Tag Archives: US

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

That They May Like ‘US’

24 Sep

This is a guest blog post from one of our former interns, Nnamdi Iheakaram, Esq.

A foreign policy that is based on a state’s ability to project force will tend to pursue unilateralist goals. The immense benefit derivable from this strategy is evident when weaker states readily abandon non-essential legitimate claims rather than engage a state that has power advantage and the will to exploit that advantage.  Undeniably, it is well-known that war is more likely when conquest is easy.  However, the interest in question must be essential, such as the threat to a state’s sovereignty, to warrant any state risking the possibility of a direct military conquest. Because most interests are non-essential, it becomes attractive for stronger states to resort to their military might in the event of more essential threats to their interests.

The US has always had a power advantage which it has employed in securing its interests. Not long ago, in 2009, a new US foreign policy approach based on mutual respect of other states and their cultures was pitched to an enthralled audience in Cairo, Egypt. The goal was to reassure the Muslim community that the United States was not an enemy and that the new US government would seek to work closely with all peace loving states in ensuring international peace and security. To give effect to these declarations, the US government gave direct support to protesters all across North Africa and the Middle East during the 2010 Arab Spring and even called on the Egyptian President, an ally, to relinquish power as demanded by the protesters.

While this support may seem appropriate to passionate advocates who are committed to democracy and the self-governance of all people, an objective analysis of the situation may show that supporting a rebel movement that is not clear on its objectives, violates the laws of a legitimate government, and seeks military assistance to unseat a government, is itself unlawful and counterproductive. Accordingly, it was unwonted when the US called on its Egyptian ally to relinquish power as opposed to reestablishing effective control and initiating a constitutional review that would bring about a more representative government structured around the rule of law and secularism. But the US interference, which was based on a new commitment to democratic rule, was undermined by its inconsistent treatment of similarly situated states.

Thus, just as it was difficult to identify any supporters of the continuation of the government of Col. Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, it was equally difficult to identify any law that could support an intervention in Libya while requiring non-interference in Saudi Arabia. The reason is simple: the Libyan government had effective control of its territory while effective control in, for instance, a state likeSaudi Arabia was enabled by external interests. In the 2011 Libyan intervention, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) concept, developed to avoid mass atrocity crimes, was tarnished as it appeared to have been adopted only to justify and legitimize interference in the domestic affairs of a state, which included removal of the head of that state, thereby exposing one of the fundamental flaws of the concept.  While Qaddafi had been accused of killing less than a thousand rebels at the time the “no-fly-zone” was imposed, commentators such as Jordan Street have been clear that “the bombing that NATO embarked upon to protect their initial mandate has also shown to be flawed due to the high mortality rates among civilians.”  .  The killing of Libyans, it appears, is justifiable when effected under an internationally approved political program.

This is the legal and moral quagmire that is encountered when scholars attempt to interpret popular rules or principles of international law without considering the historical backgrounds and the socioeconomic factors determining the purposes or grounds for their application. Accordingly, it is imperative that international action (or more specifically, intervention in states) be framed in a way that makes it consistent and predictable as opposed to flexible and heteronomous. The former (which is consistent and predictable) would ensure that US policies seek to maximize and protect US interests without undermining or diminishing the welfare of other states, while the latter (which is flexible and heteronomous) would ensure that US policies seek to maximize and protect US interests, largely regardless of consequences. The benefit of taking the first approach is that policies aimed at the maximization and protection of interests are not knowingly detrimental to other states and thus, are in line with international law , while the second approach brings about policies that use other states as means to the goal of maximization and protection of interests.

The recent attacks on US interests in Libya and elsewhere, call for concern for the safety of all diplomats. It is unacceptable that individuals representing their nation’s interests should be imperiled for the mere fact that they accepted a responsibility to serve a diplomatic purpose.. There is no justification for the protesters or anyone to take the lives of others on the righteous pretext that the uncivil and supposedly heretical actions of some bigoted, attention-seeking artists provided  sufficient provocation.

Matters regarding religion are emotive and until the denigration of the faith of others is discouraged by non-coercive measures, extremists of various faiths will actively continue to take matters into their own hands in defense of their beliefs. When economic grievances are rooted in sociopolitical problems that cannot be effectively and easily framed as a rallying cry for action, religion is employed as a tool for rallying otherwise diverse groups against an allegedly ‘common enemy.’  Whether such actions are justified is dependent upon the rationale or factuality of their grievance. But one fact remains indisputable, despite the high cost of the US involvement in the Middle East, there is a clear reluctance to adjust the current US Middle East policy. The implication is that conditions which will likely lead to the reoccurrence of violence persist.

While the West viewed the Arab Spring as an effort by an oppressed citizenry to  rid itself of autocratic leaders, anti-western elements viewed it as aimed at removing less effective Western political acolytes. Having declared the Arab Spring a success, it is unclear how a US Ambassador could be assassinated in Benghazi, a city that was the stronghold and capital of the US-supported rebel forces that fought against Qaddafi. What is not in dispute is that the West has interests in the Gulf and has chosen to selectively interfere in the affairs of states in order to secure those interests. The rationale for this position is subject to debate; however, it can be asserted that a legal, purpose-driven approach that seeks to protect the interests of all involved will be more effective in securing long-term peace than a value-driven approach that is subject to the whims and caprices of self-interested foreign interveners.

Thus, instead of trying to capitalize on the current violence for political purposes, US leaders must use the on-going presidential campaigns to develop, articulate and communicate a realistic and reassuring foreign policy aimed at absolute respect for the rule of law on the international scene and less reliance on force as a means of securing interests. Such a change ensuring that power is not an advantage and that weakness is not a disadvantage is necessary in persuading states like Iran and North Korea to abandon realist security measures which increase the risks of devastating  conflict. It is suggested that only a change in US policy will positively affect the perception and attitude of these states, not an increase in its military might.  The US must choose between the better peace that flows from its support for universally recognized, just policies or a fragile peace held together by the fear of its military might.. A just foreign policy may or may not improve the welfare of other states, but an unjust foreign policy will deliberately diminish the welfare of other states.

Nothing to lose: the CTBT and US ratification

20 Aug

In September last year we discussed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and made the ironic connection that despite nuclear weapon testing having largely ceased, key states remain reluctant to sign the treaty. Indonesia has since ratified. That now leaves eight Annex Two states to ratify for the treaty to come into force.

So how about the US?

The US signed the CTBT in 1996 but was rejected by the senate three years later so has never been ratified. Back then, reservations were about US nuclear reliability (the potential need for future testing) and the difficulty of verification (how to ensure that other states abide by the treaty).

Since then, major strides have been made at both domestic and international level so these reservations can now safely be put aside. The National Research Council and the Stockpile Steward Program conclude that new technological capacity has advanced so far that physical testing is now unnecessary. Global monitoring for verification is also sufficient: with over 330 monitoring facilities having been brought together under the CTBTO umbrella. Sixty-one of these detected North Korea’s 1996 underground test.

Now without any excuse the US should go ahead and ratify the long overdue treaty. President Obama had ratification on the agenda early in his administration (during his famous Prague speech) but this was not realized. Many now believe that an Obama second term could see CTBT ratification returned to the agenda. A Romney administration could and should and could also pursue this.

The US would be placed in a better position should the treaty come into force, as global nuclear monitoring has the potential to become very powerful. And just to top things off, the US has not physically tested any nuclear weapon since 1992. There’s nothing to lose.

– Kees Keizer

The CCW4 and Cluster Munitions

15 Nov

Currently, in Geneva, diplomats are convening the 4th Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW4) Review Conference. The Convention, negotiated by 51 states in 1980, seeks to outlaw specific types of conventional weapons used in armed conflict to protect military personnel from inhumane injury as well as non-combatants from harm. When the treaty entered into force in 1983, it covered  incendiary weapons, mines and booby traps, and weapons designed to injury through very small fragments. In 2001, the Convention was voted to cover intrastate conflict as well as international ones under all its provisions. There are five protocols in force: (1) Non-detectable fragments, (2) Landmines, booby traps, and other devices, (3) Incendiary weapons, (4) Blinding lasers, and (5) Explosive remnants of war.  A related piece of international law, the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), comprehensively bans the use of cluster munitions and was signed and ratified by 111 states.

The controversy now rests in the negotiations of a new protocol on cluster munitions for the CCW (Draft available here). Many advocates are concerned that this will severely undermine the ban under the CCM by providing cover for the future use of cluster munitions, which ultimately causes indiscriminate harm as well as the threat of explosion well beyond the end of the conflict in areas inhabited by civilians. Arms control advocates are arguing that this protocol will “provide a specific legal framework for their use.” The US and allies such as Israel, Brazil, India, and China, cite the ‘humanitarian’ provision in the protocol draft that bans the use of cluster munitions produced before 1980, although post-1980 munitions also cause indiscriminate harm to civilians and these older munitions would most likely have to be destroyed regardless of the protocol because of their age. The most recent use of cluster munitions reported in April 2011  used in civilian areas in Misurata by Qadaffi loyalists were contemporary weapons surely produced after 198o. The draft also allows for a deferral period of 12 years, which ultimately allows for use of weapons that will eventually be banned by the protocol.

As a back drop to adoption of a framework that allows for the use of cluster munitions is a larger normative problem: adoption of an instrument of international humanitarian law that is weaker than a previously (and generally accepted) adopted law. This is a dangerous undertaking that we hope the US and others will reconsider.

For up-to-date information on the negotiations, follow @marywareham, @banclusterbombs, and @nashthomas on Twitter.

-Katherine Prizeman

Arms Trade Treaty goes domestic

3 Aug

Predictably, reactionary news networks, along with their followers, are on the defense over the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), many warning that domestic rights are being compromised as “anti-gun elites” run rampant at the United Nations.

We’ve heard it all before: ‘United Nations’ End Run Around Constitution?’, ‘NRA Takes on ‘Anti-Gun Elitists’ at UN’, ‘Sen. Moran & 44 Senators Tell Obama Administration Second Amendment Rights’. Most of this is of course reactionary crazy-talk – baseless assumptions of a UN conspiracy against US gun-owners.

Most citizens would of course recognize the importance of such a treaty. The ATT is about international arms transfers. Currently, the global trade in conventional weapons (warships, battle tanks, fighter jets, machine guns) is unregulated; internationally agreed standards do not exist to ensure that arms are only transferred for appropriate use, not into the hands of those abusing human rights, including terrorists and criminals, and helping to prevent needless armed conflicts and killings around the world.

A recent rebuttal of the far fetched claims came from GAPW’s Robert Zuber. In an article by USnews.com ‘Opposition mounts to UN gun control treaty opposition mounts to UN gun control treaty’, followed with over 20o comments – he responded with the following:

“Since neither the author of this piece nor those writing comments (so far) was in the room as UN delegates were making final preparations for Arms Trade Treaty negotiations, perhaps a bit of a reality check is in order.

 Once again, the NRA has done a splendid job of reaching out to select US media. However, the individual from the NRA who was given a platform at the UN to make a US-focused speech at the ATT Prep Com (a courtesy which is rarely extended and then normally only to groups exhibiting a broader geographical interest), walked out of the building once his remarks were concluded.   Neither did he apparently bother to attend the sessions leading up to his remarks.  Apparently, like so many sharing opinions on this issue, it was better not to taint his outrage with too much direct experience.

It is certainly predictable to have media folks whip up a frenzy about the UN taking away peoples’ guns and rendering them helpless against the alleged tyranny of the state.  However, as the chief US negotiator to the ATT process — someone who has not been the most congenial presence in the Prep Com room — would readily acknowledge, the ATT is not a disarmament treaty.  It does not propose to destroy weapons or to eliminate their legal possession.  It provides guidelines for arms transfers and seeks to end diversion by which arms traded legally end up in the hands on non-state actors such as criminals and terrorists, are used to violate the human rights of populations, or are ‘re-gifted’ by recipient governments to line their own pockets.   Which of these three diversion potentials the NRA, your readers, the author of this piece, or even our DC legislators would refuse to support is their own call to make, but to refuse to support any of these objectives is simply beyond reason.

I was a gun owner for much of my life.  I respect but don’t fear weapons.  Nor do I fear the ATT or the non-existent ‘power’ of the UN to strip citizens of their guns.   Readers are free to hate the UN.  They are also free to act as though the second amendment is the only legally relevant, binding aspect of the US Constitution.  But what some are accusing the ATT process of promoting is simply nonsense as even 20 attentive minutes inside the Prep Com room would readily reveal.”

Follow discussion on the ATT process:



– Kees Keizer