On September 5, 2012, with the generous support of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, the NGO Committee for Disarmament convened the “Seminar on the Humanitarian Dimensions of Nuclear Disarmament” at the Palais des Nations in which Mr. Colin Archer, Secretary-General of the International Peace Bureau, served as the moderator. 

During the seminar, Mr. Peter Herby, Head of the International Committee of the Red Cross` Mines-Arms Unit; Dr. Daniel Plesch, Director of the School of Oriental and African Studies` Center for International Studies and Diplomacy (CISD); Mr. Magnus Lovold, a representative of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN); and Mr. Christian N. Ciobanu, Geneva Representative of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, provided important perspectives about the humanitarian dimensions of nuclear disarmament to students, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), Non-Nuclear Weapon States, Nuclear Weapon States, and officials from the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research.

The following is a brief description of what each speaker discussed at the seminar.

Peter Herby

Mr. Herby explained the bombings of Hiroshima caused thousands of civilian deaths, including 270 doctors, 16 nurses, and 112 pharmacists in Hiroshima. He also described the devastating health effects of nuclear weapons on the hibakusha, such as the ionizing effects of Uranium-235 and genetic complications caused by the highly enriched Uranium-235. These effects prompted the ICRC to publicly vocalize its position in favor of nuclear disarmament in late 1945.

Mr. Herby further touched upon the three core principles of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), including the principle of distinctions between civilians and combatants, the principle of proportionality, and the principle of precaution of attack. He further elaborated upon the International Court of Justice’s 1996 Advisory Opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons.  Finally, he touched upon the ICRC’s decision to affirm its position on nuclear disarmament in 2011.

Daniel Plesch

Dr. Plesch provided a concise historical overview of the evolution of International Humanitarian Law to the participants of the seminar. He described how the results of the Nuremberg Trials and the Commission of the Universal Declaration established the basis of IHL. He further discussed the international community’s views on IHL during the period of the Cold War.  Finally, he elaborated upon the ICJ’s 1996 Advisory Opinion and the Nuclear Weapons States’ nuclear deterrence doctrines to illustrate how the Nuclear Weapon States are violating IHL by investing in and modernizing their nuclear arsenals.

Dr. Plesch also mentioned that the international community should engage in discussions on disarmament within the context of the Open Skies Agreement as illustrated in CISD’s Strategic Concept for Removal of Arms and Proliferation. This process will help the international community to evaluate disarmament within a new context.

As part of his concluding remarks, Dr. Plesch suggested that the international community should develop a framework, which would be similar to the Iraqi Weapons Inspection Regime, to pressure the Nuclear Weapon States to dismantle their nuclear weapons.

Magnus Lovold

As a representative of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), Mr. Magnus Lovold explained that “the humanitarian aspects of nuclear disarmament provide an opportunity to take the issue down from the high shelves of international security, and turn it into something that everyone can understand.” Moreover, he argued that the humanitarian approach enables key actors in the disarmament movement to form linkages between the humanitarian dimensions of nuclear disarmament and other humanitarian disarmament processes, including the process leading to the treaty banning landmines and the treaty banning cluster bombs. Finally, by forming linkages between different disarmament processes, ICAN can form the necessary relationships with new organizations to encourage the international community to agree to a treaty that bans nuclear weapons.

Christian N. Ciobanu

Mr. Ciobanu, Geneva Representative of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, said that states must support the humanitarian dimensions of nuclear disarmament to avoid the possibility of a nuclear war that would directly contribute to a nuclear famine in the world. He remarked that a nuclear war anywhere in the world, using as few as 100 weapons, would disrupt the global climate and agricultural production so severely that the lives of more than a billion people would be at risk. Finally, he contended that leading atmospheric scientists warned that the effects of a regional war between neighboring states could cause nuclear famine.

To illustrate his point that a regional war between neighboring states can contribute to nuclear famine, Mr. Ciobanu described that scientists modeled a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan in which each side detonates 50 Hiroshima-size nuclear weapons on the other side’s cities. He noted that smoke from the burning cities would rise into the stratosphere, where it would reduce sunlight for up to ten years, dropping temperatures on Earth to the lowest levels in the past 1,000 years and shortening growing seasons across the planet. The result would be crop failures and a nuclear famine, which could result in the deaths of hundreds of millions to a billion people globally.

Mr. Ciobanu underscored that states should support Article 51 and Article 54 of the Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Convention. Finally, he emphasized that states must support the principles of IHL and produce tangible political results to create a world that is free of nuclear weapons.