Mexico preview: A humanitarian approach to disarmament

By Sergio Duarte, Ronaldo Sardenberg | February 12, 2014

In March 2013, delegates from 127 countries and 70 nongovernmental organizations met at a conference in Oslo to discuss the humanitarian impacts of the use of nuclear weapons. Among nuclear-weapon states, only India and Pakistan sent official representatives. The conference concluded that “it is unlikely that any state or international body could address the immediate humanitarian emergency caused by a nuclear weapon detonation in an adequate manner and provide sufficient assistance to those affected.” Conference members also agreed that the effects of a nuclear weapon detonation will not be constrained by national borders but  will produce significant negative regional and global effects.

A follow-up conference starts this week in Nayarit, Mexico. For two days, governments and civil society organizations will exchange ideas on how to pursue this subject area in international forums. According to the organizers, the conference is not intended to reach a negotiated outcome. It will, nevertheless, provide renewed impetus for the growing effort to discuss the role of nuclear weapons in defense doctrines and the incompatibility of their use with current international humanitarian law. Many attending the two conferences hope they can provide the spark for discussions of a worldwide ban on nuclear weapons, or at least a ban on their use.

None of the five UN Security Council member nations with nuclear weapons attended the Oslo conference. As yet, there has been no indication representatives of these countries would attend the Mexico meeting.

Two main types of proposals have arisen out of Oslo conference discussions about the catastrophic worldwide consequences of any use of nuclear weapons.

Some involved in the conference suggest an immediate, outright prohibition on the development, manufacture, stockpiling, and use of such weapons, coupled with an obligation that countries possessing nuclear arsenals completely destroy them. For the advocates of this course of action, such a prohibition would reinforce existing norms and make the use of nuclear weapons less likely. It would also, in their view, stigmatize nuclear weapons as repugnant to the conscience of humankind and contrary to international law.

In a second approach growing out of the Oslo conference, others have proposed a phased plan that would eventually entail the convening of a diplomatic conference to negotiate a convention prohibiting only the use of nuclear weapons. A similar strategy was followed in the successful negotiation of other important treaties, particularly regarding chemical and biological weapons. Supporters of this course of action believe that even if the nuclear weapon states do not participate in negotiations or join the resulting convention, the process itself and its final product would de-legitimize nuclear armaments, strengthen the legal norms against their use, and increase pressure on nuclear-armed states to revise their defense doctrines.

Nuclear weapon states have reacted negatively to these proposals, suggesting they would not be compatible with those countries' commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its 2010 Action Plan. Those countries contend that a step-by-step approach is the most effective way to achieve progress in disarmament, and that the conference on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons is a distraction from disarmament efforts already underway in existing multilateral forums.

Given the present state of the debate on the elimination of nuclear weapons, it is impossible to predict the chances of success in the short run. Nevertheless, it is clear that the recent emphasis on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons use of has strengthened the efforts of concerned governments and civil society groups in forums devoted to disarmament and arms control issues.

As became clear at the conference in Oslo, such concerns already have shifted the disarmament debate. Once almost entirely focused on potential external threats and the possible use of nuclear weapons as a deterrent, the debate now also includes the notion of disarmament as a humanitarian action. Instead of focusing primarily on the military policies and security needs of countries, this new approach to disarmament prioritizes the threat that nuclear weapons pose to human security in all its aspects. It is an approach that will continue to be elaborated in Mexico this week, and likely long beyond.

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