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Commentary | 22 August 2014

Humanitarian Nuclear Disarmament is a Priority

Image of Perla Carvalho Soto

Perla Carvalho Soto |Special Adviser for Security, Disarmament and Non Proliferation Issues at the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA)

Nuclear Arms Control Nuclear Disarmament Nuclear Weapons Security Global Security

Member States have assigned the United Nations a central role in achieving disarmament measures. In matters of nuclear disarmament, however, the UN has not progressed substantially, even though the subject was declared a priority by the First Special Session of the General Assembly devoted to Disarmament in 1978. The Conference on Disarmament, the single multilateral negotiating forum for disarmament, celebrates eighteen years of attending every General Assembly empty-handed, while 17 thousand nuclear weapons still exist, and nuclear weapons are still being produced, developed and tested in several parts of the world.

The transition we were expecting from a militarily bipolar world to a cooperating and understanding world will remain pending while a group of countries that is characterized by possessing nuclear weapons still considers itself the defender of international security, which is defined according to its own national interests and without taking into account the international community, eager to contribute towards finding a solution to the problem of the spread of nuclear weapons.

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) was designed to stop the spread of these terrible weapons in the broader sense, (that is, to prevent a greater number of countries from acquiring them, and to ensure that those who possessed them did not further increase and develop their nuclear arsenals, but in fact reduced them). This was the result of a balanced negotiation of commitments that have not been respected to date and that leaves all Member States in a position of non-compliance of the Treaty provisions and therefore, facing the dangers of a nuclear detonation that could lead to enormous destruction.

The periodic assessment of the compliance of NPT provisions is done through review conferences of the provisions every five years, and by the last review in 2010, it had failed in its main purposes; the number of countries possessing nuclear weapons had increased and the weapons are being improved in order to make them more destructive or accurate. The non-proliferation regime created by the NPT seeks to be genuine and universal, and has not achieved an end to the production of nuclear weapons or to every type of test of these weapons. The location of tactical or intermediate-range weapons in Europe, besides questioning the provisions, poses a threat not only to the countries in that area, but to the whole world.

The States that both possess nuclear weapons and are Parties to the NPT continue to ignore their obligation of pursuing and concluding negotiations leading to the elimination of their nuclear weapons. Speeches of support and the good intentions of their leaders do not protect us from the threat that the sole existence of nuclear weapons and their possible use poses, whether it is intended, through an accident or a mistake.

The emphasis on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear explosions was incorporated into the action plan of the 2010 NPT Review Conference by a group of countries of various geographic regions with an extraordinary vision. It was able to have a considerable impact and focus the attention of the vast majority of States and members of civil society towards the debate on the humanitarian consequences, so as to create a favorable movement for the prohibition of these destructive weapons. This has been encouraging to the states, like Mexico, and to non-governmental organizations, that have devoted their tireless efforts to promoting nuclear disarmament.

The First Conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons held in Oslo, Norway in March 2013, was highly notable because of the impact of its major conclusions; namely that it is not possible to respond to the immediate humanitarian emergency caused by a nuclear detonation in current circumstances, and the consequences that would result in all sectors of human activity would be catastrophic. The 127 States and 70 NGOs invited to the Conference in Oslocame to these conclusions on the basis of evidence presented by experts to the conference about the effects that a bomb detonation of that kind would have worldwide.

A general commitment emerged from the Conference to develop the initiative, and Mexico took on the task of convening a Second Conference in Nayarit in February 2014, which is precisely the anniversary date of the First Treaty currently in force to prohibit nuclear weapons over a vast geographic region that is densely populated, namely the Treaty of Tlatelolco. Its members identified early on what had to be done in order to rid their populations from the heavy burden of a nuclear arms race.

The Nayarit Conference contributed to a greater understanding of the unacceptable long-term humanitarian consequences that would be caused by a nuclear detonation and of the risks nuclear proliferation involves, the vulnerability of nuclear command and control systems to cyber-attacks and to human error, and potential access to nuclear weapons by non-state actors. The active and wide participation of 146 States, lead the Nayarit Conference to the only possible conclusion to address a nuclear catastrophe; these weapons should not exist. Therefore, a program should be established to destroy them and there is a need to ban them. The Chair of the Conference, Ambassador Juan Manuel Gomez Robledo, expressed during his conclusions the view of the vast majority of the participants when he mentioned the time has come to initiate a diplomatic process conducive to negotiating a legally binding instrument that prohibits nuclear weapons.

The impulse prompted by scientific, humanitarian and political knowledge sharing about the humanitarian consequences of a nuclear detonation, regardless of its causes, has awakened during both Conferences a growing desire of the international community to progress, contribute and continue with this cause in all its ramifications.

The Third Conference on humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons will take place in Vienna, Austria at the beginning of December of this year, in a country that is convinced that the emphasis on humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons has a positive and unifying effect in the international debate about these types of weapons. In the light of the humanitarian consequences and associated risks of nuclear weapons, the subject of elimination is clearly stated as a shared goal and an urgent priority.

The debate on humanitarian disarmament has laid the foundations for a new course of action that can help change the mindset of those who are clinging to nuclear weapons as the basis of their security doctrine, forgetting that nuclear disarmament is a priority task and the responsibility of all States.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.