Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons: Five Reasons for the P5 to participate in Vienna

This week marks the 69th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, still the only two cases of nuclear weapons use. On these dates each year the media reminds the wider public about the destructive power of these inhumane weapons. The ‘humanitarian dimension’ initiative highlighting the consequences of nuclear weapons is evolving and consolidating itself in the non-proliferation regime. It has been shining a bright and constant light on the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons use – whether accidental or deliberate – at multilateral fora on nuclear weapons policy since the last Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference (RevCon) in 2010.

The initiative has held two international conferences, hosted by Norway and Mexico, addressing issues relating to the impact, consequence management, and risks of nuclear weapons detonation (March 2013 in Oslo and February 2014 in Nayarit). At these conferences, the powerful testimony of the hibakusha (Japanese witnesses to nuclear bombing) served as a solemn reminder of the physical and psychological long-term effects for these survivors.

The five nuclear weapons states (NWS or P5) under the NPT – China, France, Russia, UK and US – boycotted the first two of these international conferences. The third international Conference on the Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons will be held in Vienna on 8-9 December 2014. Below are five reasons why the P5 should consider participating in some capacity in the Vienna conference.

  1. To improve atmospherics before the 2015 NPT RevCon

The P5 have a vested interest in a smooth and “successful” 2015 NPT RevCon, to be convened at the UN in New York next May. After all, the NPT has conveniently served their security interests by limiting horizontal nuclear proliferation whilst designating them as the only recognized NWS. As various non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS) stressed at the April-May 2014 NPT Preparatory Committee (PrepCom), patience is running incredibly thin with the NWS and the credibility of the regime is in question. Some states starkly warned that a roll-over of the 2010 NPT RevCon Action Plan will not be acceptable at the 2015 NPT RevCon.

So the pressure lies heavily on the P5 to engage – or at least to show a willingness to engage – more genuinely with the demands of the NNWS towards addressing disarmament commitments. One simple way to improve atmospherics in the regime would be engagement and participation in the Vienna conference by at least some of the NWS. The most detrimental behavior to the regime would be a repeat of the cartel-like approach to decision-making on participation at the Vienna conference by the P5. Such P5 solidarity, as was evidenced in bloc P5 decision-making vis-à-vis the Oslo conference would almost certainly have negative implications for the 2015 NPT RevCon.

  1. To encourage NNWS to affirm humanitarian concern as a non-proliferation pledge

The active reaffirmations of abhorrence and concern with the catastrophic consequences of nuclear use by NNWS are of positive benefit as commitments both to disarmament and non-proliferation. These formal declarations and affirmations by states parties in the NPT review process and in the UN General Assembly can serve as confidence-building measures. Such declaratory statements could be construed to be affirmations akin to the Iranian fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons. Such formal statements in multilateral diplomatic fora could indeed serve to confirm the declaratory views of states in regard to nuclear weapons.

  1. To engage the non-NPT nuclear-armed states

Given the cross-regional and cross-grouping support for the humanitarian initiative within both the NPT review process and the broader non-proliferation and disarmament regime, the initiative could help to forge new dialogue channels for the regime. As evidenced by India and Pakistan’s participation in the Oslo and Nayarit conferences, such fora, separate from the NPT review process, can include engagement of nuclear-armed non-NPT states on issues and dialogue relating to nuclear weapons in the broader non-proliferation and disarmament regime.

Given the continued deadlock at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva, processes such as these conferences can circumvent the current stalemate in the CD and facilitate dialogue on these salient issues away from the formal confines and political stages of Geneva and New York.

  1. To showcase consequence-management capabilities

The five NPT NWS could contribute to the humanitarian impact discussions at the initiative’s conferences by sharing their technical research and insight on emergency and disaster response preparedness and capacity. Then again, these states may find it difficult to participate in conferences which may lead to uncomfortable conclusions about the inability of states or any institution to address the consequences of nuclear use and the associated risks of possession and use. Whilst considering participation options at the earlier international conferences, some NWS apparently suggested narrowing the conference agenda to addressing the consequence management of limited/small-scale nuclear exchanges.

  1. To engage the initiative and attempt to shape the discourse and pathway

If the P5 wish to shape the discourse and the future aims and agenda of an evolving initiative with increasing momentum and sophistication, they could do so more effectively by participating in its non-binding, non-consensus-reaching international conferences. Not to do so is to miss an opportunity to steer the initiative in or at a more comfortable direction or pace. Whether the momentum and aims of the initiative are now beyond “a point of no return” and heading towards a ban treaty, could be the reality the NWS face.

One thing is certain, dismissing the initiative and trying to discredit its activities as “diverting” from the P5 step-by-step process will only antagonize those NPT states parties already frustrated by the lack of progress on nuclear disarmament commitments. This would surely make the 2015 NPT RevCon more challenging for all parties.


Jenny Nielsen is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland. Previously, she was a Research Analyst with the Non-proliferation and Disarmament Programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a Programme Manager for the Defence & Security Programme at Wilton Park, and a Research Assistant for the Mountbatten Centre for International Studies (MCIS) at the University of Southampton, where she co-edited the 2004-2012 editions of the NPT Briefing Book.

Featured Image: Aftermath of the 6 August 1945 nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. Source: Wikipedia


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