Rethinking nuclear catastrophe

It is ironic, but not completely surprising, that our desire for nuclear disarmament has its roots in the same principles that drive our continued military investment in nuclear weapons: predominantly the dire humanitarian consequences that would result from a nuclear attack or accident.  The potential consequences are what inspire the global community to keep pressing for change. But the belief in deterrence, that our ability to inflict huge reciprocal damage is what keeps others from attacking us, is also what makes proponents of nuclear weapons feel protected.

On 13 and 14 February, states will meet in Nayarit, Mexico to discuss the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, building on a similar event held in Norway just under a year ago. The conference will explore the impact nuclear weapons use would have on global public health, economic growth and sustainable development. It will also consider the effects of a nuclear explosion, including the resulting electromagnetic pulse (EMP), which presents significant risk for a global society so heavily reliant on technology.

Discussing these issues plays a valuable role; not least it serves to take the nuclear weapons debate out of its technical, bureaucratic box and lay it on the table alongside other global priorities, such as food security, the global economy and public health. It has potential to help us better understand the links between the risks of nuclear weapons and encourage a wider strategic vision when it comes to progressing policy. And it underlines the global responsibilities of the nuclear weapons possessors and the voice all states should be accorded within the arms control and disarmament process.

But that is not exactly how it is playing out. As is so often the case, suspicion and politics have started to cloud policy. 127 countries from around the world – including weapons possessing states such as India and Pakistan as well as Iran, with its controversial nuclear programme – attended the Oslo conference. The five official nuclear weapon states under the NPT (US, UK, Russia, China and France – the P5) however opted out. They have yet to announce their official position on the forthcoming Nayarit conference, but chances are they will take a similar position and stay away.

And, without letting them off the hook, their reaction isn’t all that surprising. Since the first conference in Oslo in 2013, a narrative has started to take root tying discussions of humanitarian impacts directly to an attempt to delegitimise nuclear weapons in the eyes of the international community. The ultimate hope, advocated primarily by a number of civil society organisations, is to inspire an international convention banning nuclear weapons, forcing the hand of possessor states to denounce their nuclear arsenals through a mixture of moral embarrassment and international pressure. This is a tantalising concept for disarmament advocates, who have seen similar approaches bear fruit on other issues, such as landmines and cluster munitions.

However what this strategy does not take into account are the domestic and inter-state dynamics of the nuclear weapons states, and the psychology of insecurity that surrounds their nuclear postures. The five nuclear weapon states under the NPT are hardly sheep on the international stage; they see themselves as leaders and innovators, helping to set the frameworks rather than being strong-armed into positions defined by others. The fairness and propriety of this fact is not the point here. These psychologies need to be taken into account if there is to be movement on an issue that currently has the P5 (also the five permanent members of the Security Council) sitting in a different place from the rest of the international community.

At present, disarmament measures are largely discussed behind closed doors, bilaterally between the two largest nuclear weapon states – the US and Russia – and multilaterally between the five nuclear weapon states, under what is known as the “P5 process”. The justification is that the issues under discussion are politically sensitive and involve a heavy degree of trust-building that would not benefit from being laid bare, at this stage, for international scrutiny. Involving more actors would simply make a complex environment impossible to coordinate.

While it is true that the process is both politically sensitive and complex, the point that needs to be underscored – and has been highlighted by the emergence of the humanitarian agenda – is that the disarmament discussion is not simply one of national interest. The potential impacts of nuclear weapons use, be it with intent or by accident, reach well beyond the national borders of the US, UK, Russia, China and France.

Just as we apply a high standard of international scrutiny to preventing the further proliferation of nuclear weapons, because we know that the resulting risks would be widespread, the same balance of interests needs to be represented in moving forward on disarmament. Both nuclear weapon and non-nuclear weapon states have a stake and bear a burden of risk; as such, both need and deserve a place at the table.

The humanitarian impacts, if nuclear weapon states could meaningfully be brought into the discussion, present an opportunity to do just that. Using this as a simple attempt to inject moral humiliation into the debate is righteous and short-sighted. This initiative presents an opportunity to remind ourselves that nuclear weapons are real and involve genuine risk. It could shift us from talking about them as an abstract concept, and move them into our direct line of vision, putting them in the context of things we can more easily relate to. It could open up a line of discussion not only about personal impact – human pain and suffering – but also about policy impact. By helping us better appreciate how one policy impacts other global priorities, it could force us to start thinking about nuclear weapons differently. This is an opportunity to look directly at the shared consequences, giving a voice to those states who feel they also shoulder the burden of risk.

But the nuclear weapon states are likely to continue to disengage, so long as they believe the humanitarian dimensions initiative is explicitly designed to discredit their national policies. As a result, we risk losing some of the value that Nayarit (and the conferences likely to follow) has to influence thinking and inspire progress. We need to think carefully about how we bring them into this discussion, and turn this into a forum to really make progress.


This article was originally featured on a regular column by Rebecca on openSecurity, a division of

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