A Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in February 2014

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On February 13 and 14, 2014, the government of Mexico will host a conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. The global peace movement must think carefully about how best to use the opportunities offered by the Mexico conference and by other recent breakthroughs in the struggle to eliminate the danger of a catastrophic thermonuclear war.

The urgent need for nuclear disarmament:

Nuclear disarmament has been one of the core aspirations of the international community since the first use of nuclear weapons in 1945. A nuclear war, even a limited one, would have disastrous humanitarian and environmental consequences.

The total explosive power of today’s weapons is equivalent to roughly half a million Hiroshima bombs. To multiply the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by a factor of half a million changes the danger qualitatively. What is threatened today is the complete breakdown of human society.

Although the Cold War has ended, the dangers of nuclear weapons have not been appreciably reduced. Indeed, proliferation and the threat of nuclear terrorism have added new dimensions to the dangers. There is no defense against nuclear terrorism.

There are 20,000 nuclear weapons in the world today, several thousand of them on hair-trigger alert. The phrase “hair trigger alert” means that the person in charge has only 15 minutes to decide whether the warning from the radar system was true of false, and to decide whether or not to launch a counterattack. The danger of accidental nuclear war continues to be high. Technical failures and human failures have many times brought the world close to a catastrophic nuclear war. Those who know the system of “deterrence” best describe it as “an accident waiting to happen”.

A nuclear war would produce radioactive contamination of the kind that we have already experienced in the areas around Chernobyl and Fukushima and in the Marshall Islands, but on an enormously increased scale.

Also, recent studies by atmospheric scientists have shown that the smoke from burning cities produced by even a limited nuclear war would have a devastating effect on global agriculture. The studies show that the smoke would rise to the stratosphere, where it would spread globally and remain for a decade, blocking sunlight, blocking the hydrological cycle and destroying the ozone layer. Because of the devastating effect on global agriculture, darkness from even a small nuclear war could result in an estimated billion deaths from famine. This number corresponds to the fact that today, a billion people are chronically undernourished. If global agriculture were sufficiently damaged by a nuclear war, these vulnerable people might not survive.

A large-scale nuclear war would be an even greater global catastrophe, completely destroying all agriculture for a period of ten years. Such a war would mean that most humans would die from hunger, and many animal and plant species would be threatened with extinction.

Recent breakthroughs:

On on 4-5 March 2013 the Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Espen Barth Eide hosted an international Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons. The Conference provided an arena for a fact-based discussion of the humanitarian and developmental consequences of a nuclear weapons detonation. Delegates from 127 countries as well as several UN organisations, the International Red Cross movement, representatives of civil society and other relevant stakeholders participated. Representatives from many nations made strong statements advocating the complete abolition of nuclear weapons. The conference in Mexico in 2014 will be a follow-up to the Oslo Conference.

Recently UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has introduced a 5-point Program for the abolition of nuclear weapons. In this program he mentioned the possibility of a Nuclear Weapons Convention, and urged the Security Council to convene a summit devoted to the nuclear abolition. He also urged all countries to ratify the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty.

Three-quarters of all nations support UN Secretary-General Ban’s proposal for a treaty to outlaw and eliminate nuclear weapons. The 146 nations that have declared their willingness to negotiate a new global disarmament pact include four nuclear weapon states: China, India, Pakistan and North Korea.

On April 2, 2013, a historic victory was won at the United Nations, and the world achieved its first treaty limiting international trade in arms. Work towards the ATT was begun in the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, which requires a consensus for the adoption of any measure. Over the years, the consensus requirement has meant that no real progress in arms control measures has been made in Geneva, since a consensus among 193 nations is impossible to achieve.

To get around the blockade, British U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant sent the draft treaty to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and asked him on behalf of Mexico, Australia and a number of others to put the ATT to a swift vote in the General Assembly, and on Tuesday, April 3, it was adopted by a massive majority.

The method used for the adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty suggests that progress on other seemingly intractable issues could be made by the same method, by putting the relevant legislation to a direct vote on the floor of the UN General Assembly, despite the opposition of militarily powerful states.

According to ICAN, 151 nations support a ban on nuclear weapons, while only 22 nations oppose it. Details can be found on the following link: http://www.icanw.org/why-a-ban/positions/ Similarly a Nuclear Weapons Convention might be put to a direct vote on the floor of the UN General Assembly. The following link explores this possibility: http://www.cadmusjournal.org/article/issue-6/arms-trade-treaty-opens-new-possibilities-un.

The key feature of these proposals is that negotiations must not be allowed to be blocked by the nuclear weapons states. Asking them to participate in negotiations would be like asking tobacco companies to participate in laws to ban cigarettes, or like asking narcotics dealers to participate in the drafting of laws to ban narcotics, or, to take a recent example, it would be like inviting big coal companies to participate in a conference aimed at preventing dangerous climate change.

In 2013, the United Nations has established an Open Ended Working Group on Nuclear Disarmament, which consisted both of nations and of individuals. The OEWG met in the spring of 2013 and again in August, to draft a set of proposals to be sent to the UN General Assembly.

On 28 September, 2013, a High Level Meeting of the 68th Session of the UN General Assembly took place. It was devoted to nuclear disarmament. Although the nuclear weapon states attempted to label the new negotiations as “counterproductive”, the overwhelming consensus of the meeting was that nuclear abolition must take place within the next few years, and that the humanitarian and environmental impact of nuclear weapons had to be central to all discussions. The detailed proceedings are available on the following link: http://www.un.org/en/ga/68/meetings/nucleardisarmament/ .

The opportunity presented by the conference in Mexico in February 2014 must not be wasted. We must use it to take concrete steps towards putting legislation for the abolition of nuclear weapons to a direct vote on the floor of the UN General Assembly.