Pressenza is covering the upcoming Oslo conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear weapons between on the 4th and 5th of March and the preceding civil society forum starting on the 1st of March.  As part of our coverage Pressenza invited Alyn Ware, International Representative for the Peace Foundation, and recipient of one of the 2009 Right Livelihood Awards to write about the importance of these events.

A meteor blasting into the atmosphere over Siberia last week, injuring about 1000 people with debris, provided a graphic warning of the risk of a larger meteor, or even an asteroid, hitting earth.  About the same time that the 10 ton meteor entered the earth’s atmosphere, an asteroid 15,000 times larger whizzed past planet earth. If the asteroid instead of the meteor had hit us, it could have wiped out civilization just as an asteroid hitting the earth 65 million years ago created climatic consequences that wiped out the dinosaurs.

The week prior to the meteor strike Donald K. Yeomans, a senior research scientist from NASA, warned of humanity’s complacency about the risk of an asteroid hitting earth (Beware of Errant Asteroids, International Herald Tribune, 9 Feb 2013). Granted, the probability of an asteroid hitting earth is quite low. On the other hand, the consequences of such a hit are so dire, that humanity should not stick our head in the sand. As the science fiction author Larry Niven once said, the dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space program. What might cause the extinction of humanity is our failure to look upwards to the skies.

What’s probably even more remarkable is that humanity has also forgotten to look down – to the equivalent threat from nuclear weapons lurking in underground silos and submarines hidden below the ocean surface.

Approximately 19,000 nuclear weapons remain in the arsenals of the nuclear-weapons States – over 2000 of them on high alert, ready to be fired within minutes on a policy to launch-on-warning. The capacity to construct nuclear weapons is spreading – nine countries have now built the bomb – and the capacity to acquire nuclear bomb-making materials and technology is also spreading.

So far, good luck as much as good management has prevented a nuclear holocaust. We have come close at least 20 times. One of those occasions is the topic of a feature film “The Man Who Saved the World” due to be released later this year.

There is some media concern and political attention about so-called ‘rogue States’ like North Korea testing the bomb, or Iran moving towards possible acquisition. Yet, there is very little political attention to the risk of the existing nuclear weapons and the threats to cities, populations, our global economy, the global environment and indeed human civilization if there was a nuclear catastrophe through accident, miscalculation or deliberate use in a conflict.

A decision by Norway to launch a wake-up call this March is to be commended. The Norwegian government has invited governments and civil society to Oslo to examine the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. Over 100 governments and 500 civil society representatives have registered to attend.  International agencies involved in disaster prevention and relief, as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) will also attend.

The conference aims to outline the ‘immediate and long-term impacts of nuclear weapon detonations’ and examine the ‘state of preparedness and the needs for adequate humanitarian response to a nuclear weapon detonation’ drawing upon ‘experts from national protection and response authorities and humanitarian organisations.’

The conference is part of an approach by non-nuclear-weapon States, civil society and the ICRC to highlight the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons as an imperative for their abolition.  Frustration at the lack of progress by the Nuclear-Weapon States (NWS) to implement their obligations to negotiate for complete nuclear disarmament has stimulated this action.

It is hoped that reminding the public and policy-makers of the horrific consequences of nuclear weapons will wake them from their slumber and generate sufficient political momentum to achieve a global treaty to abolish these instruments of genocide, ecocide and omnicide (the destruction of civilization).

As such, 34 countries last year endorsed a joint statement led by Switzerland to elevate the humanitarian dimension of nuclear weapons to support nuclear disarmament. The humanitarian approach aims to emulate the success of similar campaigns which succeeded in the negotiation and adoption of treaties banning landmines and cluster munitions.

The civil society forum thus opens symbolically on March 1, – Bikini Day – the anniversary of the Bravo nuclear weapons test that obliterated Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands and spread radiation through-out the Pacific creating devastating heath and environmental problems. This experience has made the Pacific Island States amongst the most vocal advocates of nuclear abolition, including in the historic 1996 International Court of Justice (World Court) case on nuclear weapons. The World Court agreed with the Marshall Islands testimony that ‘the effects of nuclear weapons are uncontrollable in time and space’ and then affirmed that ‘The threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law.’

The majority of countries have supported the United Nations General Assembly resolution which seeks to implement the World Court decision through negotiations on a global treaty to abolish nuclear weapons.

The key question on the Oslo conference, however, is whether it will have any impact on the nuclear-weapons States and their allies who already accept that the use of nuclear weapons would create catastrophic humanitarian consequences, but who continue to possess nuclear weapons for deterrence. They say that it is the massive destruction caused by nuclear weapons that acts as a deterrent to prevent others from using them.

In this respect, any similarity to cluster munitions and landmines breaks down. Landmines and cluster munitions were being used in the field in military operations causing humanitarian consequences from such use. Nuclear weapons, on the other hand, are not being used in military operations. They are not being detonated in conflicts. The role ascribed to them by the nuclear-weapons-possessors is not to use them – but to possess them in order to deter nuclear-weapons-use.

In addition, nuclear-weapons possession is associated with political objectives – such as power and influence. India’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, for example, is probably more attributable to quests for domestic power, regional power and global influence, than any military threat requiring deterrence.

France’s reluctance to discuss nuclear disarmament has been attributed to the international status it maintains as one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council – the five members of which are the five recognized NWS under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Thus, in order to move the NWS and their allies to reject nuclear weapons, we have to move beyond the humanitarian consequences framework, and address the political and security drivers for nuclear weapons, and particularly how security can be achieved without nuclear weapons.

Switzerland, a leader of the humanitarian approach to nuclear weapons, has recognized both the value but also the limitations of this approach – and is thus supporting a parallel process to explore security beyond nuclear deterrence.

Norway seems to be schizophrenic on this question. On the positive side, in addition to taking a lead in highlighting the humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapon, Norway has supported a Norwegian-language version of a model treaty to abolish nuclear weapons, and their national Pension Fund has divested from all companies that produce nuclear weapons.

On the other hand, they remain in the NATO alliance which reaffirmed last year that “as long as there are nuclear weapons in the world, NATO will remain a nuclear Alliance.”

In addition, Norway argued in the World Court that the threat of use of nuclear weapons was legal (although this was in 1995 and their position may have shifted slightly since then), and abstains on the UN resolution calling for negotiations on a global treaty to abolish nuclear weapons.

The agenda of the Oslo conference appears to reflect this schizophrenia. The opening sessions are all about the unacceptable consequences of nuclear weapons detonations, pointing to the obvious fact that the only way to address this issue is to abolish the weapons globally. However, the final session of the conference, on how to address the risks identified in the earlier sessions, is not about how States can collaborate to achieve nuclear abolition – but is about ‘examining the state of preparedness and the needs for adequate humanitarian response to a nuclear weapon detonation’.

One would think that we had moved beyond the absurd ‘Duck and Cover’ propaganda of the 1950s-1970s where public in the West were assured they could survive a nuclear attack through ducking under tables or retreating to fall-out shelters.  However, a public advisory in January this year from the Jammu and Kashmir Civil Defence and State Disaster Response Force on how to deal with a nuclear detonation – says “People should construct basements where the whole family can stay for a fortnight,” stock it with non-perishable food items and water, and “construct toilet facilities at the basement, store ample candles and battery lights, remove stock of flammables, if any, keep battery-operated miniature transistor, TV sets in the basement to listen instructions being announced by the civil defense authorities.”

Another concern of the Oslo conference is that there is no mention on the agenda of the relevance of international law, whether that be the illegality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons, the legal imperative to achieve nuclear disarmament or the legal mechanisms available and proposed for eliminating nuclear weapons under effective international control.

However, it’s quite possible that the Norwegian approach is not schizophrenic at all, but rather is designed to be non-threatening to those States that still ascribe to nuclear deterrence, so that these States will attend the conference and be jolted into re-examining their resistance to nuclear abolition.

If so, the onus is on civil society and non-nuclear weapon States attending the Oslo conference to highlight the legal imperative and the security benefits of nuclear abolition. More importantly, civil society and non-nuclear weapon States must ensure that this conference is not a once-off feel-good flash-in-the-pan event, but that it enhances the actions of governments to commence the preparatory work and negotiations for a nuclear weapons convention – as proposed in the UN General Assembly resolution and supported by the UN Secretary-General.

Last year the United Nations General Assembly established a forum in which such work could commence – an open-ended working group of countries which will operate in Geneva.  The working group was proposed by  Austria, Chile, Costa Rica, Iceland, Ireland, Liechtenstein, Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Philippines, Trinidad and Tobago and Uruguay, in order to ‘develop proposals to take forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations for the achievement and maintenance of a world without nuclear weapons.’ It thus provides the perfect forum to turn the political attention created by the Oslo conference into constructive work for achieving a global treaty to abolish nuclear weapons. The working group has a much more open agenda than the Oslo conference, is ongoing and must report back to the UN General Assembly on progress. The measure of success in Oslo will thus not be the number of States that turn up or the quality of speeches, but the degree to which States there commit to using the UN process to start negotiations for the achievement of a nuclear-weapons-free world.

If this process moves ahead successfully, humanity will then be in a much better position to re-focus the $100 billion currently spent every year on maintaining nuclear weapons, to instead addressing the other core issues for human survival – including climate change and averting an asteroid strike.