Editor's Note: This essay is the first essay featured in our new report, "10 Big Nuclear Ideas for the Next President" (pdf), which was published before the election.
Nuclear weapons continue to be one of the most serious threats to international peace and security around the world. They are the most destructive, inhumane and indiscriminate weapons ever created. Both in the scale of the devastation they cause, and in their uniquely persistent and hazardous radioactive fallout, they are unlike any other weapons. A single nuclear bomb detonated over a large city could kill millions of people. The use of tens or hundreds of nuclear bombs would disrupt the Earth’s climate worldwide and cause widespread famine.
Nuclear weapons remain a serious threat to the entire world, but in particular to people in nuclear-armed countries. Citizens of nuclear-armed states not only face this threat by being targets for nuclear attack by other nuclear-armed states, but also because of the continued risk of a nuclear detonation from within their own arsenals — either through accident, miscalculation or terrorist attack.
It is every country’s responsibility to ensure that we end the threat of nuclear weapons before the world sees another nuclear detonation. Over the past six years, an increased focus on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons has emerged in multilateral nuclear disarmament discussions and has led to a strong push by non-nuclear armed states to jumpstart an international process to prohibit nuclear weapons.
On October 27, 2016, the United Nations took a giant step towards a legally binding prohibition on nuclear weapons by voting 123 to 38 to begin formal negotiations in March 2017.
While President Barack Obama’s administration chose to oppose this process, the next administration should recognize it as a legitimate international concern and support a ban on nuclear weapons. After all, numerous US presidents, including Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, supported the elimination of nuclear weapons. If the United States were to give its support to this new endeavor, it would go a long way towards reaffirming the United States’ commitment to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and international humanitarian law.
While concerns about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons have always existed, Jakob Kellenberger, the former president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), was instrumental in bringing this issue to the forefront of the international nuclear weapons discussion. Just a few weeks before the 2010 NPT Review Conference, Mr. Kellenberger emphasized that:
Nuclear weapons are unique in their destructive power, in the unspeakable human suffering they cause, in the impossibility of controlling their effects in space and time, in the risks of escalation they create, and in the threat they pose to the environment, to future generations, and indeed to the survival of humanity.
At the 2010 NPT Review Conference, all state parties (including the United States) agreed by consensus to express “deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons,” and affirmed the need to make “special efforts to establish the necessary framework to achieve and maintain a world without nuclear weapons.”
With this new focus on humanitarian consequences, a new movement called the “humanitarian initiative” emerged. States organized three international conferences dedicated to examining the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons and the legal framework that governs these weapons.
The first conference was held in March 2013 in Oslo, Norway where 128 states participated; the second in Nayarit, Mexico, in February 2014 where 146 states participated; and the third in Vienna, Austria in December 2014 with 158 states participating. All included the voices of relevant United Nations agencies, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, academia and non-governmental organizations.
Simultaneously, an ever-increasing number of states signed up to cross-regional statements expressing concerns about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. At the 2015 NPT Review Conference, 159 states expressed concerns over the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any nuclear weapons use and declared, “it is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances.”
The humanitarian initiative has become the most dynamic movement for engaging the public, exploring new constituencies and re-energizing civil society around the issue of nuclear weapons in the past several decades.
It has provided an outlet for the frustration that many feel regarding the very limited progress on global nuclear disarmament and the lack of political will among nuclear-armed states to make meaningful moves towards a world without nuclear weapons.
The chair of the 2014 Vienna conference best summarized the key conclusions from the three conferences on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons:
- The impact of a nuclear weapon detonation, irrespective of the cause, would not be constrained by national borders and could have regional and even global consequences, causing destruction, death and displacement as well as profound and long-term damage to the environment, climate, human health and well-being, socio-economic development, social order and could even threaten the survival of humankind.
- The scope, scale and interrelationship of the humanitarian consequences caused by nuclear weapon detonation are catastrophic and more complex than commonly understood. These consequences can be large scale and potentially irreversible. The use and testing of nuclear weapons have demonstrated their devastating immediate, mid- and long-term effects. Nuclear testing in several parts of the world has left a legacy of serious health and environmental consequences. Radioactive contamination from these tests disproportionately affects women and children. It contaminated food supplies and continues to be measurable in the atmosphere to this day.
- The use and testing of nuclear weapons have demonstrated their devastating immediate, mid- and long-term effects. Nuclear testing in several parts of the world has left a legacy of serious health and environmental consequences. Radioactive contamination from these tests disproportionately affects women and children. It contaminated food supplies and continues to be measurable in the atmosphere to this day.
- As long as nuclear weapons exist, there remains the possibility of a nuclear weapon explosion. Even if the probability is considered low, given the catastrophic consequences of a nuclear weapon detonation, the risk is unacceptable. The risks of accidental, mistaken, unauthorized or intentional use of nuclear weapons are evident due to the vulnerability of nuclear command and control networks to human error and cyberattacks, the maintaining of nuclear arsenals on high levels of alert, forward deployment and their modernization. These risks increase over time. The dangers of access to nuclear weapons and related materials by non-state actors, particularly terrorist groups, persist…
- Looking at nuclear weapons from a number of different legal angles, it is clear that there is no comprehensive legal norm universally prohibiting possession, transfer, production and use.
The Austrian government then issued a pledge to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.
While civil society organizations such as the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons have campaigned for a new treaty banning nuclear weapons — even without the participation of the nuclear-armed states — since the Oslo conference, the “Austrian Pledge” was a sign that government involvement in the humanitarian initiative had entered a new phase. State actors were moving from simple fact-based discussions about the humanitarian consequences, to discussions about what political steps should be taken.
While the pledge does not specifically call for a ban, a majority of the more than 120 states endorsing it see the pledge as a political commitment towards negotiating a legally binding instrument that would prohibit nuclear weapons.
The prohibition of weapons typically precedes their elimination, not the other way around. For example, prohibitions of biological and chemical weapons, landmines and cluster munitions have been essential steps in ongoing efforts toward eliminating these weapons. Considering the evolution of international humanitarian law since nuclear weapons were first developed and the fact that by almost any definition the use of nuclear weapons would be incredibly destructive, inhumane and indiscriminate, it remains unacceptable that nuclear weapons are not yet prohibited.
Through a General Assembly established working group in Geneva, tasked with “taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations,” support for such a treaty has grown significantly among the non-nuclear weapon states. During the discussions, elements and content of such a treaty were explored by many non-nuclear weapon states and the working group concluded in August 2016 with a recommendation to the General Assembly to commence negotiations of a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons in 2017.
While nuclear-armed states remain opposed to a treaty banning nuclear weapons, it can still be undertaken by non-nuclear weapon states. Of course, like the biological and chemical weapons conventions, a nuclear weapons ban would allow nations with stockpiles of these weapons to join so long as they agree to eliminate them within a specified timeframe. Once such nations have joined, agreements could be developed over time to ensure that stockpiles are destroyed in a verifiable and irreversible manner.
If nuclear-armed states won’t participate, the treaty process would still allow states in any part of the world to formalize their rejection of nuclear weapons and help create a clear international legal norm against the possession of nuclear weapons.
By changing the way the world perceives nuclear weapons, a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons would have meaningful impact beyond those states that may formally adopt such an instrument at the beginning. The ban treaty, once in force, could challenge the notion that possessing nuclear weapons is legitimate for some states. It would have both normative and practical impacts on those states that stand inside and for those states outside it.
A treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons could have significant benefits for the United States.
For example, through the devaluation of nuclear weapons and the emergence of a new international norm against their possession, a ban treaty could create better conditions for nuclear disarmament, which the United States has supported as a goal for decades. If nuclear weapons were considered less attractive, as a potential risk of humanitarian catastrophe instead of an essential security tool, incentives for states wanting to develop them or spending billions of dollars to modernize them would be reduced.
With more external pressure and expectations of progress on nuclear-armed states, a ban treaty would work to reinforce other efforts championed by the United States, such as the ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and further bilateral agreements to reduce nuclear arsenals.
But a nuclear weapons ban treaty could also be an effective tool to further the US nonproliferation agenda. Many non-nuclear weapon states have signed the NPT because of the “bargain” contained in the treaty. States promise to not develop nuclear weapons in exchange for the promise of nuclear-armed states to disarm their weapons. But a ban would prohibit nuclear weapons universally, and thereby strengthen the NPT and make it a more powerful tool to prevent proliferation. A ban treaty, with or without the participation of the United States, would be an effective measure for the international community to pressure all non-nuclear armed states to fully reject nuclear weapons forever.
Banning nuclear weapons is not the same as eliminating them. But a treaty banning nuclear weapons would be the most significant change to the status quo on nuclear weapons and could become a catalyst for progress on nuclear disarmament and arms control in the coming decades. While the dismantlement of all nuclear arsenals might be a long process, a clear international rejection of these weapons would be an essential component of any future disarmament and nonproliferation efforts.
Beatrice Fihn is the executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.