Humanitarian Consequences and Nuclear Weapons

This article was first published on on October 28, 2013

Einstein once lamented that “it has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity”. He may well have had nuclear weapons in mind – these creations of human technological prowess have the potential for destruction of a magnitude to efface humanity itself and all the principles of humanitarian action that we have devised. This has been the backdrop against which decades of efforts at nuclear non-proliferation, arms control and disarmament have been conducted.

Within the multilateral system, attention to the humanitarian dimension of nuclear weapons was renewed with the conclusion of the 2010 review conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the key international agreement governing nuclear matters. The outcome document of this NPT conference acknowledged that any use of nuclear weapons would result in “catastrophic humanitarian consequences” and stressed that states had an obligation to comply with international humanitarian law. This official reaffirmation of what many would see as a simple statement of reality, has caused consternation in the ranks of some nuclear weapon states and others who have alliance relations with them. These states seem to resent the humanitarian dimension of nuclear weapons being introduced into the diplomatic discourse, with its implication of immoral and indeed illegal action on the part of those possessing nuclear arms and/or supporting deterrence policies that depend on them.

The five nuclear weapon states party to the NPT have reacted in a heavy-handed fashion to the manifestation of this concern with the humanitarian implications of nuclear weapons. When the government of Norway hosted a major international conference on this theme in Oslo in March 2013, 128 states attended, but none of the so-called P5 nuclear weapon states. It is an open question whether any of the P5 will participate in the follow-up conference being hosted by Mexico, which will take place February 13-14, 2014. At a time when the global nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime centred on the NPT is under considerable strain, it is regrettable that these leading states are resorting to the crude tactic of boycott rather than engaging with other states in discussing how best to advance the agreed NPT objective of a nuclear weapon-free world.

The differences over approach to the humanitarian consequences issue are not confined to the states possessing nuclear weapons, but are also manifest amongst the non-nuclear weapon states. At the current 68th session of the UN General Assembly’s First (Disarmament) Committee, the non-nuclear weapon states essentially formed two separate groupings. The majority of these states, 125 to be exact, joined in a statement delivered by Ambassador of Dell Higgie, head of the New Zealand delegation. This statement welcomed Mexico’s follow-on conference and applauded civil society’s engagement, which was described as “essential, because the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons affect not only governments, but each and every citizen of our interconnected world”. The statement spoke of growing political support for the humanitarian focus and recalled that the only guarantee that nuclear weapons will never be used again is through their total elimination.

The other major statement made on this theme came from a group of 17 non-nuclear weapon states, including Canada, mainly NATO members and others, such as Australia and Japan, with an alliance link to a nuclear weapon state. This statement, delivered by Ambassador Peter Woolcott of Australia, welcomed the statement made on behalf of the 125 as well as the Mexican offer to host a follow-up conference, which it encouraged all states to attend. However it differed from the New Zealand statement in stressing that the sense of urgency fostered by recalling the devastating humanitarian impacts of a nuclear weapon detonation should be channeled towards implementing the steps set out in the 2010 NPT review conference’s action plan. This will entail “engaging substantively and constructively those states with nuclear weapons, and recognising both the security and humanitarian dimensions of the nuclear weapons debate”. In other words, humanitarian sentiments were not enough, it would be necessary for states (civil society is not mentioned in the statement) to “focus on practical and effective measures” in the relevant fora.

Although as noted, the 17 states of the Australian statement were primarily NATO members, and some observers explained their refusal to join in the majority statement as a function of their commitments to nuclear-backed alliances, this was clearly not a universal view. Three NATO members (Norway, Denmark and Iceland) joined in the majority statement and Japan, reflecting its conflicted views on the subject, managed to subscribe to both the majority and minority statements.

If there were rifts visible amongst the non-nuclear weapon states on the humanitarian issue this also seemed the case with the nuclear weapon states. China and the UK avoided the subject in their statements. France took a defensive posture, essentially arguing that its deterrent forces were in the service of its vital national interests and were in no way contrary to international law. The U.S. and Russia were more critical in their interventions. The American representative said that “any call to move nuclear disarmament into international humanitarian law circles can only distract from the practical agenda set forth in the 2010 NPT Action Plan.” The Russian statement was the most negative and with a hint of sarcasm. It noted that the catastrophic character of any use of nuclear weapons “is self evident and requires no further discussions”. If some still felt the need to hold meetings on the subject, then these “shouldn’t distract our attention from the goal of creating more favourable conditions for further nuclear weapons reductions”. India was the only non-NPT nuclear weapon state to address the humanitarian issue and while it had participated in the Oslo meeting, its representative was rather cool about further discussion of this theme, stressing that it should do “no harm” to the non-proliferation regime or to the established disarmament machinery.

As these national statements made in the First Committee reveal, the road ahead for the advancement of the theme of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons is far from clear. While a majority of states and many civil society groupings warmly embrace this new orientation within the NPT as a means of re-energizing the nuclear disarmament endeavour, a minority of influential non-nuclear weapon states plus the P5 are not convinced. The 17 states endorsing the Australian statement will likely participate in the Mexican conference, but they are signalling strongly the need to re-engage the nuclear weapon states and to concentrate on realising the various measures agreed to in the 2010 NPT Action Plan. The P5 may find keeping up a solid rejectionist front with respect to the Mexico conference next February difficult, but they are clearly not willing to accept that considerations of international humanitarian law should be a driver in their nuclear weapon reduction efforts.

There are evident limits to how often or how productively one can reassert the humanitarian imperatives to achieve nuclear disarmament. The organizers of the Mexican conference will be challenged to find a way to provide “value added” to what the Oslo conference has already produced on this theme. In the end, all states parties of the NPT will have to focus on implementing the measures agreed to at the 2010 Review Conference. If supplementary conferences can contribute to that process it will be all to the good, but the true test of state commitments will be the evidence of implementation brought forth at the NPT meetings next spring and the Review Conference in 2015. There is no substitute to fulfilling these treaty-based commitments.

by Paul Meyer (Adjunct Professor of International Studies and Fellow in International Security at Simon Fraser University, Senior Fellow at the Simons Foundation and SCRAP Advisory Committee member)

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