Historical origins of the humanitarian discourse

ILPI Publications > Statements

Second conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons

By Gro Nystuen

Panel presentation at the Second conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons by Dr. Gro Nystuen, ILPI, 13 February 2014.

Second HINW Published: February 2014

(check against delivery)

Humanitarian considerations regarding means of warfare or arms are not a new phenomenon. It can probably be traced back to ancient times — apparently, there was a prohibition against poisoning wells in ancient Greece for example.

The focus here, however, is on the past 150 years or so. In the following, I will give a short overview of how concerns for the humanitarian impact of different weapons have played a role in inter state discussions pertaining to means of warfare during this time.

In 1868, several states gathered in St Petersburg to discuss the humanitarian consequences of a particular type of exploding ammunition (less than 400 grams of weight) that the Russians themselves had recently developed (1867). The Russians understood the horrible humanitarian implications that the proliferation and use of this new technology would have. The governments present agreed on a treaty (to be known as the St Petersburg declaration), which stated that:

“…the only legitimate object which states should endeavour to accomplish during war is to weaken the military forces of the enemy”, and that “this object would be exceeded by the employment of arms which uselessly aggravate the sufferings of disabled men, or render their death inevitable.”

It was thus humanitarian concerns that led these states to agree to restrict the manner in which they would conduct warfare through banning the use of these weapons. War was still quite likely to happen, and battles could be lost and won and soldiers would die and get wounded in the process, but this could very well take place without leaving the soldiers with horrific wounds.

In a sense, one could say that this was the start of the modern humanitarian discourse.

Thirty years later, in 1899, dum-dum bullets, that also caused large and often horrible wounds, were on the political agenda during diplomatic discussions in The Hague. Based on the same reasoning, (they were causing unnecessary human suffering to combatants) such bullets were banned from use in warfare as well.

At the same conference in The Hague, a weapon of mass destruction was in fact also on the agenda. A specific prohibition against the use of poisonous gas as a means of warfare became a part of the second Hague Convention from 1899. For a number of reasons, however, this prohibition proved to be not very effective, and the First World War saw extensive use of poisonous gases as a means of warfare, with horrifying effects.

After the first world war, states were therefore acutely aware of the extreme humanitarian suffering caused by the use of gas as a means of warfare. Governments thus came together to discuss better and stronger measures to prevent the use of gas in future wars because not only had thousands died in gas attacks, but the continuing human cost was evidenced in terms of the thousands of men with often permanent and life long nerve damage and blindness.

The political discussions on use of gas thus evolved around these humanitarian consequences and this meaningless destruction of human life. And they culminated in the adoption the 1925 Gas protocol. In its preamble, the parties to the protocol stated that the use of poisonous gas in war “has been justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilized world”.

Although poisonous gas was not used as a means of warfare in combat during the Second World War, there was a concern that the 1925 gas protocol was not sufficiently strong. Many states had declared that they saw the protocol only as a prohibition against first use, and thus if attacked by gas, they would reserve the right to retaliate with the same weapon. Precisely because of the humanitarian argument, the “no first use” concept was considered unacceptable. Therefore, after the Second World War, new diplomatic discussions commenced, pertaining to both biological and chemical weapons. Both the Biological Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention contain unconditional prohibitions on these weapons. One cannot use them, even if it is solely for defence purposes, because the humanitarian cost will be too high.

After the second World War, the discourse on humanitarian consequences focused more on protection of civilians in addition to the suffering of combatants: particularly biological and bacteriological weapons could not reasonably be contained to affect only soldiers. Also the Chemical Weapons Convention was discussed and developed with the rule on distinction in mind in addition to the rule on superfluous injury. The vast damage and harm to humans these weapons could cause were at the heart of the diplomatic discussions on these weapons.

Human suffering, particularly among non-combatants, also triggered the political processes on anti-personnel landmines and later on cluster munitions. Landmines were a global problem, with many countries affected in various ways. Typically children or women were being killed or maimed because of landmines that often had been emplaced years before. Cluster munitions remnants were (and still are) concentrated within relatively fewer countries, but with high density in the contaminated areas and with devastating effects for those who are affected.

Humanitarian considerations and discussions were also at the core of the many discussions and negotiations in the CCW. For example the prohibition under the CCW on blinding laser weapons was an expression of this – the permanent blinding of soldiers were seen to constitute superfluous injury. Also the terrible wounds and injuries resulting from incendiary weapons, such as napalm, as well as the human suffering and permanent pain resulting from non-detectable fragments, have been subject to discussions leading to restrictions and prohibitions in the CCW framework.

The humanitarian discourse pertaining to nuclear weapons started as soon as nuclear weapons had been used, in august 1945. And this use, on only two occasions, forms the backdrop for the humanitarian consequences discourse today; nuclear weapons do not kill or maim people on a daily basis — unlike landmines or cluster munitions, but their destructive potential is devastating and the possibility of use cannot be completely dismissed.

Even though humanitarian concerns have been a driving force for nuclear disarmament ever since 1945, it seems that the focus on the actual humanitarian effects of these weapons – on humans, on society, and on the environment – at some point faded. Nuclear weapons somehow became an abstract concept, a ‘political weapon’, and after the end of the cold war, into something that most people stopped worrying about.

This lack of focus on what nuclear weapons detonations would mean in practice also applied to the discussions in the cornerstone regime governing nuclear weapons, the Non Proliferation Treaty. These meetings should arguably have had a stronger humanitarian focus given the preambular words of the NPT, which says: ”Considering the devastation that would be visited upon by all mankind by a nuclear war and the consequent need to make every effort to avert the danger of such war…”.

It was therefore a very significant development when the 2010 Review Conference of the NPT agreed on an outcome document that – for the first time in NPT history – recognized the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons”. One might argue that this reference was not particularly significant in itself, as it stated the obvious. The significance laid in what it triggered. Since the adoption of the 2010 NPT outcome document, we have seen the gradual emergence of what is now being referred to as the Humanitarian Initiative. We have seen the Council of Delegates of the Red Cross/Red Crescent adopt two resolutions on the issue; we have seen four joint statements delivered at the NPT/UNGA, with the last of these statements gathering the support of 125 states. And we have seen the convening of the two multilateral conferences, in Oslo in March last year, and now in Nayarit, in Mexico, where the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons have been put back into the heart of the debate on nuclear weapons.

So, as we have gathered here in Nayarit to further deepen our understanding of the impact that nuclear weapons have, it is also useful to bear in mind that the discussions we are having here form part of a long and well established tradition in multilateral diplomacy, of putting the humanitarian effects of weapons at the centre – of recognizing that in war there are actually rules, and that these rules are there to protect us all.