Nuclear detonations: Contemplating catastrophe

At a recent international conference in Norway on the humanitarian impact of nuclear detonations, consensus emerged that the immediate humanitarian emergency created by a nuclear explosion—whether military, terrorist, or accidental—cannot be adequately prepared for. The conference also reached consensus on a related issue: Though it would be most severe in the country where it occurred, a detonation's impact would spread across borders and persist over the long term.

In the developed world, concerns about nuclear detonations tend to focus on terrorist attacks against wealthy countries. But even if that were the form that a detonation took, developing nations far from the bomb site would suffer. As documented in a recent study by the disarmament program Reaching Critical Will, disasters of various types exacerbate development challenges that range from poverty reduction to establishing gender equality. With Mexico planning to host a follow-up to the Norway conference early next year, Siddharth Mallavarapu of India, Jaime Aguirre Gómez of Mexico, and Robert Mtonga of Zambia address the following questions: How might a nuclear detonation affect poor and middle-income nations' efforts to achieve development goals—and how can development issues best be incorporated into arguments that nuclear weapons must be abolished?

The Development and Disarmament Roundtable can also be read in Arabic, Chinese, and Spanish.

Round 1

Death knell for development

Africa is ill positioned to contend with disasters. But natural disasters like drought, flood, and desertification have long wreaked havoc on the continent. This, along with extreme poverty, poor governance, and infectious disease, helps explain why Africa, though it is massively endowed with natural and human resources, has not yet managed to exploit its advantages fully.

Making matters worse, Africa has endured enormous bloodshed over the decades—during the Cold War, during the continent's wars of political liberation, and in more recent civil wars. And because of the explosive remnants of war that are left behind, lives and limbs continue to be lost long after hostilities cease. Anti-personnel landmines, cluster munitions, and unexploded ordnance remain an ugly scar on the face of the continent. If anyone requires evidence that conflict creates humanitarian catastrophes, Africa is the best place to look for it.

Though nuclear weapons do not exist in Africa now—South Africa has disarmed, and today the Treaty of Pelindaba, which establishes a nuclear-weapon-free zone, has been ratified or at least signed by almost every African country—they remain the ultimate weapons of mass destruction. Africa would be altered in the twinkling of an eye if a nuclear device were detonated there, and the continent would suffer grievously if a nuclear weapon were used elsewhere in the world. That is why African nations have not only established a nuclear-weapon-free zone, but have also enthusiastically supported the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the goal of nuclear disarmament.

May Africa arise. In March of this year, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosted a conference in Oslo to consider the humanitarian effects of a nuclear detonation, and whether the world could in any meaningful way cope with a detonation. The conference created momentum toward a treaty that would ban the use of nuclear weapons and mandate their elimination, and it has led many stakeholders—people involved in defense, security, diplomacy, human rights, agriculture, and the environment—to approach the issue of nuclear weapons with renewed vigor. African nations are taking a leading role in this effort, and representatives of a number of African states spoke eloquently at the Oslo conference.

Africa would be severely affected by a nuclear detonation even if the explosion occurred far away. A detonation anywhere in the world would likely reverse the continent's recent development gains. Efforts to meet the Millennium Development Goals would be rendered essentially useless. Most available resources would be redirected toward mitigating the nuclear catastrophe and attempts to meet the Millennium Development Goals would be cast by the wayside.

A nuclear detonation anywhere in the world would have profound implications for the work of organizations that provide disaster relief, refugee assistance, and health care, as well as those that promote human rights, food security, poverty alleviation, and environmental sustainability. These organizations would likely divert their resources to disaster mitigation elsewhere in the world, and African countries would be deprived of assistance.

Africa's vast distances and inadequate infrastructure, along with the barriers that separate people along cultural, linguistic, and geographic lines, make the continent a very challenging environment to establish disaster preparedness—and if a detonation occurred in Africa, no nation on the continent would be equipped for it. No hospital could handle the burn cases created by a detonation. Blood transfusion services are already strained to their limit in this era of HIV/AIDS, and it is difficult to imagine that they could function properly if a nuclear weapon were detonated. In a city suffering a nuclear detonation, municipal services such as firefighting, sewage, and housing, to name but a few, would fail. Transportation, education, and water systems would be negatively affected, both in the immediate aftermath of a detonation and for a long time thereafter. African economies' gross domestic products are already very low in most cases, and diverting economic resources toward recovering from a nuclear detonation would only exacerbate the situation, leading to more hunger, poorer health, and more political instability.

Because Africa would suffer such enormous negative effects from a detonation, African countries should continue to play a leading role in the movement toward abolishing nuclear weapons. If Africa is to avoid increased hunger, the spread of new and emerging diseases, and political instability—all of which would make development a mirage—the possibility of a nuclear detonation must be averted.

In early 2014, Mexico will host a follow-up event to the Oslo conference. There, African countries should take stock of, and make clear to others, what they stand to lose in development terms if a nuclear weapon is used. If ever it were true that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, now is the time.

Low capacity, unmitigated disaster

Most countries are parties to instruments of international humanitarian law such as the Geneva Conventions, the Biological Weapons Convention, and the Chemical Weapons Convention. International humanitarian law seeks to address the humanitarian problems that arise, directly or indirectly, from armed conflict (whether or not the conflicts are international). It limits combatants' ability to utilize certain methods and weapons of war, thus protecting civilians and their property from harm. Many nations that have chosen to become parties to instruments of international humanitarian law have done so for one of two reasons: They favor peace in general, or they fear large, catastrophic events such as nuclear detonations.

Several basic principles underlie international humanitarian law. One is the principle of distinction, which requires militaries to target only combatants, never civilians. But a nuclear attack, even if it were theoretically aimed at an exclusively military objective, would carry severe consequences for public health. It would raise civilians' risk of developing degenerative diseases—notably cancer of the skin, liver, kidneys, stomach, and lungs. The most extreme effects, sadly, would appear in the most vulnerable segments of the population: children and the elderly. The health risks would extend to food, which would be harmful to people in the country affected and could not be exported, worsening the economic disaster that would afflict any country where a detonation occurred. So a nation could be left with little edible food; few financial resources; and a greatly reduced population. Any state affected in this way would have no choice but to declare itself a radiological emergency zone and ask for international support to help protect its population. Meanwhile, civilians would likely mount an exodus toward non-contaminated or less contaminated territory, even if this meant crossing borders. (This did not occur in the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, largely because at the time there was little awareness about the health effects of high radiation doses.)

A second principle is that of proportionality, which prohibits attacks causing fatalities, injuries, and property damage that are excessive in relation to the concrete military advantage that is anticipated. A nuclear explosion inarguably violates this principle, for it unavoidably affects very large territories and very large populations. A third principle, expressed in instruments such as the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property, prohibits attacks on sites of cultural importance. But nuclear detonations are indiscriminate, and it is hardly possible to carry out a nuclear attack without destroying sites of cultural importance. Civilians in affected areas, suffering from enormous casualties, continuing health risks, and property destruction, would only be more likely to flee if they saw their cultural heritage destroyed as well.

Utterly vulnerable. In the event of a nuclear detonation, nations will be best equipped to respond to and mitigate the catastrophe if they possess certain basic elements of infrastructure. These include, at a minimum, a national architecture for radiation detection, a radiological emergency response center, a suitable communications center, a hospital specializing in radiological emergencies, a center for the decontamination of people, and adequately trained personnel, including civil defense and radiological emergency brigades. In countries where radiological accidents have occurred, the effects have often been mitigated in short order thanks to adequate national response capacity. However, countries with few economic resources in the first place have little response capacity.

After a nuclear detonation, the poorest countries would be utterly vulnerable: They lack the necessary infrastructure and the qualified personnel to respond effectively. The humanitarian effects of a detonation in such a country, both immediately and over the medium and long terms, would be incalculable. In middle-income countries, the consequences would be somewhat less but still catastrophic. Not even developed countries, where state-of-the-art technology is readily available, would be prepared to deal adequately with the consequences of a nuclear explosion. In fact, no one in the world is prepared to face a disaster on the scale of a nuclear detonation.

Nuclear weapons are frighteningly destructive in both humanitarian and environmental terms, and any individual or group of individuals who ordered their use would arguably be guilty of a crime against humanity. The world must continue to work for the day when nuclear weapons are abolished.

Monumental failure in an interconnected world

The prospect of a nuclear detonation anywhere in the world is horrifying but, for a variety of reasons, it is not entirely implausible. The suspect logic of deterrence that pertains among nuclear adversaries could unravel amid changing geopolitical circumstances. Disgruntled non-state actors could gain access to the know-how and materials needed to fashion a nuclear weapon. Or a simple accident might result in a detonation. In any of these situations, a single detonation could create a spiral of retaliation.

Before turning to the humanitarian effects of a nuclear detonation, it is perhaps appropriate to acknowledge that a detonation would not necessarily inspire the world to roll back nuclear history—to forsake the atom. Ever since the power of the atom was first unlocked, attempts to contain that power have proved tortuous (witness the weapons programs that continue to be initiated, and the importance of civilian nuclear energy in many places). The extent to which a detonation might cause the world to forsake the atom would probably depend on the scale of the detonation and on whom it affected most. If the detonation took place in a privileged enclave of the Global North, the international attention devoted to it would be vastly greater than if the detonation were to occur in a more marginalized setting in the Global South—even though population densities are often much higher in developing countries and loss of life would probably be higher too. Unfortunately, the values attached to human life are not always consistent, and this strongly influences what might be called the politics of grief.

Meanwhile, a detonation would serve as a grim reminder of the distrust that still prevails among human beings; of the myopia characterizing the outlooks of both major and middle powers; and of the "technologies of killing" that Robert Jay Lifton recently discussed in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. A nuclear detonation would amount to a monumental failure of international public policy, and would threaten not only the ecosphere that human beings inhabit but also their very humanity.

Dire circumstances. But given all that, how would a nuclear detonation affect poor and middle-income nations and their development goals? To begin with, nations situated well beyond the blast site would feel the effects. The world today is deeply interconnected and events can no longer be confined to the areas where they occur. The United Nations Development Programme underscores this reality in its 2013 Human Development Report, which argues that "as global development challenges become more complex and transboundary in nature, coordinated action on the most pressing challenges of our era, whether they be poverty eradication, climate change, or peace and security, is essential." And efforts to contend with the four areas of development upon which the report focuses—"enhancing equity, including on the gender dimension; enabling greater voice and participation of citizens, including youth; confronting environmental pressures; and managing demographic change"—would in every case be seriously complicated by a nuclear detonation.

Indeed, as argued succinctly by Ray Acheson of the disarmament organization Reaching Critical Will, a detonation would seriously compromise efforts to achieve all the Millennium Development Goals. It would undermine poverty alleviation initiatives as well as cooperative efforts to foster development; limit agricultural productivity; undermine women's and children's well-being; damage national infrastructures; and reduce the planet's biodiversity.

In my view, a nuclear detonation's impact on poor and middle-income nations would be most disconcerting along three specific dimensions. First, a detonation would likely exacerbate the already abysmal nutritional conditions that exist in many countries. It would disrupt normal global patterns of food availability and distribution, generating pathological economic anxieties that, as Acheson suggests, would cause people to hoard food. A detonation would also have deleterious effects on the quality of soil, water, and air and would harm agricultural productivity. These effects would inflate prices for agricultural commodities and reduce poor people's access to food, even in nations far from the blast site.

Second, a detonation could destroy many people's livelihoods because of its environmental effects. Many poor nations are predominantly agrarian; they are also characterized by fragmented land holdings and poor returns on cultivation. People dependent on the land for a living would in the event of a detonation—which could alter climate, creating some version of "nuclear winter"—face further impoverishment and disenfranchisement. Under circumstances so dire, even a wave of farmer suicides would not be inconceivable. Thus the economic cleavages that already exist in structurally disadvantaged economies could become even deeper.

Third, the health and well-being of populations in the developing world would be seriously threatened. Not only would food prices increase, but essential drugs would likely be in short supply—both in the areas directly affected and, as supplies were directed to these areas, in other regions as well. The well-being of women and children in particular might be severely threatened—as Acheson observes, "women suffer disproportionately in disasters and … their specific needs are usually ignored during relief and rehabilitation initiatives." She also notes that "violence against women soars under the stress in post-disaster environments." The negative impact on women's quality of life would likely have a direct bearing on the well-being of children: Women's capacity to care for their children would be diminished, and children would be affected in areas ranging from nutrition to cognitive development.

The poorest nations would suffer deeply along all three of these dimensions, but I would argue that middle-income countries are not a very different kettle of fish. Conspicuous inequities often characterize these countries' economies, and segments of their populations are already ill fed and suffer from dehumanizing poverty. The ability of middle-income nations to make basic investments in human development would take a serious hit after a detonation. Redressing income inequalities would become more difficult if a detonation caused the global economy to contract. Nonetheless, middle-income countries exhibit greater state capacity than the poorest countries do and would be somewhat better positioned to absorb the shock of a nuclear detonation.

Round 2

Provoking rational fear

Round Two of this discussion has focused on the ways in which humanitarian issues can best be incorporated into arguments that nuclear weapons must be abolished. As co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), I am often called upon to make such arguments. In the view of IPPNW, nuclear weapons must be banned precisely because of their humanitarian consequences. But what is surprising, considering the strength of arguments for disarmament, is that these arguments can sometimes elicit negative reactions.

The humanitarian case is easy enough to build. Death on a massive scale is always repulsive, all the more so when its cause is not a natural disaster but rather belligerence or madness. One need only point to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to illustrate the suffering that accompanies nuclear war—the charred bodies, the stare of blinded eyes, the inability of municipal response systems to render help to those who desperately need it. In such a situation, the living might well envy the dead. And this doesn't even take into account longer-term effects of nuclear detonations such as famine, "nuclear winter," new and emerging cancers, and widespread birth defects.

Public health workers, who are all too familiar with explosive force, albeit on a smaller scale than would be generated by a nuclear detonation, are well positioned to contribute to the public discourse on nuclear weapons and their humanitarian consequences. Doctors involved in International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War try to forewarn the world about potential nuclear disaster—to provoke rational fear. This can be done on a scientific level, for instance by presenting studies on skin cancers caused by nuclear fallout. It can be done on a human level, by drawing on the testimonials of Hibakusha (the Japanese word for atomic bomb survivors), including the doctors among them.

All this makes a compelling message. But public health activists can encounter surprising reactions in some audiences. Here I am not referring to warmongers who cynically wave away the evidence that demands a ban on nuclear weapons. Nor am I referring to those in the defense and security realms who use doctrines of deterrence to justify the continued existence of nuclear weapons, or who point out their potential use as bunker busters.

Instead I am referring to those who, when they are reminded of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, argue that those bombings bear no relation to the here and now, that they were one-off events in the distant past. Or those who, when their attention is directed to the suffering of Hibakusha, consider it a repulsive scare tactic. (Some even seem to think that the victims of the atomic bombings, who had dared to fight the mighty United States of America and its allies, deserved their fate.) Public health practitioners who campaign against nuclear weapons can find themselves branded fearmongers or doomsday prophets.

Those who oppose nuclear abolition often point out that nuclear weapons have not been used in war since 1945. But this is pure luck, and luck is never guaranteed to hold. The potential for large-scale or even global annihilation remains real—it's just a mistake away. And unless people can, as Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein urged them to do in 1955, "remember [their] humanity and forget the rest," mushroom clouds may still spell the end.

Action, not arguments

In Round One, my colleagues and I largely agreed that a nuclear detonation, whether deliberate or accidental, would affect states and individuals in very severe ways, and the harm would not be constrained by borders. History substantiates this: Past detonations have carried disastrous consequences, both immediate and long-term, and this has held true (albeit in different ways) both for nuclear tests and for detonations in wartime. And yet, though political circumstances have changed greatly since massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons were established during the Cold War, the world continues to be threatened by nuclear weapons’ destructive potential.

In his Round Two essay, Siddharth Mallavarapu brought the conversation around to ways in which humanitarian issues can be incorporated into arguments that nuclear weapons must be abolished. In my view, arguments are not what is needed. Instead, states without nuclear weapons must exert effective pressure on states with nuclear weapons, until complete consensus has finally been reached that the possession and use of nuclear weapons must be outlawed.

In March 2013, a conference in Oslo on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons represented a major step toward making nuclear detonations a thing of the past. The two-day meeting attracted representatives from more than 125 countries, a number of UN and nongovernmental organizations, and many media organizations. Unfortunately, none of the countries recognized as nuclear weapon states under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty participated (though, among nuclear-armed countries outside the treaty, India and Pakistan were represented).

Mexico emerged as host of a planned follow-up conference, scheduled for early 2014. Mexico is an appropriate choice. It has been officially opposed to nuclear weapons since 1967, when it signed and ratified the Treaty of Tlatelolco, which established Latin America and the Caribbean as a nuclear-weapon-free zone. The significance of the follow-up conference lies partly in the fact that continuity is crucial in disarmament initiatives. States without nuclear weapons must exert strong pressure if nuclear detonations are to be outlawed—but the pressure must be sustained.

Arguments in favor of nuclear disarmament are extremely strong. They are also very well known. So now is not the time for new arguments. Now is the time for sustained, energetic work that leads to a treaty banning nuclear detonations.

Accumulated knowledge. I would like to bring out an additional point: Though nuclear weapons must be abolished, the same does not hold true in my opinion for nuclear energy. Atomic energy’s origins, wrapped up as they are in the development and use of nuclear weapons during World War II, are unfortunate. But over the last 70 years, human beings have developed enormous knowledge about "atoms for peace." This knowledge, whose applications run from energy to industry to medicine, has produced greater quality of life and longer life expectancies.

More specifically, people have learned valuable lessons from accidents such as those that took place at Chernobyl and at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. People can disagree heatedly about nuclear power, but practices in fields such as radiological safety and transport safety are steadily improving. Emergency preparedness, waste management, and security against terrorist acts are improving as well. I would argue that accidents are not the most pressing danger associated with nuclear energy; corrupt or malicious insiders are much more worrisome. But the ultimate danger is nuclear weapons themselves.

How to make the case

In Round One, my colleagues and I discussed several ways in which a nuclear detonation would constitute a disaster for poor countries' development prospects. With consensus on that point established, perhaps it is time to assess how development considerations can best be marshaled to support arguments for the abolition of nuclear weapons. My own field of study, international relations, offers a starting point for this discussion.

In the study of international relations, a large body of literature examines issues such as deterrence, states' motivations for acquiring nuclear weapons, and strategic dynamics among nuclear-armed countries. But far less attention is devoted to nuclear renunciation—the unilateral disarmament of the sort that occurred in post-apartheid South Africa, or to the establishment of nuclear-weapon-free zones, as in Africa and Latin America. Why does nuclear renunciation suffer from this relative lack of attention? In large measure, it is because of the great sway that realism, one of the three major points of view in international relations, holds within the field; the other two points I will pursue below.

Classical realists adhere to the philosopher Thomas Hobbes' dark view of human nature, and therefore they are very dubious that nations can ever establish the trust necessary to eliminate nuclear weapons. Realists tend to view disarmament initiatives as futile in an anarchic and uncertain world. Indeed, the late structural realist Kenneth Waltz argued that nuclear weapons deserved partial credit for the stability that characterized the bipolar world and that "the gradual spread of nuclear weapons is better than no spread."

At the risk of painting with too broad a brush, I would suggest that realists are unlikely to make an enthusiastic audience for the argument that a nuclear detonation, particularly in a developed country, would represent an unacceptable disruption to development in poor and middle-income nations. From the perspective of many realists, most developing nations are marginal players in the international system; they cannot seriously influence global events; therefore, they need not be taken seriously. This is an enormous fallacy in light of the contemporary world's interconnectedness, but the attitude exists nonetheless.

A second major point of view in international relations is liberal institutionalism. Adherents of this viewpoint are likely to reject the Waltzian idea that nuclear weapons' spread may be a good thing and, like Stanford political scientist Scott Sagan, they may instead emphasize that the dangers of accidental or irrational use of nuclear weapons can never entirely be eliminated. Liberal institutionalists, due partly to their belief that economic issues can form a basis for international cooperation, are likely to make a fairly receptive audience for development-based arguments in favor of nuclear abolition.

The third major grouping in international relations is made up of critical theorists—feminists, neo-Marxists, postcolonial theorists, and so forth. Critical theorists are likely to connect nuclear weapons to issues of race, gender, class, and citizenship; they are disposed to view nuclear weapons as a manifestation of deep, festering inequities in the international system. As such, they are quite likely to sympathize with arguments that, because of the dangers that nuclear weapons pose to development, they must be abolished.

These schools of thought are not merely abstractions; they find resonance in the real world. The actions of major powers, for example, reveal a generous amount of realist skepticism. The five countries recognized under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as nuclear weapon states are obligated by Article VI to pursue general disarmament. But more than four decades after the treaty came into force, the goals expressed in Article VI still appear to be a chimera.

The liberal institutionalist case would find some support in Europe, especially in Berlin—Germany might well be receptive to arguments that multilateralism is urgently needed if global disarmament is to be achieved and a humanitarian disaster in the developing world is to be avoided. The arguments of critical theorists, meanwhile, are most likely to strike a chord in some regions of the Global South; it is there that inequities in the international system are most conspicuous. In short, development-based arguments for nuclear disarmament must be tailored to particular audiences. But persuading the nuclear weapon states to disarm appears a difficult job, no matter what arguments are marshaled.

Round 3

In fear, latent hope

In his final Roundtable essay, Jaime Aguirre Gómez mentioned my earlier assertion that advocates for disarmament must provoke rational fear in others. Aguirre wrote that I was correct—but that no one benefits from a situation in which fear is rational and necessary.

Nature inclines human beings to engage in rational behavior when they perceive that rationality will bring them benefit. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant, in his essay "Toward Perpetual Peace," argued that even a race of devils could be organized to behave in mutually beneficial ways, provided they were capable of thought.

But can fear really be rational? The medical physiology of fear is that it prepares an endangered individual to fight or take flight. In many instances, fear inspires sound responses that are proportionate to the danger faced. That is rational fear. In other instances, it provokes irrelevant, disproportionate, or even counterproductive actions. This sort of fear is irrational—not the sort that should be marshaled to support arguments for disarmament. So the trick for organizations like the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), of which I am co-president, is to use fear to inspire sound, proportionate responses to the existence of nuclear weapons. Representatives of IPPNW utilize rational fear in the same spirit that a doctor practices preventive medicine.

A man who ignores his doctor’s advice that he must change his diet to avoid diabetes, then goes on to develop this disease, may eventually modify his diet despite having rebuffed his doctor’s advice at first. This is rational behavior, albeit a bit tardy. But other individuals within the patient’s circle of acquaintances may learn from his negative experiences and change their own diets before diabetes afflicts them. For doctors, it is common to observe patients converting rational fear into objective, positive actions, and reaping benefits from doing so. In these instances, fear has a purpose. It works in the service of hope.

IPPNW likewise utilizes fear to spread hope, to use the significant respect that doctors command to educate audiences about the humanitarian horror of nuclear weapons. But it is important that this effort not be accompanied by excessive drama or sensationalism—by fearmongering. This would only provoke irrational fear. The plain facts of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings are powerful, and plain for all to see. The facts are convincing enough that, for many audiences, only one conclusion is possible: that nuclear weapons must be eliminated forever.

Sometimes it seems that the media, and ordinary people as well, have grown fatigued of disarmament’s central argument, that nuclear war could annihilate the human race. But as this Roundtable has emphasized, even a single detonation would represent a humanitarian catastrophe. International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War is persuaded that the clock toward catastrophe is still ticking—and the minute hand is accelerating.

IPPNW’s diagnosis is that nuclear weapons are bad for your health. Appropriate treatment consists of fighting for the elimination of these weapons. Won’t you trust your doctor?

When fear is rational, but harmful

In his Round Three essay, Siddharth Mallavarapu—responding to my earlier assertion that now is the time for action toward disarmament, not further arguments in favor of it—wrote that "action cannot be divorced from argument." He is correct, and I may have overstated my case in my earlier essay. Indeed, the best approach toward abolishing nuclear weapons is vigorous action backed up by sound arguments.

The existence of nuclear weapons constitutes a psychological threat to everyone on the planet. This also applies to other weapons of mass destruction—biological and chemical—which, though their destructive potential is less than that of nuclear weapons, are easier to produce. Weapons of mass destruction do not distinguish between military and civilian targets, and no one can truly feel safe as long as they endure. It is damaging to the human psyche to face the constant threat that a nuclear-armed state, through madness, accident, or miscalculation, might initiate a nuclear war, or that terrorists might gain access to nuclear weapons. Robert Mtonga wrote in Round Two that advocates for disarmament must provoke rational fear in others, and he is correct. But no one benefits from a situation in which fear is rational and necessary.

Of course, the existence of WMD carries consequences beyond these psychological considerations. For example, the existence of weapons of mass destruction means that nations must exert strict control over their borders; otherwise, illicit flows of goods might allow nations to become nuclear proliferators or grant terrorists access to dangerous materials. This high level of control hinders trade. It discourages tourism. It presents an obstacle to cooperation among nations.

Scourge of war. More than two decades after the Cold War ended, the world’s nuclear arsenals still contain more than 17,000 warheads (including those that are retired but not dismantled). These weapons, which have been used in warfare twice, have the potential to destroy human civilization at any time.

As I discussed in Round One, using nuclear weapons would contravene international humanitarian law. The weapons’ mere existence goes against the grain of the United Nations Charter, whose first stated aim is "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war." The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has discussed the "unspeakable human suffering [nuclear weapons] cause, … the threat they pose to the environment and to future generations, and the risk of escalation they create." The Movement has determined that "any adequate humanitarian response capacity" is lacking. From the perspective of most people in my region of Latin America, the use of nuclear weapons would be nothing less than a war crime. So developing countries—which would suffer the humanitarian consequences of a nuclear detonation even if they were not the targets of an attack—must exert sustained disarmament pressure on countries that maintain nuclear arsenals.

During the March 2013 conference in Oslo on the humanitarian impact of nuclear detonations, representatives from a number of nations emphasized that the only guarantee against the use of nuclear weapons is their complete elimination. In February 2014, a follow-up conference is scheduled for my own country of Mexico. This will provide the world another opportunity to work toward abolition of nuclear weapons. The work must take the form of both argumentation and concrete action.

Assessing the available levers

In his Round Two essay, Jaime Aguirre Gómez wrote that now is not the time for further arguments in favor of disarmament, but rather for action toward disarmament. I am deeply sympathetic to the view that urgent action toward disarmament is required. But in my view, action cannot be divorced from argument. The case for disarmament must always rest on an appreciation of the humanitarian dangers inherent in a world where some nations, through possession of nuclear arsenals, put all human beings at enormous risk. All too often, conversations about nuclear weapons focus only on abstract issues of state security. Humanitarian arguments shift attention to real human beings—those who would suffer from a nuclear detonation.

Nonetheless, it is worthwhile to reflect on the strategies that non-nuclear countries might pursue to compel nuclear weapon states to disarm. No single action would have much effect; a menu of possible actions would be required.

A place to start would be a serious effort toward establishing a nuclear weapons convention along the lines of the model convention submitted to the United Nations in 2007 by Costa Rica and Malaysia. Today, with a sense of fatigue surrounding Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (which requires signatories to pursue negotiations toward disarmament), fresh momentum is needed—and a serious effort toward establishing a convention might provide that momentum. Indeed, a convention follows logically from the 1996 advisory opinion issued by the International Court of Justice, which—though it did not weigh in on the legality of possessing nuclear weapons—determined that "the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law." Momentum toward a binding convention could compel nuclear weapon states to reconsider their nuclear programs in a fundamental way. And states without nuclear weapons, by generating international disarmament pressure, could play a key role in any such initiative.

States without nuclear weapons could pursue a variety of other strategies to force disarmament. They could take relatively mild steps such as lobbying diplomats from nuclear-armed countries or recruiting celebrities to carry out public awareness campaigns that might intensify international disarmament pressure. Or non-nuclear weapon states could consider more forceful measures, such as imposing restrictions on trade or on the use of territorial waters and airspace. These states could even introduce disarmament into multilateral negotiations on global public goods—for instance, they could make their cooperation on climate issues contingent on concrete commitments to alter nuclear behavior. But ultimately, the challenge is to change mindsets. One day, nuclear weapons must be seen as the legacy of a bygone era, and nuclearism not as a source of status but of shame—akin to apartheid.

Robert Mtonga wrote in his second essay that making humanitarian arguments for disarmament sometimes produces unexpected responses, like when people react to discussion of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings as if those events were aberrations, very unlikely ever to occur again. Such attitudes can be explained by nuclear illiteracy, by people’s failure to understand the destruction of which nuclear weapons are capable—even when it has been explained to them. What is the solution to this frustrating problem? To continue making the humanitarian argument.

Topics: Nuclear Weapons


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