Should governments be allowed to endanger their citizens by keeping nuclear weapons?

By Kennette Benedict | December 4, 2014

For most of the last three and a half centuries, the international community agreed that states should have sovereignty over their own territory with no interference from outside forces. A series of treaties signed in 1648, known as the Peace of Westphalia, codified this notion. It also laid the basis for a social contract between the people and the state that provides citizens with protection from physical harm in exchange for their ceding some individual sovereignty. This became the foundation of the international state system, international law, and the formation of the United Nations.

Today the principle that states should protect their citizens survives, but the notion of total national sovereignty does not. In 2005, the United Nations adopted the policy of a “responsibility to protect” civilians who are being violently harmed by their governments or by perpetrators their governments are unable to stop. Since then, this policy has been the basis for UN-backed humanitarian interventions in Sudan, Mali, and Libya, among other places.

Yet there is one way in which governments are posing a devastating danger to their own citizens that the United Nations has not addressed: by threatening nuclear war. This menace, too, should compel the international community to act.

How we got to “responsibility to protect.” For all the international attention to nuclear weapons since the 1950s—resulting in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization–the United Nations hasn’t had much to say about the responsibilities of the governments that possess them. In a 1996 advisory opinion, the International Court of Justice concluded that possession of nuclear weapons is a criminal offense under international law, but the UN system itself has not addressed state responsibility for their use and the massive destruction they would cause.

The United Nations does address violent harm to civilians in today’s civil wars and insurgencies, based on the policy of “responsibility to protect.” This policy was developed in response to genocides in Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the early 1990s. Many observers felt helpless as government and paramilitary forces slaughtered those of other ethnic, religious, or national backgrounds. Yet under international law, it was, up until then, illegal to abridge the sovereignty of states and intervene with military means to try to stop such mass killing. The sanctity of state sovereignty was the bedrock of the international system. Outside intervention in the affairs of another country was considered beyond the pale, and against the founding laws of the United Nations.

But the murder of so many innocents could not be tolerated. Impassioned accounts by Canadian UN peacekeeper Romeo Dallaire, journalist and now US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, and others, along with images of rivers swollen with dead bodies and fields of skeletons, captured the attention of humanitarians and the general public in the Global North. How could intervention be justified—even mandated—to prevent such atrocities?

In an original and influential analysis, Francis Deng, former special adviser to the United Nations on the prevention of genocide and now South Sudan’s permanent representative to the United Nations, introduced the idea that governments have a duty and responsibility to protect their citizens from such mass violence. States have a sovereign right to conduct their own affairs without intervention, of course, but if they are unable, or unwilling, to protect their people, he argued, then the international community had a responsibility to intervene and act, with military force if necessary, to protect the human rights and the sovereignty of individuals. In response to a report that incorporated Deng’s ideas, this “responsibility to protect” was adopted unanimously as policy at the 2005 United Nations World Summit. The UN Security Council affirmed its commitment to the policy in Resolution 1674 in 2006 and Resolution 1894 in 2009.

Breaching the social contract. Decades before this new idea challenged the absolute sovereignty of the state, at a time when the doctrine of state sovereignty was being further codified by the founding of the United Nations, an extraordinary thing happened that would change governments’ capacity to both cause harm and protect their citizens: The atomic bomb was invented and used by the United States on Japan in August 1945. Since then, with states now in possession of some 16,200 nuclear warheads, the threat of nuclear war has hung over our heads.

In fact, the existence of nuclear weapons violates the social contract by making it impossible for governments to protect their citizens. Just one nuclear bomb would cause thousands of deaths; war plans call for at least 50 bombs in a single launch. The doctrine of launch-on-warning—providing for nuclear missiles to be launched in retaliation even before the enemy’s bombs have landed, allowing for no deliberation—guarantees even more extensive carnage. Untold numbers of civilians would suffer and die in a nuclear genocide.

That puts those of us in the Global North at a curious juncture. While humanitarians in the United States urge intervention in Iraq and Syria to protect innocents from mass murder in the name of the responsibility to protect, the citizens of the United States live with a government that is unable—or unwilling—to protect them from the catastrophic harm of nuclear weapons. By threatening to use such bombs—a key part of the doctrine known as nuclear deterrence—without citizens’ active consent and in the face of near-certain retaliation, the US government has abrogated its responsibility to protect its own citizens. The social contract between citizen and government lies in shambles.

Is it possible to renew the social contract to hold governments responsible—especially in the United States and Russia—for the harm that would surely ensue from dropping nuclear bombs? Can we compel our governments to protect us from these dreadful weapons? I believe we can, but only if we conduct a vigorous public debate and bring an end to nuclear weapons possession everywhere.

Humanitarian effects. A new UN forum is being created, led by countries of the Global South, that holds the promise of just such a public debate. It focuses on the responsibility of the international community to protect societies from the humanitarian effects of nuclear weapons. Two UN-sponsored conferences, the first in March 2013 in Oslo and the second in February 2014 in Nayarit, Mexico, brought emergency workers, humanitarian organizations, and physicians to testify about the nearly incomprehensible damage that would occur in the aftermath of even a small nuclear exchange. The third conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons is scheduled for December 8 and 9 in Vienna. The United States has announced that, for the first time, it will send a delegation, and join other nuclear weapons states—India, China, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom—at the conference.

At the upcoming Vienna conference, leaders of nongovernmental organizations will describe the likely effects of using atomic bombs: thousands of civilians dead from fire, heat radiation, and lethal flying objects; others dead from ionizing radiation that damages bone marrow and the cardiovascular and gastrointestinal systems; doctors and nurses overwhelmed; roads, bridges, railways, and airports so damaged that food, water, and medical supplies can’t get through to save the wounded; and, over the long term, smoke and dust from the explosion so vast that it blocks the sun’s rays, resulting in reduced food production and famine for a decade. Relief workers will describe the enormous obstacles they will face as they try to tend to the dying and injured—without communications, clean water, hospitals, or local medical personnel.

Countries in the Global South are calling attention to the devastation that will occur in their own territories even if bombs are used by states some distance from their own. At the 2013 meeting, for example, the Nigerian representative talked not only about the suffering such bombs would inflict, but also the likely damage from disruption of financial flows, transportation, and communications to countries like his own which are still struggling to build adequate infrastructure for economic development. Other speakers observed that international funding would shift to deal with nuclear carnage, taking it away from countries that continued to need international development aid and humanitarian support.

These conferences move the spotlight and the discussion to the central fact of nuclear weapons—the overwhelming damage to human life and the destruction of the habitat upon which we depend for survival. This is where the debate about nuclear weapons needs to begin. In the United States and elsewhere, citizens should bring the discussion home from Vienna to their own governments and demand that leaders honor their promise to protect by ridding the world of nuclear weapons.

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