Since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the catastrophic effects of nuclear weapons have driven global leaders to pursue concrete steps to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons use. Yet the threat of the use of nuclear weapons by the world’s nine nuclear-armed states—in response to conventional attack, in response to a nuclear attack, or as the result of accidental exchange—remains. As global leaders and the public consider how to reduce the nuclear threat, the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons underscore why they need to act with greater urgency.
Over time, our understanding of the scope of these effects has become more sophisticated. Early studies found that the direct effects of a large-scale nuclear exchange would produce catastrophic regional and national damage that would kill tens of millions and likely several hundred million people within one month of the initial exchange.
More comprehensive studies in mid-1980s found that the direct effects of such a nuclear large-scale nuclear war involving thousands of nuclear detonations could result in several hundred million human fatalities, the indirect effects could be far greater, leading to the loss of one to four billion lives.”
More recent studies have found that even a smaller nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan involving just 100 nuclear detonations against urban targets would kill 20 million people in the first week and loft soot into the global atmosphere that would reduce surface temperatures by 1.3 degrees Celsius and disrupt agricultural production and put 1-2 billion people at risk for famine.
These findings make it clear that any use of nuclear weapons would result in humanitarian emergencies far beyond the immediate target zones of the warring parties.
The Humanitarian Effects Process and the NPT
Appropriately enough, the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference Final Document expresses “deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and [reaffirmed] the need for all States at all times to comply with applicable international law, including international humanitarian law.”
The NPT states parties agreed to certain actions to reduce the risk of such an outcome, including some 22 overlapping nuclear disarmament commitments that require: changes in nuclear doctrines to diminish the role of nuclear weapons; reduction of the number of all types of nuclear weapons; changes in the operational readiness of nuclear weapons to reduce the risk of accidental war; increased transparency and reporting by the nuclear-weapon states; tangible progress toward entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT); and overcoming the paralysis of the UN’s disarmament machinery, especially in the Conference on Disarmament (CD).
In keeping with these goals and commitments, the government of Norway hosted a conference in March 2013 focused on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. The conference, which involved 127 government delegations and additional UN organizations, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and other civil society groups, was a straightforward, fact-based discussion of the effects of nuclear weapons detonations. The states agreed to deepen the dialogue via a follow-up conference will be held in Mexico in February 2014.
In April 2013, 80 countries joined a statement on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear war that makes the very common sense conclusion that that: "It is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances." At the UN First Committee, a similar statement was endorsed by 125 states underscoring their shared concern about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons.
A complimentary, but separate statement on the topic was coordinated by Australia, which wisely noted that: “Banning nuclear weapons by itself will not guarantee their elimination without engaging substantively and constructively those states with nuclear weapons, and recognising both the security and humanitarian dimensions of the nuclear weapons debate.” Japan endorsed both statements.
Unfortunately, in my view, the five original nuclear-weapon states boycotted the Oslo conference and criticized the April joint statement as a “distraction” from the NPT and the implementation of the 2010 action plan.
At this point, it is hard to see how the humanitarian effects conferences might distract from any other disarmament or nonproliferation activities, particularly not the moribund CD.
The meetings and the statements only serve to direct some sorely needed attention on the effects of nuclear weapons and the urgent need to make progress to reduce their role in military doctrines, to reduce the chance of accidental or deliberate nuclear exchanges and to accelerate the slow pace of progress toward the fulfillment of the 2010 NPT Review Conference Action Plan.
The hostile reaction from the nuclear-weapon states, particularly France and Russia, is also counterproductive as it has deepened the frustration of the nonnuclear-weapon states in the slow pace of progress toward the fulfillment of the nuclear-weapon states disarmament commitments.
Rather than boycott the conference scheduled for 2014 in Nayarit, the nuclear-armed states should actively participate and consider joining other nations in a statement on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use.
The real concern that is expressed privately by some officials of the nuclear weapon states is that the humanitarian effects process may lead to efforts to convene a diplomatic process leading to the negotiation of a nuclear weapons convention.
Contrary to the concerns of some officials from the nuclear-weapons states, the Oslo Humanitarian Consequences Conference was not designed to and did not serve as a launching point for an effort to begin negotiations on a nuclear weapons convention. It is was not one of the items on the agenda and is not an agenda item for the Nayarit conference.
What Are the Implications and Next Steps?
There is clearly a widening gulf between NPT 2010 Review Conference commitments on disarmament and the actions of the nuclear-weapons states. The call for urgent action toward the elimination of nuclear weapons is certainly valid and justified, but it must be translated into a more meaningful proposals that can challenge dangerous nuclear doctrines and reduce the risk of catastrophic nuclear war.
To date, the states involved in organizing the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons conferences have not yet developed let alone reached agreement on specific proposals for how the findings about the catastrophic impacts of nuclear war should translate into meaningful changes in nuclear weapons doctrines and disarmament diplomacy.
Calling for the negotiation of convention to banning the possession of nuclear weapons in the CD sends a strong signal of frustration, but is a recipe for inaction. And at this time and without the participation of the nuclear-armed states, such a course is an exercise in futility.
In addition to participating in the Nayarit Conference and perhaps a follow-on conference in South Africa, the NPT nuclear-weapons states can and should be more active and more creative about how they can meet the 2010 NPT Review Conference disarmament commitments—both in the interest of preserving the NPT, contributing to international peace and security, and advancing their own national interests.
There are other ways non-nuclear-weapons states and the nuclear-armed states can engage with one another to advance the disarmament process, including:
・ Pursue the negotiation a ban on the use of nuclear weapons. One implication of the catastrophic effects of nuclear weapons use is that they should not and cannot be used. A very logical way to meet the NPT Action plan goals of diminishing the role and significance of nuclear weapons in military and security doctrines and assuring non-nuclear-weapon states against the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons would be to develop a legally-binding instrument banning the use of nuclear weapons for any purpose. This is the approach taken with respect to chemical and biological weapons in 1925 when states agreed in the Geneva Protocols that their use "has been justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilized world" and that "this prohibition shall be universally accepted ... binding alike the conscience and the practice of nations.” The negotiation of such a ban on the use of nuclear weapons could take place in a dedicated diplomatic forum, possibly to be established by the UN General Assembly (UNGA) and with the input of a Group of Governmental Experts. Even if the nuclear weapons states do not initially join in the negotiation or sign the instrument, the process itself and the final product would in the very least help to delegitimize nuclear weapons and strengthen the global norm against their use.
・ Require that each of the nuclear-armed states report on the specific steps they are taking to meet the NPT goal of “diminishing the [number,] role and significance of nuclear weapons” in their “military and security concepts, doctrines and policies.” To date, only the United States has published a summary of its nuclear weapons employment doctrine.
・ Require that the nuclear weapon states explain the effects of their nuclear weapons use doctrines and war plans, if they were to be carried out, and explain how the use of such weapons would be consistent with international human rights and humanitarian law. The June 2013 Report on the Nuclear Weapons Employment Strategy of the United States claims that “[t]he new guidance makes clear that all plans must also be consistent with the fundamental principles of the Law of Armed Conflict. Accordingly, plans will, for example, apply the principles of distinction and proportionality and see to minimize collateral damage to civilian populations and civilian objects. The United States will not intentionally target civilian populations or civilian objects.” The United States and other nuclear-armed states should be called upon to explain the legal rationale and practical effects of such guidance. Other states should, as part of their reporting responsibilities for the 2015 NPT Review Conference, report in detail on their nuclear weapons employment policies so that states parties can evaluate whether such practices are consistent with international humanitarian law. The discussion would, in the very least, highlight the importance of reducing the role and number of nuclear weapons and reinforce the norm against their use.
Steps to Accelerate Progress on Nuclear Disarmament
With the progress toward most of the key steps outlined in the 2010 disarmament action plan at a near standstill, it is also essential that the nuclear-armed states consider, and the non-nuclear-weapon states push for, actions that can jumpstart the process. Such steps might include:
・ Immediately accelerate U.S.-Russian strategic nuclear reductions and slash arsenals well below New START levels. Russia has resisted President Obama’s June 2013 offer to pursue a one-third cut in U.S. and Russian deployed strategic stockpiles. President Putin may agree to begin talks on a follow-on treaty to New START, but it is clear that such a negotiation would be more complex and time-consuming than New START. In the meantime, the United States and Russia could announce that they will accelerate reductions to New START levels (1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads) and agree to parallel, reciprocal reductions below these levels. Russia currently deploys 1,400 strategic nuclear warheads and the United States deploys about 1,680. Further reductions could be verified through the existing New START monitoring mechanism.
・ The other nuclear-armed states could pledge not to increase the overall size of their nuclear stockpiles, so long as the United States and Russia achieve further progress in reducing all types of their nuclear weapons. Nuclear disarmament is a global enterprise that requires leadership from all states, including China, France, and the United Kingdom. A realistic and pragmatic contribution to global nuclear disarmament would be for all other nuclear-armed states to exercise restraint by not increasing the overall size of their nuclear weapons stockpiles or increasing the size of their fissile material stockpiles. Such an effort must also involve states outside the NPT, specifically India and Pakistan, which continue to expand their fissile stocks and weapons holdings.
Much progress has been achieved to reduce nuclear weapons risks through concrete nuclear arms control, disarmament, and nonproliferation measures, but it is vital that new approaches be explored to jumpstart progress toward the elimination of the risk of global nuclear catastrophe. The humanitarian consequences conferences and follow-up statements are an important new avenue that should be welcomed and developed into tangible, practical policy initiatives.
Mr. Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director of the Arms Control Association
 An April 1979 U.S. Arms Control Disarmament Agency (ACDA) report found that an exchange of U.S. and Soviet nuclear forces involving a total of approximately 18,000 strategic warheads would kill from 25-100 million people in both the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Under the scenario examined the population centers would not be targeted but would be within the range of effects of the weapons targeted against military and industrial targets. As a result, the 200 largest cities in each country would be destroyed and 80% of all cities with 25,000 people or more would be attacked by at least one nuclear weapon.
 Fred Solomon and Robert Q. Marston, eds., The Medical Implications of Nuclear War (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1986).
 Ira Helfand, “The Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear War,” Arms Control Today, Vol. 43, No. 9 (November 2013), http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2013_11/The-Humanitarian-Consequences-Of-Nuclear-War.
 “Joint Statement on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons,” Second Session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, delivered by Ambassador Abdul Samad Minty, Permanent Representative of South Africa, April 24, 2013.
 “Joint Statement on the Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapon, UNGA First Committee,” delivered by Ambassador Dell Higgie of New Zealand, October 21, 2013.
 “Joint Statement on the Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons,” UNGA68 First Committee, delivered by Ambassador Peter Woolcott Australian Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Geneva and Ambassador for Disarmament, October 21, 2013.
 “Statement by the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Japan on the Joint Statement on the Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons,” October 22, 2013, http://www.mofa.go.jp/press/release/press4e_000047.html.