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Commentary | 9 December 2014

The nuclear weapon ban is inevitable – too bad that it won’t bring disarmament

Image of Lukasz Kulesa

Lukasz Kulesa |Deputy Head of Research, Polish Institute of International Affairs

Nuclear Arms Control Nuclear Disarmament Nuclear Weapons Security Global Security

The Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons that started on 8th December is the third, and largest gathering of state representatives, international organizations and civil society, following conferences in Oslo in 2013 and Nayarit in February 2014. Testifying to the growing significance of the humanitarian consequences narrative is not only a growing number of countries participating (from 128 in Oslo to over 160 in Vienna), but also the fact that the United States and United Kingdom decided to reverse their previous negative stance on the value of the initiative and send their official representatives. China apparently allowed an expert with academic affiliation to participate. Two other nuclear weapons sates, India and Pakistan, took part in two previous events, and are also present in Vienna.

An alternative way of discussing nuclear weapons has indeed emerged and solidified. At the core of the narrative is the assertion that any use of nuclear weapons would have widespread catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences that would overwhelm any system designed to mitigate the effects. The employment of such weapons would therefore, so the argument runs, be illegal under international law, regardless of the circumstances. Within this narrative, any purported contribution of nuclear weapons to deterring threats or to strategic stability is essentially irrelevant.

Supporters of the initiative highlight that it is based on facts, namely research documenting the effects of nuclear weapons usage in 1945 and in the aftermath of later weapons testing, as well as simulations detailing the consequences of the use of modern weapons in specific areas. The possibility of accidental or unauthorised use of nuclear weapons is highlighted by pointing to the historical record of ‘near nuclear misses’ and a track record of international crises, accidents and deficiencies of nuclear command and control systems.

It is argued that many political and strategic debates on nuclear weapons have ignored or glossed over the human suffering connected with their use. The humanitarian process corrects that by bringing in horrifying testimonies of Japanese Hibakusha and victims of testing. But the success of the humanitarian impact approach in attracting states, international organizations and civil society representatives can be primarily explained by the frustration with the ineffectiveness of other approaches to disarmament, epitomised by the nearly 20-year long paralysis of the Conference on Disarmament and the weak record of the five NPT recognised nuclear weapon states in fulfilling obligations undertaken at the successive Review Conferences. It is also influenced by the renewed sense of optimism about the ability of coalitions or interested states and energetic civil society representatives to reach progress on humanitarian-inspired disarmament – as seen in the anti-personnel land mine and cluster munition ban, and in agreeing the Arms Trade Treaty.

At the inter-governmental level, the appeal of the process may also be attributed to its open-ended nature. Some state participants, and supporting civil society organizations and coalitions such as ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) see stigmatizing and outlawing nuclear weapons by adoption of a universal norm banning their possession and use as an inescapable consequence of accepting the humanitarian paradigm. Others, however, highlight the educational and awareness-raising aspect of the initiative, treating it more as an instrument of pressing nuclear weapon states into fulfilling their disarmament-related obligations and not as a shortcut towards the de-legitimization of nuclear weapons.

The basic challenge of defining a common end-state was clearly visible when a number of countries distanced themselves from the Nayarit Conference Chair’s Summary, which proclaimed that the future discussions should “lead to the commitment of States and civil society to reach new international standards and norms, through a legally binding instrument”. The doubting states, which include a number of countries covered by the U.S. extended nuclear deterrence guarantees, probably expect that the participation of the U.S. and UK in Vienna will be helpful in moving the initiative away from the ‘danger zone’ of initiating work on a new legal framework delegitimizing nuclear weapons. The host of the conference, Austria, has also declared that the Vienna meeting is a discussion, and not a negotiating forum.

The future of the initiative and its ultimate impact on global disarmament, arms control and the non—proliferation regime is thus an open question. It may develop according to two mutually exclusive scenarios:


1) Ban the nukes ASAP
According to this scenario, a group of participating states may declare the beginning of work on a legal instrument de-legitimizing nuclear weapons, including a total ban on their use and possession and a mechanism for disarmament of nuclear weapon states willing to join. Such a move would be consistent with the “Nayarit spirit”, as expressed in the Chair’s summary, and would be vigorously applauded by the majority of civil society representatives. The aim would be the emergence of a legal norm supported by the majority of participants in the process, ideally including some of the countries covered by U.S. security guarantees. Such a move would isolate and stigmatize Nuclear Weapon states and their supporters and, in time, force them to re-consider and drop their nuclear weapon “addiction”.

In the mid-term perspective, it would probably be possible to negotiate and adopt a legal instrument as envisaged in this approach, particularly if it essentially repeats the pledges made by members of nuclear-weapon-free zones. But as an immediate result, it would split the group of states participating in the humanitarian impact discussion process, almost certainly bringing the engagement of nuclear weapon states and a large majority of countries covered by US security guarantees to an end. Specifically for NATO countries, rejecting any use of nuclear weapons would make illegal their participation in decision-making processes on nuclear weapon use and in supporting the nuclear sharing mission in NATO, thus calling into question the whole nuclear policy of the Alliance, if not the whole logic of implementing the Article 5 collective defence pledge. There may also be questions about how far India and Pakistan are prepared to go in supporting a legal process that would de-legitimize their own nuclear doctrines.


2) Keep humanitarian initiative as a shared enterprise between nuclear haves and have nots
In this scenario, the participants continue to agree to disagree about the end-state, but decide to focus on maximizing the effect of the humanitarian consequences debate on the NPT Review Conference and process, on deliberations in the Conference on Disarmament, and on affecting the decision-making processes of nuclear weapon states and military alliances.

All participants in the initiative, including the U.S. and British newcomers, can most likely agree on the need to continue raising awareness on the consequences of potential nuclear weapon use and nuclear testing, on the need to work on the legal dimension, as well as discussing preparedness and responses to accidental or deliberate use of nuclear weapons. Under these terms, the engagement of nuclear weapons states could continue and potentially bring added value to the fact-based deliberations on the effects of testing or use of nuclear weapons, legal consequences, as well as preparedness of systems. Such a forum could also be used to engage participating nuclear weapons states and states covered by extended nuclear deterrence in discussions on nuclear doctrine, and to focus attention on hard questions about the relationship between their nuclear war planning, including targeting guidelines, and humanitarian law.

From the viewpoint of the supporters of the ban, the main problem is that taking the ‘slow’ route would dilute the central message of urgency and strip the initiative of its potential to transform (as opposed to add to) the nuclear disarmament debate. From the viewpoint of countries sceptical of the ban idea but still interested in putting more pressure on nuclear weapons states regarding disarmament-related obligations, such an approach would however be welcomed. It would allow them to stay within the tent and focus on specific elements on nuclear weapons doctrines and postures which are most likely to lead to actual use of nuclear weapons. These include: plans and capabilities for battlefield use of nuclear weapons, the perspective of further testing, high levels of alert of some US and Russian strategic nuclear weapons, or overly ambiguous formulations of circumstances of use of nuclear weapons.

Which scenario is more likely to be fulfilled in future? Regarding the Vienna conference itself, the participants of the meeting would most likely not be interested in taking actions which can break the unity of the group in the run-up to the 2015 NPT Review Conference. They would rather use the results of the discussion as leverage to achieve good results in New York. Keeping the initiative in the mainstream, while acknowledging the preference of some states to commence a legal process towards the ban, is thus the most likely outcome in terms of the Chair’s summary.

Still, if the 2015 NPT Review Conference and the diplomatic activities connected with the 70th anniversary of the use of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki do not bring outcomes expected by the ban camp in terms of actions by nuclear weapon states (which is likely), this balancing act might not be repeated. We would probably see a decision on the commencement of the legal process as an outcome of the next humanitarian consequences meeting, which may take place in South Africa.

This development would create a completely new situation for the whole disarmament and non-proliferation regime. It would amount to pressing the ‘reset’ button on the established rules of the game, which presuppose a prominent role for the possessors of nuclear weapons in the nuclear disarmament process. What happens next in that scenario is a big mystery. There may be some successes in forcing changes on nuclear weapon states and the policies of their allies, as supporters of the ban hope. However, this pressure would most likely be most effective in states with vibrant democratic systems and civil societies, while having little or no impact on the policies of authoritarian possessors. Is this the desired outcome? Possibly, but the longer-term consequences should be seriously discussed before the initiative truly crosses the point of no return towards the ban.


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.