Does a State’s Possession of Nuclear Weapons Justify Humanitarian Intervention?

By developing nuclear weapons, a state arguably puts its own citizens at more risk than if it hadn’t. (Photo: John Parie / U.S. Air Force)

By developing nuclear weapons, a state arguably puts its own citizens at more risk than if it hadn’t. (Photo: John Parie / U.S. Air Force)

American sometimes forget that we, the people, didn’t mandate the development of nuclear weapons — it was state-ordained. In December 2014, at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Kennette Benedict wrote:

While humanitarians in the United States urge intervention in Iraq and Syria to protect innocents from mass murder in the name of the responsibility to protect, the citizens of the United States live with a government that is unable—or unwilling—to protect them from the catastrophic harm of nuclear weapons. By threatening to use such bombs—a key part of the doctrine known as nuclear deterrence—without citizens’ active consent and in the face of near-certain retaliation, the US government has abrogated its responsibility to protect its own citizens. The social contract between citizen and government lies in shambles.

Humanitarian intervention to divest the United States of its nuclear weapons is obviously impossible — in part, because of its possession of nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, it behooves us to remember:

In a 1996 advisory opinion, the International Court of Justice concluded that possession of nuclear weapons is a criminal offense under international law, but the UN system itself has not addressed state responsibility for their use and the massive destruction they would cause.