Ukraine and Nayarit: The humanitarian case for nuclear disarmament

By Rebecca Johnson | March 14, 2014

As the world looks on with trepidation at the growing crisis between Ukraine and Russia, does anyone think that the nuclear arsenals of Russia and the United States could play a constructive role?

Of course not.

At best they will be irrelevant. At worst—and many commentators fear the worst—military conflict would be complicated by the fact that Russia and NATO have nuclear weapons deployed in the region, with risks of crisis instability and escalation.

Some parliamentarians who favor updating the United Kingdom’s current Trident nuclear weapons system with new submarines and warheads have been quick to proclaim that Russia’s militaristic response to Ukraine’s domestic upheavals proves their case against nuclear disarmament. They claim that Britain must retain nuclear weapons in perpetuity because the future is full of unknowable threats and insecurities.

An alternative argument is that such unpredictable events prove it is all the more necessary to remove nuclear weapons—and all other weapons of mass destruction—from military arsenals. The risks that arise from the presence of nuclear weapons in or near conflict zones are real and formed the centerpiece of debates at the Second Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons that took place in Nayarit, Mexico, in February.

The Nayarit conference was the second multilateral meeting on what is being dubbed the “humanitarian initiative”—in which a large cross-regional group of states have been arguing for accelerated efforts to achieve universal nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, on the grounds that the “global and long-term consequences of any nuclear detonation” transcend national borders. Hence, nuclear disarmament is an urgent security issue that must be addressed by all.

The Norwegian government hosted the first conference on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons in Oslo in March 2013. Attended by 127 governments, international humanitarian agencies, and a broad cross section of civil society groups, the Oslo Conference looked mainly at the consequences of one or more nuclear detonations in urban areas, hearing evidence from the Red Cross and national and international response agencies. In his role as chair, the Norwegian foreign minister, Espen Barth Eide, noted: “The effects of a nuclear weapon detonation, irrespective of cause, will not be constrained by national borders, and will affect states and people in significant ways, regionally as well as globally.” The evidence discussed in both Oslo and Nayarit clearly demonstrated that non-nuclear governments must engage more fully in preventing the threats posed by nuclear weapons to the security of their own populations. That engagement is now happening, for not only did the Oslo and Nayarit Conferences attract more states than most Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) meetings, but they also engaged India and Pakistan, which are unlikely ever to join the 1968 treaty. 

Despite intensive lobbying from some nuclear-weapon states against participation, delegations from 146 governments took part in the Nayarit conference. The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council—all nuclear-armed states—boycotted Mexico’s conference, as they had boycotted Oslo last year. In trying to undermine the growing humanitarian pressure, they veered between dismissing it as a “distraction” on the one hand, and on the other, accusing participants of raising humanitarian awareness with the sinister motive of starting a process to ban nuclear weapons. 

Are they right in their critique that the humanitarian initiative will have a negative impact on the NPT and similar forums, such as the Geneva Conference on Disarmament?

A look at recent history suggests otherwise. The roots of the present humanitarian initiative can be found in the NPT and subsequent reviews. And in view of the failure of the 66-member disarmament conference to carry forward any substantive negotiations since 1996, it is ridiculous to suggest that discussions by 146 governments constitute a distraction. While some states attending the Nayarit Conference are not party to the NPT, and many more are not members of the Conference on Disarmament, the conference chair, Mexico’s Vice Minister for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights Juan Manuel Gómez Robledo, noted that progress on disarmament and non-proliferation comes about from actions on multiple fronts—which are mutually reinforcing.

In contrast, traditional arms control efforts have gotten stuck, a result of focusing primarily on weapons numbers and conferring undue privilege to the sensitivities of a few nuclear-armed states. The United States and Russia still have many cuts to make in their nuclear arsenals, but—notwithstanding their increasingly hostile rhetoric over Ukraine—they both enjoy the power and prestige they derive from their bilateral arms control relationship too much to get anywhere near the level of zero nuclear weapons that is supposed to be the goal. On the contrary, every time they reduce the number of nuclear weapons, they inject billions more dollars and rubles into their nuclear establishments to modernize and maintain the thousands they intend to keep.

Other nuclear-armed states look at that never-ending game and insist that they too must keep and upgrade their arsenals—ranging from a handful to a few hundred weapons—as long as anyone else has any nuclear weapons. For far too long, the NPT regime and the arms control processes have served to reinforce the status of nuclear-haves at the expense of the nuclear-free. Continued proliferation is the pernicious, if unintended, consequence, as leaders seeking regional or international influence try to get on the bottom rung of the nuclear capabilities ladder, thereby threatening their neighbors’ security. Is it any wonder that nuclear-free governments want to change the terms of engagement?

The humanitarian approach addresses nuclear weapons from the perspective and concerns of everyone’s security. The first step in that approach is to convince governments that the threats and risks are not just a private worry of nuclear-wielding nations, but a real and serious problem for public health, humanitarian assistance, the world economy, development, the environment, climate change, and worldwide food security. Detonations, whether accidental or intentional, would cause suffering that would be “widespread, (with) the poor and vulnerable being the most severely affected,” Gómez Robledo said.

Britain and the United States may have stayed away from the Nayarit conference, but experts from those countries were well-represented on the panels, including Patricia Lewis and Heather Williams of London’s Chatham House; Bruce Blair of Princeton University and Global Zero; Alan Robock of Rutgers University; Ira Helfand, a Boston physician and a member of the Physicians for Social Responsibility (US affiliate of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War); and the American author Eric Schlosser—who presented a video statement to the conference that summarized key arguments from his newly published book on nuclear accidents, titled Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety.

Whether nuclear-armed states like it or not—and some clearly don’t—the humanitarian approach isn’t going away. In Nayarit, delegates from Ukraine and Belarus spoke eloquently of the terrible health and environmental legacies their people continue to suffer from the Chernobyl nuclear accident. Kazakhstan, which testified about the humanitarian consequences of years of Soviet nuclear weapons testing at Semipalatinsk, also spoke proudly of its decision to become nuclear free. All three countries expressed pride in the decisions they took in the early 1990s to remove nuclear weapons from their soil and join the NPT as non-nuclear states parties.

Those old Cold Warriors who now seek to use Ukraine’s present crisis to justify the perpetual retention of nuclear weapons should think carefully about how their arguments undermine the NPT. Instead, this crisis should focus collective efforts more firmly on the need for a practical process that will support the security needs of the nuclear-free nations who are, after all, the really responsible majority in the non-proliferation regime.

Much of civil society, working through the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) network, openly advocates for a multilateral treaty that would include all nations and enhance the current non-proliferation regime by clearly banning the use, deployment, production, and transport of all nuclear weapons, and ultimately require their total elimination. Meanwhile, governments are still in the process of considering how to act on the global threats posed by nuclear weapons. So nothing is yet decided, but the representatives in Nayarit signalled the need to accelerate nuclear disarmament.

By focusing on human impacts, the Nayarit conference demonstrated that preventing nuclear catastrophe is the responsibility and the right of all. Therefore, Austrian foreign minister Sebastian Kurz’s announcement that Vienna would host a further conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons was warmly welcomed. Kurz explained his government’s motivation, noting: “Nuclear weapons are not only a permanent threat to all humankind but also a relic of the Cold War that we must finally overcome.”

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