ILPI–UNIDIR joint paper series for the third HINW-Conference

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Joint paper series on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons

4 December 2014

The Weapons of Mass Destruction Project at the International Law and Policy Institute (ILPI) has produced a series of six concise briefing papers in partnership with UNIDIR in Geneva, Switzerland. The papers are intended to provide background briefing for the upcoming international conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons to be held in Vienna, Austria from 8th to 9th December 2014.

The papers brief readers about the humanitarian initiative to date, and aspects of the Vienna agenda including the lingering humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons testing, nuclear weapon risk, displacement challenges due to nuclear weapon detonation events, likely gendered impacts, and a birds-eye view of some legal dimensions. A joint ILPI-UNIDIR blog (Effective Measures) will offer further information and analysis on nuclear weapons issues over coming months.


The humanitarian initiative on the impact of nuclear weapons

ILPI–UNIDIR Vienna Conference Series Paper No. 1
By Dr Nick Ritchie


  • Decisive multilateral progress toward a nuclear-weapon-free world led by the nuclear-armed states has not been forthcoming sincethe end of the cold war, as many once expected.
  • Some non-nuclear-armed states have responded by reframing nuclear disarmament debate in terms of the unacceptable humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons, and this perspective has gathered broad political support and momentum.
  • The Vienna conference provides an important opportunity ahead of the 2015 Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference to begin to consider potential diplomatic responses to the indiscrimi- nate and catastrophic effects of nuclear violence.


The lingering humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons testing


ILPI–UNIDIR Vienna Conference Series Paper No. 2
By Dr John Borrie

  • There have been more than 2,000 nuclear detonations as part of the weapons testing programmes of at least eight nations—the majority of these devices exploded underground since a partial test ban was agreed in the 1960s.
  • The impacts on human health and wellbeing from nuclear tests are both longer-lasting and broader in scope than is often realized.
  • Health consequences of nuclear weapons testing have fallen most heavily on minority, rural, or dis- enfranchised populations because governments have tended to situate their test sites in remote areas populated by such groups.


Risk, ‘normal accidents’, and nuclear weapons


ILPI–UNIDIR Vienna conference Series Paper No. 3
By Dr John Borrie

  • Although improvements in managing nuclear weapons might reduce risk, factors like competing organi- zational agendas, biases, human frailty and the incomprehensibility of systems failures to their designers and operators mean that risk cannot be eliminated.
  • One difficulty in assessing risk of detonation of nuclear weapons is due to lack of transparency on the part of possessors about their safety records. This serves to detract from claims that nuclear deterrence is safe or sustainable.
  • At the same time, evidence from catastrophic accidents involving hazardous technologies of various kinds indicates that significant risk is endemic in complex and tightly coupled systems, as nuclear weap- on control systems must be if nuclear deterrence is to function.


Displacement in the aftermath of nuclear weapon detonation events


ILPI–UNIDIR Vienna conference Series Paper No. 4
By Dr Simon Bagshaw

  • One of the most significant and immediate consequences of a nuclear weapon detonation event in a populated area will be the mass displacement of people.
  • These displaced people will urgently need shelter, uncontaminated food and water, adequate yet spe- cialized healthcare, as well as protection from violence, abuse, and discrimination, both in the short term and, for many, in the longer-term too.
  • Meeting these needs, while maintaining on-going humanitarian operations throughout the world, would pose a fundamental challenge for global humanitarian response, with potentially catastrophic consequences.


The humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons from a gender perspective


ILPI–UNIDIR Vienna conference Series Paper No.5
By Anne Guro Dimmen

  • Using a gender perspective ‘adds a layer’ to understanding the effects of nuclear weapons on humans.
  • Women are biologically more vulnerable to harmful health effects of ionizing radiation than men.
  • Social effects of nuclear weapons are gendered, women often being the ones most affected in relation to psychological health, displacement, social stigma and discrimination.



A ‘bird’s-eye view’ of international law and nuclear weapons


ILPI–UNIDIR Vienna conference Series Paper No. 6
By Dr Gro Nystuen

  • This paper takes a ‘bird’s-eye view’ of international law and nuclear weapons, exploring relevant rules protecting individuals, the environment, as well as disarmament-related law such as nuclear-weapon- free zones and the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).1
  • The paper concludes that the humanitarian consequences approach to nuclear weapons may be condu- cive to finding ways of fulfilling commitments—express or implied—to protect people and the environ- ment under relevant international legal instruments.
  • At present there is no explicit rule or law banning nuclear weapons, unlike biological and chemical weapons.

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