Banning nuclear weapons: point of no return

The Nayarit conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons demonstrated beyond doubt that preventing nuclear catastrophe is the responsibility and right of all. As Austria picks up the baton, the challenge will be to move forward in a process that is open to all and blockable by none

“Nayarit is a point of no return” declared Juan Manuel Gómez Robledo, Mexico’s Vice Minister for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights, delivering the Chair’s Summary as he closed the Second International Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons.  “The broad-based and comprehensive discussions on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons should lead to the commitment of states and civil society to reach new international standards and norms, through a legally binding instrument.” 

As the Nayarit Conference applauded the decision by Austria’s Foreign Minister to host the third Conference in Vienna later in the year, the spotlight now turns to Europe, which has the highest concentration of nuclear-dependent countries, including Britain, France, Russia and NATO, with US nuclear weapons still stationed in Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands and Turkey. 

Humanitarian perspectives are changing the way the world looks at nuclear weapons. Side by side in Nayarit were representatives from 146 states, the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), many national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, the World Health Organisation (WHO), humanitarian response organisations, academics and civil society organisations from all around the world, who were coordinated through the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). 

Whereas traditional arms control tends to focus on weapons numbers and the sensitivities of the nuclear-armed states, the Nayarit panels looked at nuclear challenges from the perspective and concerns of everyone’s security. There were discussions of  the risks of single and multiple nuclear uses, accidents, miscalculation, human or cyber error or terrorist activity, and implications for “public health, humanitarian assistance, the economy, development and environmental issues, climate change, food security”.

After strong opening statements from the Mexican Foreign Minister, Dr. José Antonio Meade Kuribreña, and ICRC Vice-President Christine Beerli, the Nayarit Conference heard moving testimonies from Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb survivors, known in Japan as “Hibakusha”, including a high school student who suffers third generation consequences deriving from the exposure of her Hibakusha grandmother.  A Senator from the Marshall Islands spoke powerfully of the continuing and appalling health, environmental and long term effects on his Pacific nation following US testing in the 1950s. 

Government representatives from Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine reminded the conference of the birth defects and tragedies they suffered from Soviet nuclear testing, production and the massive accidental explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986. Hearing them compete to claim credit for being the first to get rid of their Soviet nuclear weapons and join the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as non-nuclear-weapon states in the early 1990s gave heart to the Conference -  a positive example of a nuclear disarmament race, which today’s nuclear-armed countries would do well to emulate!

Among the nine current nuclear-armed states, only India and Pakistan participated in Nayarit. Although most of NATO was represented, Britain, China, France, Israel, North Korea, Russia, and the United States stayed away. They missed hearing some compelling new US research on the climate effects of nuclear detonations (“nuclear winter”) and consequent agricultural disruption leading to worldwide famine. They would also have heard the history of “near-nuclear uses” from the UK think tank Chatham House, and of the risks and problems affecting safety, command and control procedures in existing arsenals from US author of “Command and Control” Eric Schlosser,  and former US military officer Bruce Blair - who told how he was trained to fire 50 “Minuteman” nuclear missiles within 60 seconds.  During discussions, Pakistan’s delegate vehemently denied that any of the safety and security problems that had caused risks and near misses for other nuclear-armed states could possibly befall Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, but the more he spoke, the less reassuring he was.

Drawing together the conclusions of the Conference, Mr Gómez Robledo highlighted that the effects of nuclear detonation could not be constrained by national borders, and human suffering would be “widespread, the poor and vulnerable being the most severely affected”. It would not be possible to establish effective national or international capacities to “address or provide the short and long term humanitarian assistance and protection needed in case of a nuclear weapon explosion”. Since the risks and threats from nuclear weapons would affect everyone, this is an “issue of deep concern shared by all”.  Paying tribute to the important role of civil society, Mexico endorsed the arguments from history that showed that “in the past, weapons have been eliminated after they have been outlawed", and called on governments to recognise that the humanitarian approach, implementation of the NPT, and steps such as entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty are “mutually reinforcing processes”.

The Nayarit Conference took place in Latin America on the anniversary of the Tlaatelolco Treaty, which established the first nuclear weapon free zone spanning the whole of Latin America and the Caribbean. The next humanitarian nuclear conference will be held in Europe, the most nuclear-weapon infested region in the world. 

On the opening day of the Nayarit Conference on 13 February, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz  announced in Vienna that his government would host a further conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons later this year.  In doing so, he emphasised that “Nuclear disarmament is a global task and a collective responsibility.” Describing the existence of nuclear weapons as a “Sword of Damocles above our heads,” Mr Kurz said that “Nuclear weapons are not only a permanent threat to all humankind but also a relic of the cold war that we must finally overcome.” Underscoring that “reliance on nuclear weapons is an outdated approach to security.” He argued that “a concept that is based on the total destruction of the planet should have no place in the 21st century…”

In convening the next humanitarian conference Austria is taking on a very serious responsibility, and is likely to come under  heavy pressure from the nuclear-armed and nuclear-dependent governments that currently deploy nuclear forces in Europe.  As a nation that has experienced both empire and occupation, and one of the few European Union countries that is not part of the NATO nuclear alliance, Austria well understands the vulnerabilities and responsibilities of its situation among nuclear-dependent nations.

Vienna is not only the seat of important international organisations like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO) and the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), that help to oversee and implement important security and prohibition treaties such as the NPT, CTBT and Outer Space Treaty. It is also a place that understands at the deepest cultural level how the best opera and music will harness the power and ‘voices’ of many different but equally important instruments to weave harmonies that inspire and move the world, not only to dream, but to act. 

Building on the evidence presented at the 2013 Oslo Conference, Nayarit went into greater depth on a broader range of nuclear risks and humanitarian impacts. A Reaching Critical Will analysis of the discussions shows a growing number of governments calling explicitly for nuclear weapons to be banned, as a concrete measure all nations can take to accelerate and facilitate their elimination. Others focussed on steps that the nuclear-armed states need to take, though some of these acknowledged that in the past twenty years, multilateral steps have not got very far in the NPT and Conference on Disarmament.  Because they can veto or impede anything they don’t like, nuclear-armed members of those fora feel in control there, and use their power to delay and obstruct concrete measures that would restrict their nuclear options. 

By focussing on human impacts, Nayarit has demonstrated beyond doubt that preventing nuclear catastrophe is the responsibility and right of all. The Chair’s Summary was a clarion call to act on this knowledge, endorsing the conclusion expressed by Austria’s President Heinz Fischer at the UN in September, when he said that nuclear weapons need to be “stigmatised, banned and eliminated”. 

Austria’s task is now to bring governments, international organisations and civil society together to discuss what needs to be done, and how to take humanitarian disarmament forward in a process that is open to all and blockable by none.

Read more articles by Rebecca Johnson on the case for nuclear disarmament on 50.50's platform Towards nuclear non-proliferation