On February 13th and 14th, the government of Mexico hosted the Second Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons. Representatives of 147 countries came to the beautiful coast of Nayarit, Mexico to talk about nuclear weapons. Most of the world was represented, with the striking absence of nuclear-armed states like the United States, Russia, China, France, and Israel. India and Pakistan, however, did attend.
The conference was a follow on to an initial conference held in Oslo the previous year, also focused on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons. The Nayarit conference had much the same agenda, with expert testimony about the calamitous effects of even one nuclear explosion, and the difficulties any aid organization would have responding to such a catastrophe. Nayarit also included interesting presentations about the risks involved in having nuclear weapons, a subject not covered in Oslo.
The facts presented were relatively familiar and straightforward to those who have thought about nuclear weapons. Little discussion was had about nuclear deterrence, which nuclear-armed states claim justifies the possession of nuclear weapons. Little was said about the possibility conflict over these weapons leading to war or even nuclear war. Yet the conference had an air of excitement and long-time nuclear weapons campaigners said afterward that something important had happened. What was it? Why did this relatively factual, uncontentious meeting represent, in the chairman’s words, a “point of no return”?
The meaning of Nayarit, it seems to me, was contained in the long session on the second day in which the representatives of various countries (and a few civil society organizations, like the Red Cross/Red Crescent) stated their views. For the most part, what was said was careful, measured, and relatively unexceptional. And as the afternoon wore on into evening, and the list of requests for a chance to speak seemed never to shrink, I remember wondering if it would ever end. But this is the point. Many, many states found that they had something to say.
The difference between Oslo and Nayarit, I believe, is that non-nuclear-armed states now feel that there is a place for them in the debate. In the past, only the nuclear-armed states were allowed to speak. Others might insist on a chance, but they were studiously ignored by those with the weapons. At Nayarit, non-nuclear-armed states found that they had a place where they could say something about this subject. Nuclear war would affect all nations–whether through radiation carried by the wind, or especially if global climatic impact worries turn out to be true. But the debate has long been the province of the inner “club” of nine nations that have built nuclear arsenals.
Zimbabwe made an impassioned intervention, asking, “What are they thinking? When their finger is on the button? What is going through their minds?” Jamaica had a statement. Croatia wanted to say how they felt. The Marshall Islands made a moving statement. Kazakhstan talked about the impacts of years of Soviet nuclear testing on their soil. And so on, and on, into the night. It was a remarkable outpouring.
The meaning of Nayarit is that a space was cleared where states could talk about nuclear weapons, and a remarkable number found that they had something to say. They cared about nuclear weapons and the risks they impose on us all. They had something to say about the potentially catastrophic impact of the use of these weapons. After sitting mute for decades while the nuclear-armed states monopolized the discussion, the world suddenly found its voice. It was a remarkable moment.
A follow-on conference is planned for Vienna. The next question, it seems to me, is whether states that have found their voice on this issue will now decide that they want to go further and take responsibility for the way in which the world handles this problem. For seventy years the nuclear-armed states have been saying that they alone are responsible for how and when (or if) nuclear weapons are gotten rid of. After Nayarit, it is an open question whether the rest of the world will allow them to be the only voices in the discussion.
Until now, the discussion about nuclear weapons has always been a tightly limited debate. Now, it appears, it will be a much wider debate, with more voices and more points of view. And that must be a good thing, it seems to me.
These are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of BASIC.
This article was originally featured on the Rethinking Nuclear Weapons blog.