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A consciousness-raising exercise in Oslo

February 15, 2013

In about two weeks, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs will convene an international, two-day conference in Oslo on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. The idea for the conference emerged from the desire of a growing number of States to focus attention on what nuclear weapons do when used.

The horrifying nature of nuclear weapons and the consequences of their use has slipped out of public consciousness since the end of the Cold War, allowing calls for nuclear abolition to be deflected by policy euphemisms such as deterrence, and by disingenuous claims, reminiscent of those made by the NRA, that nuclear weapons in the hands of “good guys” are somehow different from nuclear weapons in the hands of “bad guys,” and are even necessary on that account.

Here’s an abbreviated summary of what nuclear weapons do, whether they are used by “good guys,” “bad guys,” or guys with the same human flaws as the rest of us:

  • immediate and long term casualties ranging from tens of thousands to tens of millions;
  • sickness and death from acute radiation exposure and widespread radioactive contamination, affecting millions more with an increased chance of cancer and genetic damage across generations;
  • profound and irreversible damage to the environment, in some cases lasting for decades or longer;
  • social and economic chaos that would have global repercussions;
  • and, in the worst case, the collapse of entire ecosystems on which our health and survival depend.

From a humanitarian perspective—which gives consequences a higher priority than geopolitics—all of the reasons given by the nuclear-weapon states for retaining their arsenals—or for postponing the day when they finally eliminate them—collapse like a rickety house of cards. What takes their place is a stark realization that we must get about the urgent business of eliminating the means of our collective self-destruction.

IPPNW co-president Ira Helfand paints the whole grim picture in less than 15 minutes during a new IPPNW video on YouTube. For those who want a more detailed presentation of the facts, IPPNW has produced a slightly longer video, also on our YouTube channel. On our website, you can find a number of publications spanning several decades, including studies of nuclear famine, radiation effects, the health and environmental impacts across the entire nuclear chain, and the role of physicians in working for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Our friends at Reaching Critical Will have just published a great new book of essays on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, including contributions from IPPNW experts, which you can get from their website.

Getting informed is not the hard part. Doing something with what you know is the real challenge. ICAN can help you with that.

While the Oslo conference is intended as a refresher course on the catastrophic effects of nuclear weapons use and not as the initiation of a political process to rid the world of them, it can be seen as a signpost at a major crossroads. Pick the right path, and we could be heading out of the swamp of excuses and rationalizations and toward a global treaty to ban and eliminate nuclear weapons.

The nuclear-weapons states, unfortunately, insist upon pushing us back into the swamp by insisting on the path of deterrence—the doctrine that a credible threat to use nuclear weapons will prevent others from using them. These days, the circular logic of deterrence, sadly perpetuated by the Obama administration and echoed by others, takes the following form: “as long as nuclear weapons exist, we have to maintain a strong and reliable deterrent.” I’ll take up the meaning of deterrence as seen from the humanitarian perspective next time.

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