Does the “responsibility to protect” include nuclear disarmament?

By Kennette Benedict | October 22, 2013

In the 2000s a new idea emerged in global policy circles: that the international community has a responsibility to protect not just the sovereignty of nations, but individual lives around the world. United Nations documents codified the principle, stating that if a government was “manifestly failing” to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, or crimes against humanity, the international community must be prepared to take action to guard civilians from harm.

On October 1, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), winner of the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize, entered Syria to remove and destroy weapons of mass destruction. In the midst of Syria’s civil war, chemical weapons have been used against civilians, killing over 1,400 women, men, and children in one attack. The OPCW has met with initial success. In the first week after arriving, the advance team began destroying commercial compounds that serve as precursors to chemical weapons, and a team of 35 is destroying and disabling others with cooperation from the Syrian government.

Under international law there are justifications for intervention, including upholding the international norm against using weapons of mass destruction. But can the OPCW’s actions also properly be considered a fulfillment of the responsibility to protect?

Yes—and they could set a precedent not just for chemical weapons disarmament but for nuclear disarmament, as well.

A conference held in Oslo in March 2013 illuminates why. Called to discuss the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, it brought together 127 state representatives to hear experts describe the effects of nuclear bomb detonations. Physicians, disaster-relief workers, and government personnel described in often-graphic detail what would happen if one or several of the 17,000 nuclear weapons in the world were to go off, either intentionally or accidentally. Some of the responses from representatives of developing countries suggested that this may have been the first time they fully grasped the terrible damage that a bomb could do to their people if it were to explode in their region. In the words of the Zambia representative, “we are horrified by the amount of damage that one detonation, let alone several, can do to human beings and the planet we dearly love.” The Nigeria representative said, “such gory tales will be difficult to erase from one’s memory.” (For an interesting conversation on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear explosions, check out the Bulletin’s Development and Disarmament Roundtable titled "Nuclear detonations: Contemplating catastrophe.")

The Oslo conference emphasized that the effects of any nuclear bomb explosion would be felt beyond the political borders of particular nation states, and that governments would not have the capacity to respond effectively to protect their citizens. Furthermore, based on assessments by major international bodies—in particular the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross—even they would not have the wherewithal to respond; the effects would be enormous and overwhelming. The conclusion was clear: The only way the international community could exercise its responsibility to protect civilians would be to prevent these catastrophic humanitarian disasters. And the only means to prevent them would be to eliminate nuclear weapons.

To be sure, calls for nuclear disarmament are hardly new. The 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, for example, specifically requires nuclear-weapon-possessing states to move toward disarmament when conditions permit. What was new about the Oslo discussion was the focus on the consequences of accidental or intentional detonation for civilian populations. This emphasis on humanitarian impact as a basis for nuclear disarmament comes at a time when international organizations are seeking ways to more vigorously apply the responsibility to protect concept—in Sudan, for example, and as they did in Mali earlier in 2013. In these countries, the aim is to stop armies with conventional weapons from slaughtering civilians. In Syria, debate continues over whether the international community should intervene to try to stop the civil war and civilian killings. In the meantime, however, the removal of chemical weapons in order to prevent further atrocities is a precedent that can be applied to other weapons of indiscriminate destruction, including nuclear arms. In other words, one of the most effective ways to protect civilians over the long run is to eliminate nuclear weapons, as well as chemical and biological weapons.

It is the responsibility of the state to protect its people from outside violent attacks, as well as to provide order within the country. Over the years, though, many governments came to focus on their own survival rather than those of their people. What was once the means to an end—the creation of the nation-state to protect individuals from anarchy and violence—became an end in itself. And to ensure the security of the state, huge arsenals of extraordinary weapons were developed and secrets kept at all costs. In contrast, the notion of human security—the basis of the responsibility to protect—shifts the focus from protecting the state to protecting individuals. Human security, or the protection of individuals and groups from violence and fear, should be the ultimate goal of the international community.

With that goal in mind, disarmament is the logical next step. Even at the beginning of the nuclear age in 1945, atomic scientists realized that no government could protect its people from the new weapons of mass destruction; no effective defense is possible against the most dangerous technology on Earth. Applying the concept of the responsibility to protect, it follows that the international community has a duty to intervene and provide protection to individuals in the face of the state’s incapacity.

But if the United Nations and humanitarian agencies judge that they are not able to respond effectively to protect civilians from nuclear detonations, as they warned in Oslo, then the only way to defend populations is to eliminate these weapons. The responsibility to protect is not only for situations where armed forces use conventional weapons to commit mass atrocities; it must also include preventing the catastrophic destruction nuclear weapons can cause. Simply put, the responsibility to protect requires global nuclear disarmament.

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