The humanitarian initiative

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A brief introduction to the humanitarian initiative on nuclear weapons

By Lars Jørgen Røed

In this background paper, Lars Jørgen Røed provides an introduction to the humanitarian initiative on nuclear weapons, including a brief history of how humanitarian concerns have been part of the debate since 1945. For an overview of the key events of the humanitarian initiative since 2010, see Humanitarian Initiative at a Glance.

Background Paper No 6/2014 Published: May 2014


The language of Realpolitik long dominated the field of nuclear weapons policy. Programmatically phrased by the founder of structural realism, Kenneth Waltz, the issue was framed in terms of national security and grand strategy: ‘Strategies may do more than weapons to determine the outcome of wars. Nuclear weapons are different; they dominate strategies.’1 Since 2010, however, the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons have received increased attention. The term ‘humanitarian initiative’ is now used to describe both the reframing of the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation agenda, and the group pushing for such a change in perspective. While the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons are now debated in both formal and informal forums, whether the humanitarian initiative can result in the elimination of nuclear weapons remains to be seen.

Humanitarian consequences

The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 remain the only nuclear weapons attacks to date. By implication, discussions about the military utility of nuclear weapons and the merit of nuclear deterrence theory are based on hypotheticals. On the other hand, the consequences of a single nuclear weapon detonation can be more authoritatively predicted. Numerous studies have documented the impact of nuclear weapons detonations both at nuclear testing sites and within the two cities attacked in Japan in 1945. As a result, we have a fairly good idea of the consequences people would face as a result of nuclear weapons use. Recognizing and elaborating on the exact nature of these consequences lie at the heart of the humanitarian initiative.

As John Borrie of UNIDR writes: ‘… humanitarian action can be defined as an inclusive term connoting activities that stem from rules or principles of international humanitarian law (IHL), also known as “the laws of war.”’2 In the context of disarmament and arms control, humanitarian efforts are typically focused on preventing the use of weapons and methods which cannot be directed at a specific target, or cause unnecessary suffering or superfluous injury.3

Subscribers to the humanitarian perspective highlight the multifaceted consequences of the use of nuclear weapons. These include both short-term consequences, such as the effects of the shock wave, falling buildings, shattered glass, heat radiation, and initial radiation; and long-term consequences, such as radioactive fallout and effects on development, crops, birth defects, and cancer rates. Another issue is preparedness and response, which relates to the extent to which assistance to victims of a nuclear weapon is available or even feasible at a national or international level.4

Further issues include the risk of a nuclear accident, the acquisition and use by a non-state actor, unauthorized use by representatives of a state, and misunderstandings or miscalculations that could culminate in use. Technical disasters during storage or transportation, accidental or unauthorized launches, or radar or computer malfunctions could, in the words of Michael Quinlan, initiate ‘a sequence that culminated in a nuclear exchange which no-one had truly intended.’5 Quinlan hints at the inherent dangers of the combination of high alert and short reaction times.

As the historical record suggests, however, the probability of an accidental detonation was – and continues to be – higher than previously assumed.6 For example, in 1962, the North American Air Defense Command learned that a nuclear weapon had been launched from Cuba, heading for Tampa, Florida. This ‘launch’ was actually nothing more than a test tape created to simulate an attack, but the tape was realistic enough to confuse the US Air Force.7 In 1983, the NATO exercise ‘Able Archer’ was interpreted by the Soviet Union as a threat of war, and their nuclear forces were prepared for retaliation. In 1995, Russia put its nuclear forces on high alert after misinterpreting a rocket launched from Norway for research purposes as a potential nuclear attack.8 As these examples suggest, the absence of an accidental nuclear weapons detonation should not be interpreted as an unequivocal endorsement of NWS nuclear safety protocols – we have been closer to disaster than is commonly acknowledged.

The 2010 NPT review conference

The outlines of the current focus on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons first became clear in the 2010 NPT Review Conference Final Document.  The humanitarian initiative is intimately linked to the NPT in that it draws on a concern expressed in this Document, which the 188 NPT States Parties adopted by consensus. The Document refers to the ‘catastrophic humanitarian consequences that would result from the use of nuclear weapons’.9 While this was news to few, it was the first such acknowledgement made by the NPT, and was instrumental in triggering what is now known as the humanitarian initiative. The term ‘humanitarian initiative’ thus refers both to the lens of analysis focusing on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, as well as the coalition of states and civil society working for the strengthening of this approach.10

Two years later, in May 2012, Sixteen NPT States Parties submitted a joint statement on the humanitarian dimension of nuclear disarmament at the first session of the preparatory committee to the 2015 NPT Review Conference.11 In October 2012, thirty-five countries joined a similar statement delivered to the 1st Committee of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).12 In March 2013, 127 countries and numerous civil society organizations attended the Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, hosted by Norway.13 In April 2013, at the second session of the preparatory committee to the 2015 NPT Review Conference, a total of 80 states supported another joint statement on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons.14 That October, at the UNGA 1st Committee meeting, 125 states joined yet a similar statement.15 Mexico hosted the second conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons in February 2014, picking up where the Oslo Conference left off. A total of 146 states attended the conference in Nayarit,16 designed to continue the conversation on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. During the Nayarit Conference, Austria announced that it would hold a follow-up meeting in Vienna before the end of 2014.17

History of humanitarian concerns on nuclear weapons

Concerns about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons are, however, not new. Since their use in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, their devastating results have been readily apparent for all states. UN Resolution 1653, passed in 1961, declared that the ‘use of nuclear… weapons would exceed even the scope of war and cause indiscriminate suffering and destruction to mankind.’18 The UN Secretary-General’s consultative group on the Effects of the Possible Use of Nuclear Weapons raised concerns in 1976 regarding the effect on people in countries outside the area of conflict, including through the ingestion of contaminated food.19

After the end of the Cold War, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) argued that the concept of security had been interpreted too narrowly, with nation states’ territorial security and national interests taking precedence over ‘global security from the threat of a nuclear holocaust.’20 The Council of Delegates of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) adopted in 2011 an historic resolution calling for a binding legal instrument banning nuclear weapons.21 International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW)22 and other civil society organizations have also long advocated addressing the consequences of nuclear war for its victims, including but not limited to the risk of regional or global nuclear famine. What makes the humanitarian initiative as invoked in 2010 more substantive than previous efforts is the unprecedented level of support from both UN member states and civil society.

Parallels to campaigns to ban land mines and cluster munitions

The humanitarian initiative follows in the wake of other successful humanitarian disarmament efforts: the Mine Ban Treaty (MBT) (1997)23 and the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) (2008).24 These campaigns were characterized by grand coalitions of states and civil society that proceeded through various channels. Both emphasised the humanitarian consequences of the use of these weapons, as opposed to focusing strictly on national security. Additionally, these two treaties were ultimately adopted through ad hoc conferences, rather than existing disarmament forums.

During the Cold War, a veil of secrecy shrouded nearly everything related to nuclear weapons. More evidence is available today. This invites questions and arguments that in turn demand more evidence, which, according to John Borrie of UNIDIR, creates a feedback loop for policy analysis and proposals.25 In this process, the disarmament landscape becomes more open and inclusive, and even the definition of an expert is widened. Health professionals, scholars and even humanitarian deminers played critical roles in the process leading to the adoption of the MBT. Likewise, numerous civil society organizations participated in and observed the Conferences in Oslo and Nayarit.

Despite the parallels between the humanitarian initiative on nuclear weapons and the processes to ban cluster munitions and anti-personnel landmines, there are important differences. For example, the UK Ambassador for Multilateral Arms Control and Disarmament, John Duncan, argues that ‘the purpose of nuclear deterrence is to ensure that the weapons are never used. There is no read across from the bans on landmines or cluster munitions.’26 Nuclear weapons are different from conventional weapons in terms of their technical characteristics, their yield and consequences, their role in military doctrine, and, as a result of the above, their political and strategic implications.27 Perhaps most importantly, nuclear weapons are by many – whether this is true or not – still considered ‘the ultimate deterrent’.28

Future of the humanitarian initiative

The humanitarian initiative continues to gain traction in established channels, such as the NPT preparatory committee and review conferences. Moreover, ad hoc arrangements such as the Oslo, Mexico, and Vienna conferences demonstrate a growing momentum in favour of nuclear disarmament. It remains to be seen how the nuclear weapons humanitarian initiative will develop. A major success of the current humanitarian initiative thus far has been to reframe a debate that has long been closed to all but security policy experts. Regardless of the ultimate outcome, the humanitarian initiative has forced a broad range of stakeholders to consider how the continued existence of nuclear weapons affects their work, whether through health, environmental, economic, or security consequences. With a growing sense of the importance and the immediacy of this issue, it is unlikely that calls for nuclear disarmament will diminish anytime soon.

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1 Kenneth Waltz, ‘Nuclear Myths and Political Realities’, American Political Science Review 84(3), (1990), p. 738.

2 John Borrie, ‘Rethinking multilateral negotiations: disarmament as humanitarian action’, in John Borrie and Vanessa Martin Randin (eds.), Alternative Approaches in Multilateral Decision Making: Disarmament as Humanitarian Action (2005).

3 See especially Articles 35(2) and 51(4) in the Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protetction of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), both of which are considered codifications of customary international law.

4 International Law and Policy Institute (ILPI), Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons (2013), available at: (last accessed 11 December 2013).

5 Michael Quinlan, Thinking About Nuclear Weapons, Whitehall Paper No. 41, (2013), pp. 22–23.

6 See Eric Schlosser, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety, New York: Penguin (2013).

7 ILPI, Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons (2013), p. 5.

8 Ibid.

9 2010 NPT Review Conference Final Document, para. 80, available at: (last accessed 11 December 2013). This is also highlighted in the document’s Principles and Objectives (V).

10 2010 NPT Review Conference Action Plan from the Final Document adopted by 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, available at: (last accessed 11 December 2013).

11 Joint Statement on the Humanitarian Dimension of Nuclear Disarmament, by Austria, Chile, Costa Rica, Denmark, Holy See, Egypt, Indonesia, Ireland, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Philippines, South Africa, Switzerland, First Session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (2013), available at: (last accessed 17 March 2014).

12 Joint Statement on the Humanitarian Dimension of Nuclear Disarmament, 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly First Committee (22 October 2012), available at (last accessed 17 March 2014).

13 Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Conference: Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons  (2013), available at: (last visited 17 March 2014).

14 Joint Statement on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, delivered by South Africa on behalf of the Humanitarian Initiative (24 April 2013). On file with author.

15 Joint Statement on the Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons, delivered by Ambassador Dell Higgie of New Zealand, 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly First Committee (21 October 2013), available at: (last visited 17 March 2014).

16 Mexican Foreign Ministry, Second Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, (last accessed 17 March 2014).

17 See Austrian Foreign Ministry, Kurz: ‘Paradigm Shift in Nuclear Disarmament is Overdue’, available at: (last visited 17 March 2014).

18 Tim Caughley, Tracing Notions About Humanitarian Consequences (2013), p. 18.

19 David Vital, ‘Double-talk or double-think: A comment on the draft non-proliferation treaty,’ International Affairs, 44(3) (July 1968), p. 430.

20 UNDP, Human Development Report 1994 (1994), p. 24.

21 ICRC, Council of Delegates 2011: Resolution 1. available at: (last accessed 2 April 2014).

22 IPPNW, Catastrophic Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons (2013), available at: (last accessed 17 March 2014). In 2007, IPPNW launched the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), with which ILPI cooperates on various nuclear disarmament forums and events throughout the world.

23 Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction, 18 September 1997, entered into force 1 March 1999, 2056 UNTS 241.

24 Convention on Cluster Munitions. 30 May 2008, entered into force 1 August 2010, CCM/77.

25 John Borrie, Viewing Nuclear Weapons Through a Humanitarian Lens: Context and Implications (2013), pp. 36–38.

26 John Duncan, Legislating for Security at the Nuclear Weapons Convention (2010), available at: (last visited 12 December 2013).

27 John Borrie, Viewing Nuclear Weapons Through a Humanitarian Lens (2013), pp. 32–33.

28 William G. Sheperd and Theodora B. Sheperd, The Ultimate Deterrent,Westport: Praeger (1986).