The humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons

Gem Romuld

Chain Reaction #120, March 2013,

Who can argue in favour of the most destructive and indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction ever invented, which have only increased in power and sophistication since they were used in war against Japan in 1945? Who can advocate for a weapon that flattens cities, creates a fire-storm that steals oxygen and stays dangerous for decades? Who can remain aloof to the stories of hibakusha − atomic bomb survivors − from Japan and all of the countries used for atomic testing?

Well, some people can and do. It seems like a no-brainer, but banning nuclear weapons is a controversial task. Nine countries possess nuclear weapons: US, Russia, France, UK, Israel, India, North Korea, China and Pakistan. At least another 33 countries are defence allies with the nuclear weapons possessors, making them complicit in nuclear weapons programs and hijacking their ability and inclination to act autonomously on the topic. Australia is one such "umbrella state", claiming to rely on US nuclear weapons, even though the US has never explicitly confirmed that they even would use nuclear weapons to defend Australia. Another term is "bullseye state". Australia hosts two extremely important joint defence facilities at Pine Gap, NT, and North West Cape, WA. The highly secretive bases are important for weapons targeting, intelligence gathering and no doubt much more, making them an effective target or "bullseye" for injuring the US war-machine.

Regardless of the various justifications some countries come up with for supporting nuclear weapons, many more countries are staunchly outspoken against them. While it's easy for states to trot out their admiration for the "ultimate goal" of nuclear abolition, some are actually forging a path to get there. That path is called the "humanitarian initiative", by which examination of the real-world effects of nuclear weapons on humans and the environment makes the case for their abolition like no defence paper ever could.

For two days in February 2014, 146 states gathered in Nayarit, Mexico, to discuss the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. The other half of the room was packed with academics, UN agencies, journalists and civil society generally, coordinated by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). The discussions built upon the first conference on the topic in Oslo, Norway in 2013 and marked, according to the Chair Summary, a "point of no return". They're talking about a ban, a convention, a nuclear weapons treaty − an international, legally-binding instrument that clearly prohibits the manufacture, possession, and use of nuclear weapons under any circumstances.

Nuclear weapons are the only weapons of mass destruction not clearly prohibited under international law. There are nuclear free zones, prohibitions on testing, treaties on non-proliferation and numerous other international instruments and fora dedicated to non-proliferation and disarmament. But the disarmament part too often gets left behind. A nuclear weapons treaty would work to further implement the existing frameworks, and is a necessary tool to bring about the total elimination of nuclear weapons − something the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty will never do.

The Australian government remains embarrassingly trapped in its own circular and cold-war-era logic that while ever nuclear weapons exist, this country will rely on them. But as the Mexican Foreign Minister argued, "the security of the world cannot depend on the threat of its own destruction". As the Mexico Conference progressed, more and more countries joined the speaking list to call for a ban and welcome the Austrian Foreign Minister's announcement that Austria will host a follow-up conference before the end of 2014, which we hope will lay out the framework for treaty negotiations.

In the meantime, the Australian government needs to ask whether the people want complicity with nuclear weapons, or whether we can do better and reject them. Australia has a lived history of the atomic testing of British bombs in the 1950s and '60s. Radioactive fallout from these tests spread death and illness across Aboriginal lands, affecting whole communities and the servicemen and women through the generations. With this lived history and the volumes of evidence telling of the catastrophic consequences of these weapons of mass destruction, there are simply no excuses.

For more information and to partake in the efforts of nuclear abolition, visit: