This week the 24th United Nations Conference on Disarmament Issues, ‘Creating a Peaceful and Safe Future: Pressing Issues and Potential Solutions’, takes place in Shizuoka, Japan. Topics delegates will be discussing this year include humanitarian issues on the use of nuclear weapons, Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones, current challenges to the nuclear non-proliferation regime, the role of civil society and nuclear safety and security. Such forums are vital, not least because nuclear weapons enthusiasts generally prefer not to dwell on the severe dangers these weapons pose. One of their favored arguments is that nuclear weapons ‘kept the peace’ and prevented great power conflict during the Cold War. For Lawrence Wittner however, nuclear war has not occurred since 1945 because public opposition ’caused government officials to step back from the brink’. Indeed, it only takes a cursory review of history to understand that while nuclear weapons consistently brought great peril to the lives of people around the world, public protest significantly reduced nuclear dangers.
For example, 45 years ago this week, an American Air Force B-52 bomber armed with four hydrogen bombs crashed into the sea near the Arctic air base of Thule in Greenland. Fears were widespread that radiation dispersal from the crash would cause environmental and health effects, concerns that continued for over twenty years. But Scott Sagan argues that the most dangerous, yet unrecognised, aspect of the incident was ‘an increased risk of an accidental war’ through a false warning that a Soviet attack had been launched. The incident led to international protests and the US ending the airborne alert which kept some B-52 bombers in the air at all times in case of surprise nuclear attack.
17 years ago this week, Jacques Chirac, then French President, announced that France would no longer test nuclear weapons following large international protests over the environmental, public health and political consequences of the tests. The decision came a day after France exploded its sixth and most powerful nuclear device in the South Pacific. It took the French government until 2010 to provide compensation for the impact of the tests on the health of Polynesian people, while continuing to disregard the environmental consequences.
These two episodes alone show that it is particularly appropriate that the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and the role of civil society will be discussed this week in Japan. Debates over the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons have risen in prominence in recent years, being referred to in the final document of the 2010 NPT Review Conference and highlighted by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement in their call for a nuclear weapons ban. Civil society groups, such as the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)–which have been at the forefront of this approach–argue that nuclear weapons debates must focus ‘not on narrow concepts of national security, but on the effects of these weapons on human beings’. Given the slow progress on nuclear disarmament, campaigners are also keen to learn from the processes that led to treaties banning landmines and cluster munitions. These built on humanitarian arguments so that ‘new political coalitions were formed, longstanding deadlocks were broken, and two whole classes of weapons were outlawed’.
Partnerships between civil society and states are also growing in this area, with ICAN’s Civil Society Forum in March coming a few days before the Norwegian government hosts an international conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and the need for a global nuclear weapons ban. While nuclear weapon states continue to resist negotiating such a ban, some, such as the UK, recognize that international humanitarian law applies to nuclear weapons, restricting the circumstances in which these weapons could be used. Such controls on nuclear weapons–gradually reducing their possible use–are a direct result of persistent public pressure over many years.
These are the views of the author.