Disarmament Insight


Wednesday, 13 August 2014

“An Illusion of Safety: Challenges of nuclear weapons detonations for United Nations humanitarian coordination and response”: Findings

As mentioned in a previous posting, UNIDIR has just published its latest study on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons.     “An Illusion of Safety: Challenges of nuclear weapons detonations for United Nations humanitarian coordination and response” is now available on the Institute's website.
The study’s main findings are as follows:

1. The current level of awareness within the humanitarian system is generally low about the specificities of nuclear weapon detonation events or its ability to respond to them.

2. For the UN to offer or be called on to coordinate humanitarian assistance suggests an event is already beyond the capacity of the state or states affected to respond effectively to assist the victims. Moreover, as a rule it would depend upon an affected state requesting it, or on the existence of appropriate international decision-making if the government of that state had been incapacitated by the event.

3. The UN is unlikely to be able to offer much humanitarian assistance in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear weapon detonation, and it would take time for the humanitarian system to deploy.

4. At present there are a number of foreseeable challenges to the prompt and effective use of the humanitarian cluster system in the event of a nuclear weapon detonation.

5. Threat or fear of further nuclear weapon detonation events could vastly complicate decision-making about the nature and scale of humanitarian coordination and response, let alone its delivery.

6. Prevention is the best approach to the possibility of nuclear weapon detonation events. Those humanitarian actors in a position to do so, such as the UN, should plan for the likely challenges of “lower end” nuclear weapon detonations even if such a response is palliative. Such planning would, in reality, also reinforce the need for action to reduce the risk of nuclear detonations happening in the first place.

The study suggests that the humanitarian system consider the following:
1. Giving focused attention to the issue in the UN Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC);
2. Assigning responsibility to a new or existing IASC task team, and inviting the Inter-Agency Committee on Radiological and Nuclear Emergencies (IACRNE) to participate in the task team’s work;
3. Studying and simulating varied nuclear weapon detonation scenarios with a view to humanitarian response preparedness;
4. Including representative nuclear detonation scenarios in future revisions of humanitarian procedures for large, complex, sudden-onset disasters; and
5. Reviewing current capacities and plans.
For their part, states and the UN Secretary-General could consider:
1. Prompting relevant humanitarian agencies and specialized agencies such as the IAEA, WHO, and CTBTO to clarify their mandates, policies, roles, and capabilities with a view to responding to nuclear weapon detonations;
2. Accounting for how inter-state decision-making processes could impinge on timely activation of humanitarian coordination and response efforts in the event of nuclear detonation; and
3. Examining how eliminating the risk of nuclear weapon use can be better pursued through practical measures. While nuclear weapons exist, the risk of their detonation does too, whether caused deliberately or inadvertently.

Humanitarianism marks the broader mission of the United Nations, and since its inception the Organization has taken a strong stand in favour of nuclear disarmament. The initiation of specific planning for how to respond to a nuclear weapon detonation would appear to be logical and consistent with both these aims. The development of necessary understandings about decision-making and a protocol for planning can be based on existing humanitarian coordination practices and need not require sizeable resources. The rapid mounting of a well-coordinated response will have an impact in reducing the level of human suffering, even if it may not assist those directly affected in the immediate aftermath.

John Borrie and Tim Caughley

An earlier UNIDIR publication, “Viewing Nuclear Weapons through a Humanitarian Lens” edited by Borrie and Caughley, can also be found on the Institute’s website.