Disarmament Insight


Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Humanitarian Initiative unplugged

This posting is a summary of comments I made during an event on 6 May during the NPT Review Conference.  The meeting was organised by Austria, Mexico and Norway as hosts of three recent conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. My topic was “the key substantive findings that have emerged as a result of the humanitarian initiative”. The impacts and trends of the humanitarian initiative (HI) to date, from a UN perspective, largely fall under three headings, process, forensic and legal:
1          Process: In process terms the Oslo, Nayarit and Vienna meetings individually, and in retrospect collectively, provided a fresh standpoint and perspective for addressing concerns about nuclear weapons to all states in a forum that was underpinned by the strongly expressed humanitarian considerations of the 2010 NPT Review Conference. The NPT’s tasking in 2000 and 2010 of the Conference on Disarmament (CD) to ‘immediately establish a subsidiary body to deal with nuclear disarmament’ had come to nothing.  The CD remains paralysed. Some nuclear weapon states declined to participate in the OEWG. To an extent the orthodox process vacuum was filled by the HI, although the initiative was pitched to the entire UN community and civil society, not just to the states parties of the NPT. All states have a stake in this initiative along with civil society and intergovernmental organisations—partners with states throughout the series of conferences.

As US NPT expert Lewis Dunn recently wrote, the goals of the participants in these conferences have varied. ‘Some want to highlight nuclear risks and encourage action to reduce them, others want to energize the NPT nuclear disarmament process, and still others want to delegitimize nuclear weapons and create support for a new international treaty to ban the possession of nuclear weapons and to abolish them.’ At this stage, however, the humanitarian initiative itself has been about accumulating evidence of the consequences of nuclear weapons. This brings us to the forensic angle of the initiative.

2          Forensic: i.e., the gathering and examining of information, evidence and research about the physical effects of nuclear weapons. And it should be noted in passing that the humanitarian impact conferences have spurred new facts-based research including the Chatham House reports on nuclear near misses ‘Too Close for Comfort’ and ‘The “Big Tent” in Disarmament, UNIDIR’s publication ‘An Illusion of Safety’ and the UNIDIR/ILPI series of 11 papers for the Vienna and NPT Review Conferences.
 - Highlights of evidence emerging from the three humanitarian impact conferences are these:

a) National borders: The impact of a nuclear weapon detonation, irrespective of the cause, would not be constrained by national borders and could have regional and even global consequences. Certainly, considerable evidence was produced at all three meetings on the physical properties of nuclear detonations, their indiscriminate effects and the potential for the fallout from an exchange of weapons in a conflict to have widespread, long-term impacts.

b) Testing: Historical experience from the use and testing of nuclear weapons was also demonstrated to have had in some areas devastating immediate and long-term effects—effects not hitherto given the recognition they deserve.

c) Health, development and environment: Beyond the immediate death and destruction caused by a detonation, evidence suggests that socio-economic development will be hampered, with the poor and vulnerable being the most severely affected, adverse effects for food security and considerable environmental damage inflicted. Reconstruction of infrastructure and regeneration of economic activities, trade, communications, health facilities, and schools would take several decades, causing profound social and political harm—the Chernobyl effect but magnified. The human health impacts would be widespread and affect women more acutely than men.

d) Risk: The risk of nuclear weapons use is seen as growing globally as a consequence of proliferation, the vulnerability of nuclear command and control networks to cyber-attacks and to human error, and potential access to nuclear weapons by non-state actors, in particular terrorist groups. Low probability yet high consequence events add up to tangible risk. Indeed, evidence of accidental use and near misses tabled at the conferences has given the element of risk a new dimension.

e) Preparedness and response: 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.  This finding was tested within the UN humanitarian relief system, and largely substantiated, through a project conducted by UNIDIR in cooperation with UNOCHA and UNDP. An expectation for UN relief assistance would quickly manifest itself if the civil nuclear disasters of Chernobyl and Fukushima are anything to go by, bearing in mind that a nuclear detonation would be even more devastating.

3          Legal: The 2010 NPT Review Conference not only expressed its deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons but also reaffirmed the need for all States at all times to comply with applicable international law (IL), including international humanitarian law (IHL). From a UN perspective, there are four key legal points.

a) The first derives from the principles of the UN Charter and the purposes of the UN – the imperative of prevention as the only guarantee against the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use. This element was highlighted at all three conferences, as was respect for the rule of law with particular reference to the Geneva Conventions.

b) Although not an agenda item as such in Oslo and Nayarit, doubt as to whether a nuclear weapon with its devastating and indiscriminate effects could be used in compliance with IHL was stimulated by evidence presented at those events (including references to the ICJ Advisory Opinion), and was specifically addressed in Vienna along with other norms relevant to the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons.

c) There is the ‘gap’. Unlike the case of biological and chemical weapons, there is no comprehensive legal norm universally prohibiting possession, transfer, production and use of nuclear arms. (There is also a gap in the fulfilment of article VI of the NPT—the requirement for multilateral negotiation of effective measures for nuclear disarmament.)

d) International health regulations (IHR) of the WHO, which provide a framework for the coordination and management of events that may constitute a public health emergency of international concern, would cover events of a radiological origin.

As well as relevant legal considerations, the Vienna conference also drew attention to ethical and moral concerns. As is the case with torture, which defies humanity and is now unacceptable to all, the suffering caused by nuclear weapons use is not only a legal matter, it necessitates moral appraisal.

In one short sentence at the end of the UN Secretary-General’s message to the opening plenary of the NPT Review Conference, the Secretary-General encapsulated the significance of what has emerged from the humanitarian initiative. ‘The humanitarian movement’, he said, ‘has injected the moral imperative into a frozen debate’. This new, evidence-based initiative has revitalised a debate that has been paralysed in its repetitiveness and lack of focus or tangible results (an issue that was covered by the next panellist (Gaukhar Mukhazthanova)).

Tim Caughley