Strategic Space

Global Nuclear Disarmament: The Humanitarian Consequences Route

17 Nov, 2014    ·   4738

Dr Manpreet Sethi says that it is high time for nations to come together to address urgent challenges in an inclusive and collective fashion

Manpreet Sethi
Manpreet Sethi
Distinguished Fellow at CAPS
The tenacity of nuclear weapons to continue to exist is evident. At the end of the Cold War, many wrote obituaries claiming that these weapons would soon be the “detritus of the Cold War.” Nothing however, could have been further from the truth. Half a century later, the weapons are still around in large enough numbers to pose dangerous risks to humanity.

It is in this context that it is interesting to examine a two-year old development that has taken a new approach to the challenge of ridding the world of nuclear weapons. This is the initiative that was primarily spearheaded by Norway, Mexico, Austria, Ireland, Switzerland and New Zealand. It hit headlines in March 2013 when the first conference on humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons was held in Oslo. It focused on the impact of nuclear weapons on human life. Based on testimonies of the hibakushas (survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), and presentations from factual studies on effects of nuclear explosions, 128 countries reached the conclusion that effects of the use of nuclear weapons were not constrained by borders and that no single nation or international body had the resources or the capability to deal with the consequences. Interestingly, India and Pakistan were the only nuclear-armed states that chose to participate in the conference. The five NPT nuclear weapon states, and Israel and North Korea, ignored the congregation.

Eleven months later, in March 2014, an even larger number of nations, 146 this time (though still not the NWS) came together in Mexico to further highlight the humanitarian challenges of nuclear weapon explosions. More and detailed studies were presented on the long term socio-economic impact of use of nuclear weapons. It was established that reconstruction of infrastructure and regeneration of the socio-economic parameters on which we today measure quality of life would take decades to rebuild if the world were to witness a nuclear exchange. However, the only possessors in the Conference were from India and Pakistan. Seven other nuclear-armed states, two of which own more than 90 per cent of the global nuclear stockpile, evinced no interest in the subject!

Ten months from then, on 8-9 December this year, a third Conference on the subject is being hosted by the government of Austria in Vienna. It proposes to specifically focus on the impact of nuclear explosions on human health, climate, food security and infrastructure. Also included are sessions on inadvertent nuclear use as a result of human and technical factors such as error, negligence, miscalculations, miscommunications, cyber interference, technical faults etc.

The US has expressed a willingness to participate in this third conference, though none of the other nuclear weapon states has yet joined in. The presence of the US would be welcome, but it is likely that the decision has been made with an eye on the forthcoming NPT RevCon which is less than six months away now. The three preparatory committee meetings over the last three years have not made any major breakthroughs that herald well for the outcome in 2015. Rather, the RevCon will have to bear the additional burden of vitiated US-Russia relations. Though the two have traditionally made common cause in upholding non-proliferation through the NPT (which was crafted at the height of the Cold War in 1967), the present day dynamics will make it interesting to track the RevCon.

Compared to the entrenched national positions in the NPT and its divisive nature, the more inclusive humanitarian consequences approach to universal nuclear disarmament is indeed fresh and more appealing. In fact, it is critical that the Conference continues to remain a platform that has the ability to reach across old formulations that box nations into different categories with different rights and responsibilities. It will be a challenge for the Conference to retain this distinctive character from the NPT or it could end up replicating the same divisive national mind-sets. Humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, however, would make no such distinctions. It is high time that nations come together as human congregations to address serious and urgent challenges in an inclusive and collective fashion.

Given that India believes that its national security interests are best served in a world free of nuclear weapons, it must remain engaged with the process with an open mind. No quick results are in the offing and neither should these be expected. But to the extent that the Conference can galvanise action that may incrementally lead to universal nuclear disarmament, it would be useful. In this context, the Indian intervention in the last conference for measures that reduce the salience of nuclear weapons should be actively pursued. India has long argued for delegitimisation of nuclear weapons as one way to get to disarmament. Given that Austria, the host country, has a similar view, Vienna should support India’s position for its larger good instead of sticking to its NPT oriented mind-set that has not allowed it, up till now, to accept India’s resolutions on the subject in the UN.

The country has a unique perspective on the issue. Unlike in any other nuclear-armed state, India’s nuclear doctrine, which is meant to operationalise its nuclear strategy, begins and ends with reiterating the country’s desire for nuclear disarmament. India must push for steps that make nuclear weapons lose their perceived utility. Human nature does not permit the discarding of anything that it considers to be of value. Therefore, a devaluation strategy that deprives the weapons of utility coupled with a focus on the catastrophic humanitarian consequences if they ever were to be used can prepare the ground for their eventual elimination.