Nuclear Disarmament and Human Survival

By Kimball, Daryl G. | Arms Control Today, January/February 2014 | Go to article overview

Nuclear Disarmament and Human Survival


Kimball, Daryl G., Arms Control Today


Since the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the catastrophic effects of nuclear weapons have motivated or- dinary citizens to push their leaders to pursue arms control and disarmament measures to reduce the threat of nuclear weap- ons use.

For decades, it has been well understood that the direct effects of a large-scale nuclear conflict could result in several hundred million human fatalities, while the indirect effects would be far greater, leading to the loss of billions of lives.

Since the end of the Cold War, the threat of a U.S.-Russian con- flict has decreased, but the risk of a nuclear war in other regions has grown. Recent studies find that a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan involving 100 detonations of 15-kiloton bombs would kill 20 million in the first week and reduce global temperatures by 1.3 degrees Celsius, thereby putting another 1 to 2 billion people at risk for famine.

Clearly, the use of nuclear weapons would result in humanitarian emergencies far beyond the immediate target zones of the warring parties and would violate the basic principles of international humanitarian law, including avoidance of attacks that could affect civilians indiscriminately.

Nevertheless, the world's nine nuclear-armed nations still threaten to use their massive nuclear arsenals in the name of deterrence, and many continue to build up their nuclear war- fighting capabilities.

Appropriately enough, the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference final document expressed "deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and the need for all States to comply with applicable international law, including international hu- manitarian law."

The NPT nuclear-weapon states committed to "diminish the role and significance of nuclear weapons" and "[d]iscuss policies that could prevent the use of nuclear weapons." In keeping with the NPT document's action plan, Norway hosted a conference last March in Oslo on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use. Mexico will host a follow-up conference in Febru- ary. In April, 80 countries declared that "[i]t is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances." In October, 125 states en- dorsed a similar statement.

Unfortunately, the five NPT nuclear-weapon states boycotted the Oslo conference, and several have criticized the April state- ment as a "distraction." The arrogant and hostile response, partic- ularly from France and Russia, has only deepened the frustration of the non-nuclear-weapon states.

Rather than dismiss the Mexico conference, the nuclear- weapon states should participate in and support future statements warning of the consequences of nuclear weapons use. …

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