Human security, responsibility’ and legitimacy
As regards the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, the following key arguments were put forward:
- • That the immediate mid- and long-term consequences of a nuclear weapon explosion are significantly graver than previously known.
- • That the complexity of and interrelationship between these consequences on health, environment, infrastructure, food security, climate, development, social cohesion and the global economy that are systemic and potentially irreversible.
- • That they will not be constrained by national borders but have regional or even global effects, potentially threatening the survival of humanity.
- • That no national or international response capacity exists that could adequately respond to the human suffering and humanitarian harm that would result from a nuclear weapon explosion in a populated area, and that it would be unlikely that such a capacity could be established, even if attempted.10
These perspectives on the transboundary global consequences, across a wide range of sectors, and the lack of response capability to the human suffering, placed the discussion on nuclear weapons and their effects firmly in a human security context.11 The Humanitarian Initiative thus promoted a globalist and comprehensive view of security. This is in direct juxtaposition to the “state-centred” security arguments of nuclear weapon States, who stress that nuclear weapons are essential for their and their allies’ security, owing to the deterrence value of nuclear weapons and the consequent ability to maintain a strategic stability between themselves. Even if the threat vis-à-vis a potential aversary may be justifiable, how can the threat of inflicting such global consequences be considered legitimate and justified by national security considerations? In short, the Humanitarian Initiative asserted that States arguing for nuclear weapons and relying on nuclear deterrence defend a narrower and self-serving, but ultimately short-sighted perspective of security, which conies at the expense of the security of all.
The nuclear weapon States and nuclear umbrella States have yet to rebut the above-mentioned conclusions effectively and provide satisfactory answers on how to address the humanitarian consequences. Their key arguments are that there is no relevant new information and that the humanitarian consequences have been known for decades, as well as that the threat of inflicting these unacceptable consequences is exactly what makes nuclear deterrence effective.12
The second key aspect of the human security argument raised by the Humanitarian Initiative is the element of risk. The arguments are that
- • The risk of nuclear explosions is significantly greater than previously assumed and increasing with proliferation, the lowering of the technical threshold for nuclear weapon capability, the ongoing modernisation of nuclear weapon arsenals in nuclear weapon possessing states, and the role that is attributed to nuclear weapons in the nuclear doctrines of possessor states.
- • The risks of accidental, mistaken, unauthorized or unintentional use of nuclear weapons are evident due to the vulnerability of nuclear command and control networks to human error and cyber-attacks, the maintaining of nuclear arsenals on high levels of alert, forward deployment and their modernization.
- • That there are many circumstances in which nuclear weapons could be used in view of international conflicts and tensions, and against the background of the current security doctrines of States possessing nuclear weapons. As nuclear deterrence entails preparing for nuclear war, the risk of nuclear weapon use is real.13
These conclusions on nuclear weapons risks, emphasise the point that it is the very policies and the collective behaviour of States possessing nuclear weapons that create and increase the risk of nuclear weapons use, either intentionally or out of some form of accident or miscalculation. The “human security” of the international community and indeed the entire planet is, thus, put at grave risk by these practices. Nuclear weapons States may think that they can control these risks but have yet to provide proof of this to the international community. While the probability of nuclear weapons explosions may be low, the risks remain and given the potentially global consequences, they may be too high and unacceptable. Viewed from the Humanitarian Initiative perspective, the aggregated risks from nuclear weapons and of the practice of nuclear deterrence by all nuclear weapons possessing States are perceived as a direct threat to the security of all States and all peoples.14 The combination of arguments on the humanitarian consequences and the risks associated with nuclear weapons, both significantly greater than previously known, challenges the assertions of nuclear weapons as a guarantor of security. Whose security and what kind of security is being talked about in the context of nuclear weapons and does the security calculation hold up to scrutiny?
From the human security perspective, ensues the question of responsibility. Can the threat of not only mutually assured destruction between adversaries but also the risk of inflicting global catastrophic consequences, possibly threatening the survival of humankind be considered as a responsible policy? Nuclear weapon States like to assert that they are responsible15 but in light of the potential global consequences and risks of these weapons, for what and to whom exactly are they responsible? These States claim that they are rational and responsible enough to handle nuclear weapons and assert that nuclear deterrence works because it leads to rational and - hopefully responsible - behaviour of all actors involved in this equation. This, however, is a circular argument From the Humanitarian Initiative and human security perspective, a security approach that relies on nuclear weapons and the possible infliction of devastating global consequences looks like an irresponsibly high risk-taking gamble, based on an illusion of safety16 and security.
The responsibility arguments put forward by the Humanitarian Initiative, contained another dimension: if nuclear armed States are apparently trapped in a vicious circle, justifying their own need to have nuclear weapons with the possession of nuclear weapons by other nuclear armed States, what is then the responsibility of non-nuclear weapon States? The consequences and risks of nuclear weapons are grave, and the nuclear armed States have no satisfactory answers to address these human security concerns. What actions can therefore be taken by non-nuclear weapon States to help the international community potentially break free from this high-risk dynamic? The human security arguments about humanitarian consequences and risks of nuclear weapons, thus, leads to an appeal to the sense of responsibility of all States and to a call for action to strengthen the normative framework of the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime. This is in stark contrast to the lack of credible leadership on this issue by the States who possess nuclear weapons and who, as permanent members of the UN Security Council, should live up to their special responsibility for the collective security of all States. By extension, this line of argument also applies to the nuclear umbrella States, whose ambiguous stance of professed support for nuclear disarmament while “enjoying” the benefits of extended nuclear deterrence has come increasingly into focus during the Humanitarian Initiative.
Finally, the re-framing of the perspectives of security and responsibility following from the arguments on the humanitarian consequences and risks of nuclear weapons gives new impetus to the long-standing concerns about the legitimacy of the NPT-based nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime.
The very nature of the NPT with its division into “nuclear haves” and “nuclear have nots” has been criticised as discriminatory ever since the treaty came into being; a point reiterated in many NPT statements, in particular by the non-aligned movement.17 As Egeland concludes,
What the disarmament commitment [note: NPT Art.VI] did do, was to publicly and in formal terms counteract the NPT’s apparent breach with the principle of the equality of states. By casting the NPT as a step towards disarmament, article VI allowed the non-nuclear weapon States to describe themselves not simply as 'inferior' or ‘unequal’, but as ‘equal in waiting'; the hierarchy enshrined by the treaty would be temporary.18
For the non-nuclear weapon States, the NPT disarmament provisions of Article VI - part of the “grand bargain” of the NPT19 - were always also intended to counter the discriminatory nature of the treaty and underscore the notion that “the nuclear weapon States would gradually deconstruct the nuclear hierarchy”.20
As discussed in Chapter 1, the credibility of the NPT “grand bargain” was increasingly undermined and reached a new low point in the unconvincing implementation record of the 2010 NPT Action Plan in the years from 2010 to 2015. This fuelled the motivation of non-nuclear weapon States to look for alternative approaches. The Humanitarian Initiative added and further accentuated arguments to challenge the legitimacy of the nuclear status quo and the existing multilateral frameworks tasked to deal with the nuclear weapons issue.
How can the legitimate security concerns of non-nuclear weapon States be addressed effectively in a multilateral NPT treaty framework that is inherently discriminatory against them? Who addresses their concerns about the humanitarian consequences and risks of nuclear weapons? Moreover, who would be responsible for remedial actions or compensation after a nuclear explosion, whether by accident or design, given the breadth of consequences on health, the economy, migratory movements etc.? This human security perspective is the basis from which non-nuclear weapon States wish to discuss these weapons. The Humanitarian Initiatve provided non-nuclear weapon States with a set of strong and new arguments to challenge the legitimacy of the nuclear status quo. It opened up the traditional, narrower, state-centred, security approach with which nuclear armed States dominate the nuclear weapons debate in existing multilateral fora. The focus on the humanitarian consequences and risks of nuclear weapons questions the “normalization”21 of nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence in the security policy discourse of nuclear weapon States and demands a re-assessment of what constitutes responsible behaviour. This focus raises pertinent questions on the legitimacy of the existing nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime.
Moreover, the humanitarian foundation of this argument and the expressed concern for the integrity of the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime, links the nuclear weapons issue to international justice and a fair, rules-based, international system. As Matthew Bolton writes:
The genius of this strategy - often called the Humanitarian Initiative - has been to use the language of international humanitarian law and human rights, rather than the dominant techno-strategic discourse, to challenge the great powers. The humanitarian discourse - which suggests that ‘civilized nations’ abstain from using ‘barbaric’ ways of killing - has condemned chemical weapons, cluster munitions, and landmines as “Other weapons” that are beneath the dignity of the chivalrous military officer.22
The nuclear weapon States and their allies have failed to give coherent answers and counterarguments regarding the humanitarian consequences and risks of
Security, empowerment and the status quo 147 nuclear weapons and this has certainly been a contributary factor in strengthening the resolve for a ban treaty. They have not properly addressed the specific humanitarian consequences and risk arguments except to say that nuclear deterrence works because of the threat of unacceptable consequences.23 In their rendering, there are are no risks or if there are, they can be managed and, anyway, the information about the humanitarian consequences is not new and has been known for a long time.24 The key questions on how to address the unacceptable humanitarian consequences and risks of nuclear weapons are either dismissed or remain unanswered. Supporters of the Humanitarian Initiative came to recognise that nuclear-weapon States are unable to provide satisfactory answers to these questions and that their argumentation must, perforce, be entirely subordinated to maintaining the nuclear status quo and the doctrine of nuclear deterrence.
In the period 2011-2017, non-nuclear weapons States increasingly supported the Humanitarian Initiative, aided by civil society pressure and a growing number of studies and substantive contributions25 that developed and strengthened the humanitarian arguments and focused a humanitarian lens26 on the nuclear-weapons issue. The humanitarian arguments reinforced the reasoning that it is the responsibility and in the legitimate security interest of non-nuclear weapon States to take matters into their own hands, given the unwillingness or inability of nuclear weapon States to take more credible steps towards nuclear disarmament. The Humanitarian Initiative was, thus, a direct challenge to the hierachrical structure of the nuclear status quo and the “power currency value” of nuclear weapons.
Rather than continue to merely demand disarmament progress from nuclear weapon States, a legal prohibition of nuclear weapons emerged as the one concrete action that non-nuclear weapon States were able to effect themselves. ICAN's forceful and effective campaign was essential in generating the necessary momentum for the TPNW. It motivated States to support the Humanitarian Pledge and helped move them towards the conclusion that they could actually do something about this issue. The Humanitarian Initiative provided a forum in which a multitude of voices and actors from States and civil society were empowered, could underscore their own perspectives on nuclear weapons, and challenge the dominant, established discourse and conclusions of the five nuclear weapon States and their allies.