Disarmament Insight


Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Viewing nuclear weapons through a humanitarian lens

The Hiroshima explosion recorded at 8.15 a.m. 6 August 1945 on the remains of a wrist watch found in the ruins. UN Photo/Yuichiro Sasaki.

Multilateral practitioners working in the field of nuclear disarmament are apt to complain that since the end of the Cold War, public concern and corresponding pressure on governments to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons has faded away. Other issues have come to the fore, and younger people haven’t directly experienced the existential dread of superpower nuclear confrontation and war. Grainy black and white images of the human costs of the aftermath of the 1945 atomic bombings in Japan seem a world away from today’s high resolution and the internet.

Although the detonation of even one weapon would most likely have terrible humanitarian consequences, policy focus has moved to other issues. A case of out of sight, out of mind, perhaps. If there is a global issue that has claimed centre-stage, it’s climate change, which has effects we are already witnessing and must adapt to living with.

Unlike climate change, nuclear weapons detonations are catastrophes still within human wit to prevent entirely - if the commitment and imagination to do so can be catalyzed. 

In this respect, it’s significant that the notion of examining the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons is regaining renewed attention. In its agreed outcome document, the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty’s 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 International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement recently emphasized the immense suffering that would result from any detonation of nuclear weapons, as well as the lack of any adequate international response capacity to assist the victims. It recalled the 1996 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice, which expressed the Court’s view that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the principles and rules of international humanitarian law. The Movement all called on all state to ensure that nuclear weapons are never again used and to pursue treaty negotiations to prohibit and eliminate them.

Switzerland delivered a statement on behalf of 34 nations at the UN General Assembly’s 2012 First Committee session expressing their concern about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. It noted with approval that “consideration of this issue has garnered greater prominence in a number of General Assembly resolutions and in other fora since 2010.”

At the same First Committee session, Norway announced its intention to host an international conference in Oslo in March 2013 “on the impact of nuclear detonations, whatever their cause”. Norway’s subsequently indicated that the conference’s focus will be on the humanitarian consequences of a nuclear weapons detonation, and will involve “all interested states, as well as UN organisations, representatives of civil society and other relevant stakeholders.”

It’s also noteworthy that civil society organizations recently proclaimed their common commitment to a humanitarian framing of disarmament-related problems, in activities encompassing campaigning for nuclear weapons elimination. In October 2012, more than 30 non-governmental organizations and campaigns (including the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons or ICAN) joined forces for a Humanitarian Disarmament Campaigns Summit in New York. The event’s Communiqué called for “strong disarmament initiatives driven by humanitarian imperatives to strengthen international law and protect civilians.” ICAN plans to convene a large-scale civil society forum in Oslo the weekend before Norway’s inter-state conference.

All of this could conceivably contribute to widening the current prevailing inter-state discourse about nuclear weapons. To contribute to the unfolding policy debate, UNIDIR has commenced a new project on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons. It follows on in part from our prior work over a number of years on ‘disarmament as humanitarian action’ - the initial rationale for setting up this Disarmament Insight blog.

The first of the project’s papers, authored by Tim Caughley, traces the notion of catastrophic humanitarian consequences in law and policy in the domain of weapons restrictions. The second paper, my own, examines the contemporary context and potential implications of viewing nuclear weapons through a humanitarian lens. Over the next several months we'll add to this analysis, while continuing to follow international developments in this area closely. Keep checking back for updates: it’s going to be an eventful year.

John Borrie

Dr. John Borrie is a senior researcher and policy advisor at UNIDIR.