Vienna conference maintains momentum for humanitarian initiative on nuclear weapons

The third international conference on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons has ended with a pledge to press for the abolition of nuclear weapons at next year's Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference.  

More than 150 governments were represented at the conference, which took place in Vienna on December 8 and 9.  Delegations from four of the nine countries with nuclear weapons – the USA, UK, India and Pakistan – attended and delegates from 45 governments explicitly called for further multilateral negotiations to prohibit nuclear weapons.

The conference summary, prepared by the Austrian government, warned that the impact of a nuclear weapon detonation, irrespective of the cause, “would not be constrained by national borders and could have regional and even global consequences”, including long-term damage to the environment, climate, and social order, and “could even threaten the survival of humankind”.  

The report concluded that as long as nuclear weapons exist, there remains the possibility of a nuclear explosion and that “even if the probability is considered low, given the catastrophic consequences of a nuclear weapon detonation, the risk is unacceptable”.

New evidence that has emerged over the last two years about the humanitarian impact of
nuclear weapons “casts further doubt on whether these weapons could ever be used in
conformity with international humanitarian law”  

The report noted that many delegates expressed concern about the limited progress in nuclear disarmament and stressed the view that humanitarian considerations should no longer be ignored but “be at the core of all nuclear disarmament deliberations”.

The conference re-stated the political imperative to abolish nuclear weapons and indicated that a legally binding agreement would be required to establish a nuclear-weapon-free world.  This task was referred on to the next NPT Review Conference which will take place in April – May 2015 in New York.

The Austrian government, hosting the conference, made a special pledge to take the new impetus for nuclear abolition to the NPT.  In the pledge, Austria called on all parties to the NPT to “renew their commitment to the urgent and full implementation of existing obligations under Article VI, and to this end, to identify and pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons”.  The pledge commits Austria to cooperate with all stakeholders to achieve this goal.

Pope Francis used the conference to issue a statement revising the Catholic Church's position on the morality of nuclear deterrence for the first time in many years.

In his message to the conference, the Pope reminded delegates that military codes and international law have “long banned peoples from inflicting unnecessary suffering”.  “If such suffering is banned in the waging of conventional war, then it should all the more be banned in nuclear conflict", he said.

Spending on nuclear weapons “squanders the wealth of nations” and is “a mistake and a misallocation of resources which would be far better invested in the areas of integral human development, education, health and the fight against extreme poverty”.

The Pope argued that a world without nuclear weapons is “a goal shared by all nations and echoed by world leaders, as well as the aspiration of millions of men and women”.  

“The future and survival of the human family hinges on moving beyond this ideal and ensuring that it becomes a reality”, he said.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that previous conferences on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons had “compelled us to keep in mind the horrific consequences that would result from any use of nuclear weapons” and expressed his wish that “all participants come away with new resolve to pursue effective measures for the achievement of nuclear disarmament”.

Both the USA and the UK attended the conference, but both nations rejected calls for a ban on nuclear weapons and a timetable for their elimination.  In its statement to the conference the UK asserted that this approach “fails to take account of, and therefore jeopardises, the stability and security which nuclear weapons can help to ensure”.

The UK said that it would retain its nuclear weapons “for as long as it is necessary” and that “a declaratory ban, or a timetable not underpinned by the necessary trust, confidence and verification measures, would jeopardise strategic stability.  None of us would gain from a loss of that stability”.  Instead, a step-by-step approach through the NPT was “the only way” to combine the imperatives of disarmament and global stability.

Speaking after the conference, Robert Wood, the USA's special representative to the Conference on Disarmament told the Geneva Centre for Security Policy that the US “cannot and will not support efforts to move to a nuclear weapons convention or the false hope of a fixed timeline for the elimination of all nuclear weapons”. The US “cannot support and will oppose any effort to move to an international legal ban on nuclear weapons”.

In a letter to Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz before the conference, a global group of political and military figures warned that the risks posed by nuclear weapons are “under-estimated” and that action to prevent an accidental or deliberate nuclear attack is “insufficient”.

The letter cautioned that “too many nuclear weapons in the world remain ready to launch on short notice, greatly increasing the chances of an accident” and urged all states to “redouble efforts to work toward a world without nuclear weapons”.

Co-ordinated by the European Leadership Network and Nuclear Threat Initiative, the letter was signed by 118 former ministers, generals, and diplomats from 46 counties, including 6 former Prime Ministers and a former NATO Secretary-General.  British signatories included former defence secretaries Lord Des Browne and Lord Tom King, and former foreign secretaries Margaret Beckett and Lord David Owen.


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