The potential humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons is increasingly recognised as a global concern that ought to be at the core of all discussions of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. Starting with the 2010 Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), many governments have expressed their ‘deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons’ and reaffirmed ‘the need for all States at all times to comply with applicable international law, including international humanitarian law.’
Following this, 125 governments delivered a joint statement at the 2013 United Nations’ (UN’s) General Assembly First Committee on Peace and International Security, which also highlighted the disastrous humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and called on states to intensify their efforts to outlaw these weapons. Last year, the international Red Cross and Red Crescent movement also reconfirmed its commitment to a nuclear ban – finding ‘it difficult to envisage how any use of nuclear weapons could be compatible with the rules of international humanitarian law, in particular the rules of distinction, precaution and proportionality’, and adopting a four-year action plan towards the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.
The potential humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons was also a dominant theme in 2013. This was evident at the April 2013 Preparatory Committee of the NPT, during a high-level meeting on nuclear disarmament hosted by the UN General Assembly in September as well as during US President Barack Obama's June Berlin speech, in which he declared, ‘so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe,’ and when he announced his intention to seek further bilateral nuclear weapons reductions with Russia.
Last year the UN also established a working group, which is open to all member states, ‘to develop proposals to take forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations for the achievement and maintenance of a world without nuclear weapons.’ All this follows an international conference hosted by the government of Norway in March 2013, which provided a unique platform for sharing factual and technical information on the humanitarian consequences of a nuclear detonation between governments, international organisations and civil society.
In February 2014, the government of Mexico will host a Second Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in Nayarit, on the Pacific Coast. The conference will broaden the discussion on the risks posed by nuclear weapons and create a deeper understanding of the global and long-term consequences of a detonation – be it by accident or design. Governments, international organisations and civil society have been invited to participate, among them specialists in areas such as public health, humanitarian assistance, environmental issues and civilian protection, as well as diplomats and military experts.
Global civil society, and in particular the broad-based International Campaign to Ban Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), are hoping that the Mexico conference will establish, once and for all, that it is impossible to mitigate the effects of nuclear weapons, and that the only logical way forward is to initiate negotiations for a treaty outlawing nuclear weapons – similar to the way in which chemical and biological weapons have been banned.
While it is true that the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation ground has recently shifted towards viewing nuclear weapons through a humanitarian lens – an approach that focuses on the very real and devastating impact that nuclear weapons would have on humanity – it is unclear whether or not ICAN’s dream will be fulfilled this year.
Despite the recognition that no international response plan could effectively be put in place to react to an accidental or intentional use of nuclear weapons, those states that are in possession of nuclear weapons – such as the US, UK, France, China and Russia – will most likely not be at the conference in Mexico.
In the view of these states, the conference would be a ‘distraction’ from existing non-proliferation initiatives, which include the need to develop systems that would mitigate the risk of further proliferation and prevent nuclear terrorism. The Nuclear Security Summit process started by Obama in 2010, which recognises nuclear terrorism as one of the most challenging threats to international security, will also hold its third meeting in 2014 in the Hague to further develop effective measures preventing terrorists or other unauthorised actors from acquiring nuclear materials. The third and final preparatory committee for the NPT’s 2015 Review Conference will also take place in 2014. While this treaty also commits states to the principle of disarmament – under Article VI, traditionally its focus has been on ensuring the right to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and in ensuring that non-nuclear weapon states continue to abide by their commitment never to acquire such weapons.
Another challenge to the advancement of a humanitarian approach to nuclear weapons is the non-participation at the conference in Mexico of India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea, who also possess nuclear weapons but who remain outside the NPT.
Many non-nuclear weapon states, including the majority of African states, will participate in the debates in Mexico. Given the involvement of African states in successfully negotiating a ban on anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions, as well as the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in Africa in 2009, the African continent could play an important role in negotiating a ban on nuclear weapons. This experience is especially crucial in trying to convince states that possess nuclear weapons to engage in the discussions from a humanitarian approach.
There would be no rational reason for negotiating a ban if the possessor states are not part of the process. This means that 2014 could be a watershed year with respect to non-proliferation and for increasing the security of nuclear materials, but perhaps not for the nuclear disarmament agenda – this despite the terrifying consequences that such weapons pose for people and societies, and their potential to initiate a regional, if not global, humanitarian crisis.
Noel Stott, Senior Research Fellow, Transnational Threats and International Crime Division, ISS Pretoria