 1960s thereby making it all the more appropriate for governments to supplement existing efforts with new fora and political dynamics.

The technical discussion referenced within the conference programme were indeed rich and involved delegations, representatives of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the UN Development Programme Bureau for Crisis Prevention (UNDP BCPR), the UN World Food Programme, and representatives of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) among others. Both the immediate impacts and longer-term consequences of nuclear detonations were explored by researchers, medical professionals, emergency relief experts, and national officials dealing with nuclear radiation preparedness. Experts stated that global famine, catastrophic climate change, and massive loss of life would be among the long-term ramifications of a nuclear detonation, affecting not just those in the immediate area of the bomb’s “ground zero,” but the whole of the global community. The programme featured several panels of humanitarian response experts detailing how and if governments, international organizations, and other actors could, or rather could not, adequately respond to a nuclear detonation. Dr. Ira Helfand of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear (IPPNW) presented the economic costs of a nuclear detonation, which could be upwards of $ 1 trillion over the long-term, and conjectured that due to climate changes from the explosion potentially one billion people could die of starvation alone. Other experts offered scenarios of nuclear detonation in cities such as Oslo as well as national examples of nuclear radiation emergencies in Romania and Norway. Still other presenters reflected on past examples of dangerous nuclear testing in Kazakhstan, the long-term effects of the Chernobyl accident, and the catastrophic fallout from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Many delegations as well as civil society representatives also cited the examples of landmines and cluster munitions as weapons that have been banned by international law for humanitarian reasons, noting that it was time to do the same for nuclear weapons. Furthermore, ICAN noted in its first intervention that blinding weapons, certain conventional explosive weapons, incendiary weapons, the use of poison, and chemical and biological weapons have all been outlawed, all of which have consequences similar to those from a nuclear detonation.

Quite plainly, the overall conclusion drawn by presenters was that there is no way to adequately prepare for or respond to the impacts of a nuclear detonation. As noted by the Director of UNOCHA Geneva, Mr. Rashid Khalikov, in his presentation on humanitarian preparedness and response, “We should, as the international humanitarian community, continue to consider the extent to which we can respond to a weapon detonation in any meaningful way. Ultimately though, the reality remains that the only sensible course of action is to ensure these weapons are never used.”

While the technical conversation was useful, perhaps more importantly, the tone that has been set for the future of nuclear disarmament efforts has clearly and rightly shifted. The consensus among participants was that the global humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons must be the starting point for discussion of disarmament and a ban on nuclear weapons. Foreign Minister Eide noted in his opening statement that, “For decades political leaders and experts have debated the challenges posed by the continued existence and further proliferation of nuclear weapons. This conference, however, takes a different starting point.” Moreover, as the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) noted in its final intervention, nuclear weapons represent “the greatest humanitarian challenge of our time” and the delegation of Austria called this challenge a “litmus test” for how the international community is able to resolve challenges to humanity’s survival. It is the contribution of a reinvigorated commitment to a humanitarian approach to nuclear disarmament that will have the greatest impact on finally bringing an end to these weapons and the threat to humanity posed by them.

Although the Oslo approach (adopting a humanitarian starting point) has been associated with the drive to end nuclear weapons for quite some time, the renewed energy and commitment by states to this approach is noteworthy. In discussions about proportionality of response, there have been legal and humanitarian elements and international criminal and military law have long acknowledged the principle of proportionality that the response should ‘fit’ the threat and that damage to innocents bears the presumption of impermissibility. Nuclear weapons use can stand up to neither test, in fact not even close.

Particularly in light of the stalemate found across the various parts of the UN disarmament machinery from the CD to the UNDC, this conference offered various stakeholders, including the vast majority of UN member states, the chance to converge around the common goal of nuclear disarmament and abolition with renewed energy and enthusiasm. Moreover, with the announcement of an important follow-up meeting to be hosted by the Government of Mexico, there is genuine commitment that this recalibrated approach to nuclear disarmament will enable more robust steps towards nuclear abolition to be taken and sustained.


–Katherine Prizeman

Leave a Reply

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

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

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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 )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: