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Successful DC forum shines the spotlight on Humanitarian Impacts Initiative

Posted by Martin Fleck on April 10, 2014

The Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons forum brought the story of the growing Humanitarian Impact Initiative home to the inside-the-beltway crowd.

Daryl Kimball, Arms Control Association, discusses disarmament strategy with Ira Helfand, MD of PSR and IPPNW.

Utilizing the information from PSR’s report, Nuclear Famine: 2 Billion at Risk and other research, the international community has organized two governmental conferences to consider the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, with a third planned for late 2014 The non-nuclear armed states are clamoring for more action to reduce and ultimately eliminate these weapons.  While the Initiative is gaining steam internationally it has, so far, received too little attention within the USA. The panel explored the ramifications of the humanitarian impact initiative, how it relates to the Nonproliferation Treaty process, and the various ways that progress toward nuclear disarmament might be accelerated within and outside the NPT process. If you would like to learn all about what’s new in nuclear disarmament, the transcript is available here.

Thanks to the Arms Control Association for organizing the event and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace for providing the venue. 

The distinguished panel was:

  • Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova, Senior Research Associate, Center for Nonproliferation Studies;
  • Dr. Ira Helfand, Co-president, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and Chair, Physicians for Social Responsibility Security Committee;
  • Ambassador Desra Percaya, Indonesian Ambassador to the United Nations;
  • George Perkovich, Director, Nuclear Policy Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace;
  • Daryl Kimball, Executive Director, Arms Control Association (moderator).

Excerpts selected by PSR Security Program Director Martin Fleck: 

Daryl Kimball: “Let’s keep in mind that there are several theoretical possibilities for how – if there is a diplomatic process emerging from the humanitarian consequences initiative – there are several different directions this could go in, and they are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

There could be a process leading to the negotiation of a convention on the elimination of nuclear weapons. There could be a process leading to a ban on the possession and use, but not necessarily a whole treaty that tries to effect the elimination.  There could also be a legally binding instrument that bans the use of nuclear weapons, as we saw the international community doing in the 1920s in response to chemical weapons use during World War I.”

Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova of Center for Nonproliferation Studies

Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova: “The humanitarian initiative is one of those very bright manifestations of non-nuclear weapon states taking the initiative back and reclaiming the ownership of nuclear disarmament issues, and reclaiming their place in the debate so that they also can influence the terms of the discourse.”

“The point of the humanitarian initiative debate is to really shift the focus from what is a traditional NPT debate on nuclear weapons centered on state security, centered on strategy and stability, all those, you know, ‘warm, relatable’ human terms, and actually shift it to the question of what do these weapons do and what are the effects and whether that is compatible with who we are as humans, whether we as humanity should tolerate their continued existence and, if not, what should be done about that. So really, the focus is not on the possessors, on good, bad, good guys, bad guys; the focus is on weapons and their effects.”

Ira Helfand, MD: “We are accused often of being unrealistic when we talk about the possibility of, say, medium-term nuclear disarmament. I would argue that it is those who defend the status quo, who say that we can continue to maintain these arsenals for decades into the future, who are profoundly unrealistic.  The chance that this is going to happen, that we’re going to maintain these arsenals indefinitely and that they’re not going to be used, is very low, and it’s certainly not a risk which any rational person would entertain.

And so we need to have a very different approach to all of this. And they say that politics is the art of the possible. Statesmanship, I think, is clearly the art of the necessary. And it is time that we ask our leaders to act like statesmen, not like politicians.

I think the more profound lesson of the Ukraine crisis, the one which I hope will emerge as people have a little bit more time to think about this, is the lesson that we did learn during the Cold War: it’s precisely when there was a great danger of war between nations that it is particularly important that those nations not be armed with nuclear weapons.

If this administration in the United States, which is so allergic to the idea of a ban treaty, put forward any significant initiative at this point, I think we would all rally behind it.  But that hasn’t been forthcoming since New START was negotiated.  And so that’s a great idea.  I’m sure there are other great ideas out there.  At the moment the one which seems to be getting the most traction is a ban treaty.  I think it’s an exceptionally good move, because it really does move things forward in a very dramatic way and I would encourage people to support that, but I think if other ideas come forward, you know, it's fine – whatever moves the ball forward.  We've just got to get some movement in the right direction and we’re not getting it right now."

Desra Percaya, UN Ambassador from Indonesia

Ambassador Desra Percaya: “For many countries, including Indonesia, the discussion on the utility of nuclear weapons ended by itself with the entry into force of the NPT. All members of the NPT have legally and morally committed themselves to the complete elimination of nuclear weapons, period.  Since we are all agreed on the elimination of nuclear weapons, the only questions remaining are when and how.”

“The examination of the debate on humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons has at least revealed two fundamentally important truths.  First, because nuclear weapons affect all states, they have a direct stake in ensuring their elimination.  All states have a legitimate role to play, and it is their responsibility to act. It is not something that can be left to the nuclear weapons states to be done by them on their own. This is the first truth. Second, the world cannot wait endlessly for nuclear weapons’ elimination. The risks are obvious.  For a nuclear detonation, deliberate or accidental, its effects will be horrendous on people and all living thing—we will all suffer. We must act now.”

 “For too long, the non-nuclear-weapons states have been on an endless treadmill of hope and disappointment.  After the hope inspired by the 2010 action plan, we are already hearing the telltale sounds of excuses being prepared and mutterings that the action plan was never meant to be for five years only. Of course, we do not expect nuclear weapons to be eliminated overnight, but we cannot also continue to tolerate endless procrastination, poorly defined goals and timelines that are fake to the point of absurdity.

I believe that driven by the humanitarian imperative, we must push for greater accountability in the NPT review process and the U.N. disarmament machinery. These frameworks are essential, but they must deliver.  They will deliver when we will fulfill our obligations in them, work together better, and bring to bear the required political capital.”

George Perkovich: "Nuclear disarmament’s never been defined. We don’t know what it means. There’s not a full-time official in any of the states that possess nuclear weapons whose job it’s been to figure, OK, how would we actually dismantle these things? How would we verify it? What would we do with our weapons laboratories? How would we monitor other people’s weapons scientists?  Would we agree to regulate their travel?  What kind of dual-use experiments would be allowed? How do you manage missile technologies? None of that’s been done. So as a starter, that would be a useful thing. Not only to have people on the outside do it, but to try to at least task or get the governments to agree that they’ll appoint one person, you know, maybe more would be great, but at least one full-time person to be thinking through, you know, how you would actually do this. And every once in a while, they could have coffee with each other and say, 'Well, what do you got?' (Laughter.) And advance the ball."


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