India, Pakistan, and the nuclear humanitarian initiative: Let’s be real

By Arka Biswas, Faiqa Mahmood | April 26, 2015

The humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons is seen as one of the wild cards at the upcoming NPT Review Conference. In recent years, a growing number of non-nuclear weapons states (of the New Agenda Coalition) and civil society groups have been calling attention to the impact of nuclear weapons upon human welfare. Consequently, the humanitarian initiative calls for a ban on nuclear weapons because of the unacceptable humanitarian consequences of a detonation, which include tremendous loss of life and injury, radiation poisoning, and the possibility of a nuclear winter—all of which would be inflicted upon not just combatant states, but upon neighbors and bystanders. Despite being non-signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and actively increasing their nuclear capabilities, both India and Pakistan have surprised international observers by attending all three conferences of the humanitarian initiative.

The humanitarian initiative was born out of an attempt by the nuclear “have-nots” to find an innovative way to apply pressure to the “haves.” Members of the initiative claim their movement is driven by frustration with the failure of nuclear weapons states to negotiate a treaty on “disarmament under strict and effective international control,” as committed to in the NPT. The 2010 NPT Review Conference witnessed the emergence of a group of states determined to place the humanitarian aspect on the NPT agenda, and ended with a statement referring to the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences” of nuclear weapons use. The initiative has since grown, with three conferences held since 2013 and the last one being attended by 158 states.

While most of the momentum behind the humanitarian initiative comes from non-nuclear weapons states, its success ultimately depends on how it influences states with nuclear weapons. Because India and Pakistan are the only two such states that have consistently attended the conferences, it's important to assess their respective incentives for participation. 

India has had what Indian scholar Rajesh Rajagopalancalls an “uncomfortable” relationship with nuclear weapons. India has been one of the most strident critics of the global nonproliferation regime—terming it a novel form of colonialism where nuclear weapons states dictate terms to others—while simultaneously developing a nuclear arsenal of its own. India argued that this apparent contradiction was a result of the failures in the global nuclear disarmament efforts. Thus, even while developing its own nuclear arsenal, India has consistently called for elimination of nuclear weapons.

In the last few decades, however, India’s approach to nuclear weapons has undergone a paradigm shift, as has its discomfort with nuclear weapons. It now gives greater importance to its nuclear weapons in its security calculations. Simultaneously, following the US-India nuclear deal, India is finding it increasingly difficult to distance itself from nuclear weapons states that have given India de facto recognition as one of them. Over the years, as India gets further integrated into the global nuclear order, it will, perhaps, reconsider its policy on disarmament. Until then, India seems to be balancing carefully between its support for disarmament and its relations with the nuclear weapons states. India’s participation at the humanitarian conferences succinctly captures this balancing act. The humanitarian initiative’s end-goal of elimination of nuclear weapons fits with India’s position on disarmament, explaining its presence at the conferences. At the same time, in its statements at the conferences, India has expressed concerns that the initiative will become a distraction from steps taken at multilateral forums to address nuclear dangers, mirroring arguments made by the nuclear weapons states.

Pakistan’s calculations, on the other hand, are simpler. Pakistan’s participation is in line with its perceived diplomatic imperative to have a seat at any table at which India sits. In light of Pakistan’s history of proliferation (Pakistan’s leading nuclear scientist also ran a procurement network), the country faces an extremely high bar to convince the world that it is a responsible nuclear power. While Pakistan stays outside the NPT, the humanitarian initiative conferences present an opportunity for Pakistan to bolster its non-proliferation credentials and project itself as responsible.

Yet, at the same time, Pakistan relies heavily on nuclear deterrence for its security goals and is unlikely to share the ultimate objectives of the initiative. It recently completed construction of its fourth plutonium-production reactor and plans to build additional nuclear facilities continue apace. Some of its fissile material is dedicated to building an inventory of tactical nuclear weapons, which Pakistan reserves the right to use early in a crisis with India. Consequently, Pakistan’s posture on the humanitarian initiative is probably based on a belief that the initiative is unlikely to deliver any tangible results.

This makes Pakistan’s interest in the humanitarian initiative similar to India’s, in that both countries are engaged in some diplomatic posturing. Being outside the NPT, both are attempting to find their rightful space in the global nuclear order and the humanitarian initiative provides them a platform. Even so, the two differ in their approach to the goal of the humanitarian initiative—a reflection of their varying geopolitical conditions. As nuclear competition in South Asia continues, participation in the humanitarian initiative helps both India and Pakistan in better managing international pressures, while simultaneously allowing them to deflect some of this pressure onto the nuclear weapons states, the primary targets of the initiative.

But there remains the possibility that the two countries’ participation in the initiative could affect their domestic public discourse in positive ways. In India, public opinion on nuclear weapons has historically been ambivalent. Despite ongoing nuclear expansion and modernization, it is possible that India’s participation in the humanitarian initiative will strengthen voices in the country that oppose greater reliance on nuclear weapons.

In Pakistan, meanwhile, the picture is murkier—largely because the public discourse on nuclear issues remains muted. Still, the public debate on nuclear power reactors in Karachi and the resulting court decision requiring a new environmental impact statement on the reactors present a glimmer of hope. If this trend continues, there is a possibility that Pakistani civil society too could question the apparent duplicity in Pakistan’s stated policies and practices in regard to nuclear affairs.

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