Interest in learning more about the humanitarian impacts of nuclear
weapons drew almost 130 states to a meeting in Oslo recently.Given the high consequences for
humanity of any detonation of a nuclear weapon, such a large turnout is hardly
Notably, however, the 5 permanent members of the Security
Council - all possessors of nuclear arsenals and all subject to NPT obligations
to disarm - declined their invitations to attend.Their reasons for staying away warrant examination.
But first some facts.The Oslo event was simply an evidence-assessing opportunity - no
negotiating, no decisions, no lofty declarations.Rather, the conference offered an arena for a fact-based
discussion of the humanitarian and developmental consequences associated with a
nuclear weapon detonation. The meeting drew on inputs from a wide-range of
scientific, medical, and other experts including disaster-preparedness
specialists from the Red Cross Movement and UN agencies.
Nonetheless, the 5 NPT nuclear weapon states (P5) collectively
took the view that the 2-day Oslo meeting would divert discussion and energy
from a practical step-by-step approach towards nuclear disarmament and
Given the current paralysis in nuclear disarmament
negotiating fora - a state of affairs that played a part in inspiring the new
approach represented by the Oslo meeting - this is a curious argument.What are the practical steps to which
the nuclear weapon states might be referring?
Apart from ongoing US-Russian bilateral steps and some
inconclusive P5 caucusing, there’s not much evidence of activities of any
- For instance, the practical steps agreed by the nuclear
weapon states as part of the NPT parties’ consensus in 2000 were
honoured in the breach, if not undermined by some of the P5, until belatedly
re-affirmed in the 2010 Review Conference action plan.
- No practical steps are possible in the Conference on Disarmament which has long been blocked by a succession of nuclear weapons-possessing
- Any further relaxation of the cold war levels of alert of
nuclear weapons is sternly opposed by 4 of the 5 permanent Security Council
members when the issue comes before the UN General Assembly from time to
- Fulfillment by the nuclear weapon states of the NPT
article VI obligation “to pursue
negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the
nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament” is unconsummated.Worse, attempts by other states to offer a focus on nuclear weapons - such as at the
Oslo event and the forthcoming UN Open-ended Work Group on nuclear disarmament
(OEWG) - have been spurned.
- The most that can be said about possible practical steps currently
in train is to hope that the P5 are making steady progress, along with all
other NPT parties, in implementing the 2010 action plan.
The 5 nuclear weapon states opted not to be represented in
Oslo even by a junior note-taker.This leaves them open to criticism of seeming insensitivity to the
argument of the vast majority of states that issues affecting nuclear weapons
are of consequence and concern to all nations, not just the possessing
countries.This they may deny. But
in the absence of any sustained progress on possible steps towards nuclear
disarmament in which they are collectively involved, there will inevitably be
speculation on the real reason for the 5 NPT nuclear weapon states to shun the
What can be said, however, is that the Oslo event, the OEWG
in mid-year, the UN High Level Meeting on 26 September, and the Mexico-hosted
follow-up to the Oslo meeting are bringing heightened new focus to nuclear
weapons’ issues this year.Equally, these meetings offer opportunities for the P5 to outline progress on the practical
steps to which they attach so much importance including those on which they
have undertaken to report to the NPT PrepCom in 2014.Taking up these opportunities would be rather more consistent with
the spirit of the NPT especially article VI than being absent.Let’s hope that they will reconsider their approach. Tim Caughley and John Borrie
Dr. Patricia Lewis from Chatham House (and former UNIDIR Director) addresses the Oslo Conference explaining how nuclear weapon detonations work.
Earlier this month North Korea carried out its
third underground nuclear weapon test. Beyond questions about the secretive
North Korean leadership's rationale or the geopolitical equation to respond to
this latest crisis, the bomb test underlined something else. The world is more
interdependent and crowded than when nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima
and Nagasaki in 1945. What would be the humanitarian consequences be today of
the detonation of a nuclear weapon in a populated area like a mega-city? And
could the international community respond effectively to help those affected if
In 1987, the World Health Organization
concluded that the “only approach to the treatment of health effects of nuclear
warfare is primary prevention, that is, the prevention of nuclear war.” Since
then, these questions have received little in the way of studied attention at
the global level.
Existential dread about a civilization-ending
nuclear war between the United States and the-then Soviet Union has receded.
Instead, when considered at all, the risk of a nuclear weapons detonation is
most often seen today through the prism of terrorism. Yet there are a number of
other ways in which detonation of nuclear weapons could occur.
One risk is sheer mishap. The litany of
accidents, near misses and incidents involving nuclear weapons safety and
security is extensive, even based on what the world knows from declassified US
military records. And those are only the ones we know of. The actual number is almost
certainly higher, and in all the nuclear-armed states.
That large numbers of nuclear weapons are still
kept ready to launch on hair-trigger alert more than two decades after the Cold
War ended invites the prospect of accidental launch. As an influential 2008
study by the nuclear scholars George Perkovich and James Acton observed, “so long as large ready-to-launch nuclear arsenals
exist (and especially if more states acquire nuclear weapons), the risk that
these weapons will one day be detonated is not negligible”.
Combined with misperception between nuclear-armed
powers during crises, this could result in nuclear weapons detonation. Fatigue,
bias and straight-up errors have their parts to play. After the Cold War ended,
new information came to light indicating that the world came even closer to
nuclear war during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis than previously thought. In
one instance, the exhausted commander of a Soviet submarine surrounded by US
warships and running out of air ordered a 15-kiloton nuclear torpedo to be made
combat-ready. As Brookings Institution scholar Michael O’Hanlon put it,
“restraint is not a pre-determined outcome because one cannot predict how human
beings will perform in various hypothetical circumstances.”
North Korea's secretiveness and
unpredictability springs to mind here. But there are other situations of
concern. For instance, India and Pakistan both have nuclear arsenals. The
proximity of their armed forces along disputed lines of control means there
might be little scope next time a rapidly escalating crisis occurs for
political leaders to contain escalation to regional nuclear conflict.
Recently, Alan Robock and other scientists
studied a scenario involving India and Pakistan each attacking each other’s
cities with 50 Hiroshima bomb-sized nuclear weapons. Using climate change and
other models, some of the human and environmental consequences were estimated. It
turns out that this “limited” exchange would be on a par with predictions for
death, disruption and nuclear winter predicted during the Cold War for a
full-scale nuclear conflict between the two superpowers. These scientists
concluded that even if one side’s attack did not meet with nuclear retaliation,
radioactive fall-out and other forms of blowback would constitute “self-assured
The direct death and destruction of nuclear
weapons detonations would be horrific. People would be killed or horribly
injured in large numbers. And the destruction of population centers due to the indiscriminate
nature of nuclear weapons within their very large zones of effect would extend
to obliteration of hospitals, clinics, transportation and other infrastructure
necessary to treat and care for the many injured or dying and traumatized
Nuclear weapon detonations would also cast
radioactive materials into the high atmosphere, with implications for public
health outside the bombed zone. Nuclear attacks on urban areas would create
huge amounts of airborne soot, blocking sunlight and significantly reducing
global crop production for up to a decade. On top of the millions of refugees
and internally displaced people possibly created by the bombing, the world could
have to contend with mass starvation.
Then there are the challenges of restoring
global economic and technological infrastructure. The 2011 Japan
earthquake-tsunami-Fukushima reactor disaster offered a foretaste of the
problems caused by any kind of sudden global supply chain disruption.
Detonation of nuclear weapons would create a situation dwarfing this, with
knock-on effects on trade and the livelihoods of people all over the world.
It means that the consequences of a nuclear
weapons detonation are a global concern. With this in mind, the Norwegian
government decided to convene an international conference in Oslo to begin to discuss how well the international community is prepared (or
not). Norway invited all governments, UN humanitarian agencies, the Red
Cross and Red Crescent Movement and selected civil society experts, making this
a truly global event. 132 governments have confirmed their participation.
The Conference began today, and I blog this from the meeting room itself. It follows a lively civil society forum held this last weekend in Oslo, organized by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. Although not connected to the Oslo Conference, that forum underlined the high degree of civil society interest in how the inter-governmental conference gets on.
The Oslo conference is a first step. All
governments, including President Obama’s administration, should welcome it as a
means to focus minds on the practical risks nuclear weapons pose, and what is
required to address these dangers. As Obama himself said in Prague in April
2009, “One nuclear weapon exploded
in one city—be it New York or Moscow, Islamabad or Mumbai, Tokyo or Tel Aviv,
Paris or Prague—could kill hundreds of thousands of people. And no matter where
it happens, there is no end to what the consequences might be—for our global
safety, our security, our society, our economy, to our ultimate survival.”
However, the US government - along with China, France, Russia and the UK - has shunned the Conference. They claim it is a distraction.
This looks weak to many. Other nuclear weapon-possessing states (India and Pakistan) are attending the Oslo Conference. And it has handed activists a small victory: they ask why nuclear weapon states claiming to adhere to international rules including humanitarian law don't want to talk about the consequences. It is a good question, indeed, in view of these massively destructive weapons.