The humanitarian imperative to ban nuclear weapons

Tim Wright

Chain Reaction #115, August 2012,

Diplomats from more than 100 governments met in Vienna in May to discuss nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and the so-called "inalienable right" to nuclear technology for "peaceful purposes". It was the first of three meetings leading up to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in 2015. Many civil society representatives, including five from Australia, participated in the two-week meeting.

Most non-nuclear-weapon states expressed concerns about the nuclear weapons 'modernisation' programs that are underway in the US, Russia, Britain, France and China, and many stressed the importance of reframing disarmament debates in humanitarian terms. Switzerland delivered a statement on behalf of 16 states on the "catastrophic humanitarian consequences" of any use of nuclear weapons, which called for intensified efforts to outlaw and eliminate them.

International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) chair Tilman Ruff spoke at the meeting on the medical effects of nuclear weapons, noting the recent advocacy of the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement in the field of nuclear disarmament. He called on governments to move from beyond a national security focused approach to a human-centred approach in disarmament negotiations. This was a common theme throughout the meeting.

Norway announced that it would hold a conference in 2013 to explore the humanitarian dimension of nuclear disarmament, which will involve any interested governments, UN agencies, Red Cross societies and civil society partners. The Australian government has not yet indicated whether it will attend. ICAN has expressed its hope that the conference will lead to a process for negotiating a new treaty to ban nuclear weapons.

Immediately prior to the NPT meeting, more than 100 ICAN campaigners from 30 countries took part in a weekend conference to discuss ICAN strategy, structure and initiatives for the coming year. Workshops at the meeting focused on the proposal for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, divestment, and humanitarian consequences. The next international ICAN meeting will be held in Hiroshima on 21 August.

Civil society groups are growing increasingly frustrated with the NPT process, for three main reasons. First, the nuclear-weapon states continue to modernise their nuclear arsenals while claiming to disarm. This is a violation of the treaty. Second, a disproportionate amount of time is spent discussing potential proliferators rather than the 20,000 nuclear weapons that actually exist in the world. And third, the treaty's promotion of nuclear power is at odds with non-proliferation, disarmament and the vision for a safe, sustainable future.

Very few countries referred to the Fukushima disaster in their statements, even though it happened little over a year ago. While some noted the dangers of the nuclear fuel cycle, most used the NPT meeting to propagate myths about the virtues of nuclear power, including the idea that it is necessary for combating climate change and achieving the Millennium Development Goals.

Japan said that the disaster "has dealt a serious blow to the Japanese perception regarding nuclear safety" – as if to suggest that the battle they are losing is one of public relations alone. Reaching Critical Will has produced a critique of government responses to the disaster titled 'Costs, Risks and Myths of Nuclear Power'.

Reaching Critical Will has also published reports on nuclear weapons modernisation and a scorecard assessing states' implementation of their NPT commitments from 2010. These publications are available at

Tim Wright is the Australian director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).,