The humanitarian and political struggle to ban the bomb

News, Nuclear Weapons

By Cesar Jaramillo

Not only is the risk of a nuclear weapons detonation—whether by accident, miscalculation, or design—higher than commonly understood, but it is actually increasing over time.

This was among the sobering conclusions in the Chair’s Summary from the third Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, hosted by the Austrian government on December 8-9, 2014. Delegates from more than 150 nations, multilateral agencies, and civil society organizations gathered in Vienna to talk about the existential threat posed by nuclear weapons and the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of their use.

As with the first and second conferences on this topic—hosted by Norway (March 2013) and Mexico (February 2014)—a crucial point affirmed in Vienna was that the use of nuclear weapons would be inconsistent with fundamental precepts of International Humanitarian Law.

Relief agencies, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, made it abundantly clear that there could be no effective response capacity in the event of a nuclear weapons exchange.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors, or Hibakusha, gave gripping testimony of the devastation caused by nuclear weapons and the physical and emotional scars suffered by those who survive.

The solution to the nuclear weapons problem was known before the conference began: there must be a universal and non-discriminatory global legal ban on the development, possession, and use of nuclear weapons, with provisions for the elimination of existing stockpiles and a timeline for verified implementation.

The international community, however, is hardly on the same page on how to get there. A growing number of non-nuclear weapons states are demanding concrete, urgent progress.

The renewed focus on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons has served as both rallying point and catalyst for governments frustrated at the poorly implemented disarmament obligation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

One of the outcome documents from the conference—the Austrian Pledge —committed Austria, inter alia, to “present the facts-based discussions, findings and compelling evidence of the Vienna Conference, which builds upon the previous conferences in Oslo and Nayarit, to all relevant fora, in particular the NPT Review Conference 2015 and in the UN framework, as they should be at the centre of all deliberations, obligations and commitments with regard to nuclear disarmament.” Likewise, Austria pledged to collaborate with all stakeholders to “identify and pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons” with the “urgent and full implementation of existing obligations under Article VI” clearly identified as a crucial objective.

Civil society representatives from both nuclear and non-nuclear armed states have positioned themselves as credible partners in global nuclear disarmament efforts. A world-class civil society forum in Vienna, hosted by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons immediately prior to the governmental conference, was a testament to the growing sophistication and effectiveness of transnational civil society activism in advancing the nuclear disarmament agenda.

At the same time, the states that possess nuclear weapons continue to invoke outdated security paradigms to justify the indefinite retention of their arsenals. They also resist calls for the prompt commencement of preparatory work toward a Nuclear Weapons Convention (i.e., a nuclear prohibition and elimination treaty), saying it is “premature,” although nearly 70 years have passed since bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, more than four decades since the entry into force of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and a quarter-century since the end of the Cold War.

Nuclear weapons states (and some of their allies, which rely on security arrangements involving nuclear weapons, such as Canada and other NATO members) insist on the tried-and-failed “step-by-step” process to nuclear disarmament that, 40 years on, has not reached the goal.

Steps include the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which some of these very states have failed to ratify; the negotiation of a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty in the Conference on Disarmament, which has been deadlocked for more than 15 years; and the establishment of a zone free of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, for which a preparatory conference was to be convened by the end of 2012—but has yet to be held.

Meanwhile, copious spending by nuclear-weapons states on modernization programs will inevitably extend the shelf-life of nuclear arsenals. The Washington Post reported in 2012 that “the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the most powerful but indiscriminate class of weapons ever created, is set to undergo the costliest overhaul in its history.” A more recent report in The New York Times lists a price tag of up to $1-trillion in modernization costs in the United States alone over the next three decades. Other countries are set to follow suit.

Of course steps are necessary for the complex undertaking of nuclear disarmament. It is the manner in which they have been understood and implemented thus far which is problematic.

What is required is a single-focused, multilateral diplomatic process with the unequivocal goal of achieving a world free of nuclear weapons. As United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has indicated, this could take the form of a Nuclear Weapons Convention or a framework of mutually reinforcing instruments.

The value of the humanitarian initiative lies not only in recognizing the impact of nuclear weapons, but in drawing out policy implications. The logical progression of the humanitarian initiative is to move from the technical to the political. The linkage to concrete disarmament efforts makes this approach significant and forward-looking.

A window of opportunity is opening. This spring, delegates from states parties to the NPT will gather in New York for the critical five-year Review Conference. Expectations for progress will be high, inspired by the resolve of the humanitarian initiative.

This year the world will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Let this milestone mark a decisive move toward a world free of nuclear weapons.

We must ban the bomb.


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