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The humanitarian initiative and the NPT

April 9, 2014

The third and final preparatory committee meeting for the 2015 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference will convene at the end of April at the United Nations in New York. Central to this Review will be an assessment of progress on the NPT Action Plan adopted in 2010. Sadly, barring some dramatic development, there won’t be much to assess.

The final document of the 2010 NPT Review Conference expressed “deep concern at the continued risk for humanity represented by the possibility that these weapons could be used and the catastrophic humanitarian consequences that would result from the use of nuclear weapons.”

The recognition that these consequences are the basis of the disarmament obligations of NPT Member States and, in fact, make the elimination of nuclear weapons an urgent priority, has given rise to a series of joint statements by NPT and UN Member States on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and to two international conferences—one in Oslo in March 2013, and a second in Nayarit, Mexico in February of this year. A third conference will take place in Vienna later this year.

In their most recent Joint Statement, presented at the General Assembly in October 2013, 130 States cautioned that “the only way to guarantee that nuclear weapons will never be used again is through their total elimination.” They recognized a core principle of the NPT, that nuclear disarmament “is a shared responsibility of all States,” and concluded that it is “essential that the humanitarian consequences inform our work and actions during the current Review Cycle and beyond.”

The conference in Oslo, with 127 States in attendance, was the first intergovernmental meeting ever organized around the scientific evidence about the medical, environmental, and social effects of nuclear weapons use. In summarizing the meaning of that evidence, the Chair concluded “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. Moreover, it might not be possible to establish such capacities, even if it were attempted.”

Delegates from 146 States participated in a follow-up conference in Nayarit, where they heard moving testimonies from survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; got a crash course in nuclear weapons effects from physicians, climate scientists, and physicists; and learned from national and international relief agencies that they would be helpless to mount or to manage a meaningful emergency response to the use of nuclear weapons. In his summary, the Chair observed that “The wide range of damage and negative impact in the likelihood of a nuclear explosion, as well as the vast resources allocated to maintain and modernize nuclear arsenals, make the mere existence of these weapons absurd, question the arguments in their defense and ultimately are contrary to human dignity.”

The governments of Norway, Mexico, and Austria, along with ICAN and other voices from civil society, have helped to transform the discourse about nuclear weapons and have put the focus where it belongs: on humanity’s well being and survival. The conference websites have archived the most of the presentations, and the materials are also available at Reaching Critical Will. They summarize the overwhelming evidence that nuclear weapons are unique in the catastrophic nature of their effects and cannot be held responsibly by any State. Some of the facts are familiar but too often neglected; others have come to light more recently:

  • a single nuclear weapon can destroy an entire city, inflicting massive numbers of instantaneous casualties from explosions that generate the heat of the sun and the force of a dozen hurricanes;
  • acute radiation injuries kill in a matter of minutes, days, or weeks; and radiation-caused cancers and other illnesses continue to kill for years among those directly exposed and across generations;
  • the use of even a small fraction of existing nuclear arsenals would cause environmental devastation, including disruption of the global climate and agricultural production, potentially leading to the starvation of two billion of the world’s most vulnerable people from a nuclear famine.

Knowing and internalizing these facts about nuclear weapons is important, because they lead inexorably to a few simple truths.

  • First, nuclear weapons themselves are the problem, regardless of who possesses them or for what reasons.
  • Second, the only way to ensure that these consequences will never occur is to eliminate the possibility that the weapons can be used. This, in turn, means that eliminating the weapons themselves must be seen as a humanitarian imperative, as the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement explained eloquently in a resolution adopted in 2011 and reaffirmed in 2013.
  • Third, because every State will suffer from the use of nuclear weapons, whether or not they are possessor States, every State has the right and responsibility to work for their elimination. This principle is enshrined in the NPT, the 1996 World Court advisory opinion, and numerous UN resolutions.

This new focus on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons—whether one thinks of it as a humanitarian initiative, a humanitarian movement, or the humanitarian basis for a new process to ban and eliminate nuclear weapons—is, at the present time, no more than a reframing of the problem—a shift in the way we think and talk about nuclear weapons and nuclear disarmament.

From the humanitarian perspective, the justifications for the continued possession of nuclear weapons by a few States can no longer carry any weight. The claim by some states that they continue to need these weapons to deter their adversaries has been exposed by the evidence presented in Oslo and Nayarit as a reckless and unsanctionable gamble with our future.

From the humanitarian perspective, “deterrence” means declaring one’s willingness to kill millions of people indiscriminately and to create nuclear graveyards where cities used to be; having the means at hand to produce that outcome; having the systems in place to launch those weapons at a time and under circumstances of one’s choosing; and issuing credible threats from time to time, in order to be taken seriously. The humanitarian definition of “deterrence,” in other words, is global blackmail, with the entire world held hostage to the threat of omnicide.

Basing security on threats to inflict such destruction as is not only morally reprehensible, it is also foolhardy. Unlike conventional forms of deterrence, failure of which can have tragic consequences, we cannot afford for nuclear deterrence to fail, because the consequences are unthinkable. Therefore, we should not put ourselves in a position where it can fail. The truth deterrence proponents refuse to face is that nuclear deterrence sooner or later will fail. Recent books by Ward Wilson and Eric Schlosser have exposed the faulty reasoning and the faulty systems that make deterrence not a safeguard, rather the biggest threat to our survival. Accepting deterrence means accepting the inevitability that nuclear weapons will be used, with the only unanswered questions being when and how many.

Even before they are used—as they will be if we do not eliminate them—nuclear weapons continually undermine development and the achievement of global economic and social equality. The maintenance and modernization of nuclear weapons diverts vast and essential resources needed to address real human needs, including the Millennium Development Goals.

Unfortunately, the nuclear-armed States, with the exception of India and Pakistan (who are not NPT Member States) made a deliberate decision to absent themselves from both the Oslo and the Nayarit conferences. They have distanced themselves from the humanitarian discourse and have attempted to discredit this new initiative at every turn. They have given various explanations, none of which are satisfactory. From the perspective of civil society, it seems clear that the nuclear-armed States have no answer to the humanitarian argument for nuclear disarmament, and are therefore unwilling to engage with other States and with civil society on those terms.

This is a shame, because we need the nuclear-armed States to participate in this discourse about humanitarian impact, which will continue and evolve at a third conference in Vienna later this year. After all, these are the States that will have to complete the task of nuclear disarmament at the end of the day. Good-faith engagement with the States who have come together around this fresh perspective on nuclear weapons and the existential threat they pose to all of us could hasten the arrival of that day.

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