Nuclear Weapons Conference Turns Nuclear Dialogue on Its Head

 Submarine-launched ballistic missiles. (Photo: US Navy / Wikimedia Commons)

Submarine-launched ballistic missiles. (Photo: US Navy / Wikimedia Commons)

As I previously posted, the third Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, held in Vienna on Dec. 8 and 9, included representatives from 155 countries, as well as the United Nations and the Red Cross. In a report on the conference at Reaching Critical Will, director Ray Acheson wrote:

The “inescapable conclusions” noted by the Austrian government in its Pledge at the end of the conference included the conviction that nuclear weapons raise profound moral and ethical questions that go beyond debates about their legality and that efforts are needed now to stigmatise, prohibit, and eliminate these weapons of terror. These conclusions provide the basis for the Austrian Pledge to “fill the legal gap” for prohibiting and eliminating nuclear weapons.

Los Alamos Study Group Director Greg Mello, who attended and made a presentation, shared more about the legal angle in an LASG press release. First, he noted that the conference was “a rather different kind of effort than that to which most of our members, most U.S. experts, and most U.S. journalists are accustomed.  That difference begins in the basic framing of the issues.” For instance

In the “nuclear deterrence” paradigm of discussion familiar to most U.S. parties, nuclear weapons are seen as having security value.  The non-military destruction they entail is relegated to “collateral damage” if it is discussed at all.

By contrast in the “humanitarian law and morality” or “weapons of mass destruction” paradigm, it is the morally — and legally — transgressive qualities of nuclear weapons, as almost universally regarded, which are the starting point for discussion.  In this paradigm, any security “benefit” supposedly gained by nuclear possessor states by nuclear threats (i.e. deterrence), or by nuclear use, is inherently immoral, corrosive of existing law, and anticivilizational.

Whatever value accrues to nuclear weapons as guarantors of national security pales before their destructiveness if used.

However uncomfortable it may be to the nuclear weapon states and the states which participate in nuclear deterrence through nuclear sharing or extended deterrence arrangements, it is a matter of settled law that mass murder, genocide, or the global destruction of life that would result from nuclear winter, can never be justified by any supposed political or military outcome.

Needless to say, we believe the second paradigm is a more factual and fertile starting point for discussion.  It does not exclude the universal need for security in all its aspects, but in doing so it does not privilege the security desires of one set of countries over others. [Emphasis added.]

Mello adds, “It puts human security, not state power relations, in the foreground.” In other words, global, not national security. Unfortunately

… most U.S. reporting about the Vienna Conference, led by this statement submitted to the Conference by the Arms Control Association and others, and by this statement from 118 notable arms control and disarmament figures, is rooted in current security policies and hence the tacit validity of nuclear deterrence.  Such reporting completely omits mention of what was novel in the Vienna Conference, namely an explicit call for a ban on nuclear weapons expressed by dozens of states, the Pope, hundreds of NGOs, and now the Nobel Peace Laureates.