ACA Executive Director Participates in Faith Leaders Conference on Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear War

The Humanitarian Imperative to Accelerate Progress
On Nuclear Disarmament and Nonproliferation

Prepared Remarks by Daryl G. Kimball for the April 24 Conference

“Faith Leaders and the Dialogue on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear War”

U.S. Institute for Peace, Washington, D.C.

Since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the catastrophic effects of nuclear weapons have driven global leaders to pursue concrete steps to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons use.

Over time, our understanding of the scope of these effects has become more sophisticated.  Early studies found that the direct effects of a large-scale nuclear exchange would produce catastrophic regional and national damage that would kill tens of millions and likely several hundred million people within one month of the initial exchange.[1]

More comprehensive studies in mid-1980s found that the direct effects of such a large-scale nuclear war involving thousands of nuclear detonations could result in several hundred million human fatalities, the indirect effects could be far greater, leading to the loss of one to four billion lives.[2]

More recent studies have found that even a smaller nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan involving just 100 nuclear detonations against urban targets would kill 20 million people in the first week and loft soot into the global atmosphere that would reduce surface temperatures by 1.3 degrees Celsius and disrupt agricultural production and put 1-2 billion people at risk for famine.[3]

These and other findings make it clear that the use of even a relatively small number of nuclear weapons would result in humanitarian emergencies far beyond the immediate target zones of the warring parties.

The catastrophic impact effects of nuclear weapons use make these weapons an enormous global health and security liability.

Nevertheless, the nine states and several of their allies, still employ nuclear weapons as part of their military and security doctrines. As a consequence, the risk that nuclear weapons might be  used again someday—in response to conventional attack, in response to a nuclear attack, or as the result of accidental exchange—remains.

The Humanitarian Effects Process and the NPT

Appropriately enough, the 2010 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference Final Document expresses “deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and [reaffirmed] the need for all States at all times to comply with applicable international law, including international humanitarian law.”

The NPT nuclear-weapon states committed to “diminish the role and significance of nuclear weapons” and “[d]iscuss policies that could prevent the use of nuclear weapons.”

The Final Document commits the states parties to certain actions to reduce the risk of such an outcome, including some 22 overlapping nuclear disarmament commitments.

Among other steps, the 2010 NPT Action Plan calls for:

  • changes in nuclear doctrines to diminish the role of nuclear weapons;
  • reductions of the number of all types of nuclear weapons;
  • changes in the operational readiness of nuclear weapons to reduce the risk of accidental war;
  • increased transparency and reporting by the nuclear-weapon states;
  • tangible progress toward entry into force of the CTBT; and
  • overcoming the paralysis of the UN’s disarmament machinery, especially in the CD.

The ability of the 2010 NPT Review Conference to reach agreement on the Action Plan was an important breakthrough, but the follow-through on the plan has been disappointing.

Slow Progress

The United States and Russia did successfully negotiate, sign, and ratify the New START treaty in 2010. The treaty, which entered into force in February 2011, requires them to cut their deployed strategic stockpiles to no more that 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and 700 strategic delivery systems by 2018.

Since then, progress on most of the key steps outlined in the 2010 NPT disarmament action plan have slowed to a crawl. The U.S. and Russia have begun to implement New START reductions and continue on-site inspections and information exchanges under the treaty, but to date, there has been no progress toward reductions below the ceilings set by New START.

Despite adjustments to U.S. missile defense plans in Europe announced by the Pentagon in March 2013 that eliminate any near-term threat to Russia’s strategic missiles, President Vladimir Putin has rebuffed President Barack Obama’s June 2013 proposal to slash U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear stockpiles by another one-third below New START ceilings—to nearly 1,000 deployed strategic warheads.

On Dec. 25, Mikhail Ulyanov, director of the Russian Foreign Ministry's security and disarmament department said: “Now is the most inauspicious moment in the past 10-15 years to talk about further reductions.” Russian officials list a range of grievances that must be addressed before they will be willing to engage in a new round of formals arms reduction talks.

U.S.-Russian tensions have only worsened since Moscow’s meddling in Ukraine and it is unlikely that Presidents Obama and Putin can find the will or the way to engage in new, formal talks on further nuclear arms reductions and transparency measures regarding missile defense, which the Kremlin cites as one of the reasons why it does not want to engage in further disarmament negotiations with Washington.

As a result, new, informal but still verifiable approaches to reduce bloated U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles are in order.

Progress on reducing tactical nuclear weapons in Europe also remains stalled. NATO declared as part of its 2012 Deterrence and Defense Posture Review its intention to engage Russia in a process of confidence building on tactical nuclear weapons in order to pave the way for future reductions.

Even though the remaining 180 U.S. B61 nuclear gravity bombs that are still stored at bases in five NATO states are not necessary for the common defense of NATO, the alliance has said it will contemplate changes to the nuclear posture only on the basis of Russian reciprocity.

Unfortunately, the NATO bureaucracy has been unable to produce a common proposal for accounting and transparency for U.S. and Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. This situation allows Russia to maintain its far larger tactical nuclear weapons stockpile in the region.

Meanwhile, because nuclear weapons remain part of the military and security strategy of nuclear weapons states, nuclear weapons competition continues among the world’s nuclear-armed states.

As Hans Kristensen writes in the May issue of Arms Control Today:

“… all of the world’s nuclear weapons states are busy modernizing their arsenals, continue to reaffirm the importance of such weapons, and none of them appear willing to eliminate their nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future.”

The United States alone is scheduled to spend in excess of $355 billion over the next decade on maintaining, replacing, and upgrading its nuclear warheads and delivery systems.[4]

Of course, since the end of the Cold War, Russia and the United States have significantly reduced the overall size of their nuclear arsenals, but huge warhead and missile inventories remain. China, India, Pakistan—and possibly also Israel—are increasing their stockpiles.

North Korea continues to slowly improve its ballistic missile and fissile material production capabilities and may soon conduct its fourth nuclear test explosion, which could give it the know-how to deliver such weapons on missiles.

Most states recognize that nuclear testing is a vestige of the past and most have halted testing and signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Nevertheless, eight key states must still ratify before its entry into force—most importantly the United States. Despite strong statements of support from President Obama, the path to approval by the U.S. Senate is steep, and the White House has done little to begin the ascent.

Without action by the United States and China to ratify the CTBT, other states necessary for the treaty’s formal entry into force will be less inclined to accede to the treaty—and it is more likely that North Korea will conduct further nuclear tests.

Consequently, the door to the renewal of nuclear testing and new and more deadly types of nuclear weapons remains open. Positive action on the CTBT could help curb proliferation risks in South Asia, the Middle East, and on the Korean peninsula.

The current state of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation affairs is unsustainable.

As President Obama noted in 2009: “Our efforts to contain these dangers are centered on a global non-proliferation regime, but … we could reach the point where the center cannot hold.”

Frustration amongst the non-nuclear weapon state majority is running high.

The conferences on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons held in Oslo, Norway in 2013 and Nayarit, Mexico in February 2014 are a symptom of the growing impatience regarding the agonizingly slow pace of action by the nuclear-armed states to fulfill their disarmament obligations and commitments.

As the 2015 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference approaches, pressure to accelerate action on disarmament will only grow.

As government officials, parliamentarians, and civil society leaders, we must consider how to jumpstart action on meaningful, practical proposals that can challenge dangerous nuclear doctrines and reduce the risk of catastrophic nuclear war.

Slow Steps vs. Bans? A Reality Check

In response to the slow pace of progress, some states and some civil society organizations participating in the Oslo and Nayarit conferences say the “step-by-step approach,” as expressed in the 2010 NPT Review Conference has reached a dead end. They argue the time is right to pursue the negotiation of a convention to banning the possession and use of nuclear weapons. The core of the argument for a treaty banning nuclear weapons is that it would “stigmatize the weapons” and “also build the pressure for disarmament.”[5]

Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) states have proposed the negotiation of a convention banning the possession of nuclear weapons in the moribund Conference on Disarmament (CD).

Such efforts are well-intentioned, principled, and appealing in its simplicity. Unfortunately at this point in time, this approach would not likely do much to reduce the risk of nuclear war, slow nuclear buildups in certain regions, reduce the role of nuclear weapons in the military and security policies of possessor state and their allies, nor would it likely accelerate action on concrete steps toward the verifiable elimination of nuclear weapons.

Nevertheless, such an initiative clearly has the potential to increase pressure on some nuclear-armed states to accelerate action on nuclear disarmament, which is essential to achieving global zero.

Unfortunately, even if non-nuclear-weapon states were to adopt convention banning nuclear weapons outside the CD, it would not have the support and participation of the NPT nuclear weapons possessor states, which oppose such an effort.

It is more likely that the nuclear-armed states and their allies would likely dismiss and ignore a “ban treaty” as an instrument supported only by nonnuclear weapon states that accomplishes little more than the NPT already does.

Although a majority of the states attending the Nayrarit conference expressed support for an eventual ban on nuclear weapons, many states do not believe that the time is right for the pursuit of a convention banning the possession and use of nuclear weapons.

For their part, the leaders of the nuclear weapons states have thus far boycotted the Humanitarian Consequences Conferences. Some of them call the conferences a “distraction,” in part because they worry they are simply a prelude to an effort to begin negotiations on a convention leading to the elimination of nuclear weapons. Thus far, the conferences have focused on the consequences of nuclear weapons use.

The failure of the five original nuclear weapons states (a.k.a. the “P5”) to engage in the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons dialogue is counterproductive and a missed opportunity to advance progress toward common disarmament objectives.

In response the humanitarian impacts dialogue, the P5 have repeated their commitment to the so-called “step-by-step approach,” but unfortunately they have failed to explain how they propose to jumpstart progress.

In a statement issued April 15 from Beijing, the P5 states say they “are now more engaged than ever in regular interactions on disarmament, arms control, and non-proliferation issues.”

The statement also says: “the P5 intend to continue to seek progress on the step-by-step approach to nuclear disarmament, which is the only practical path to achieving a world without nuclear weapons and in keeping with our NPT obligations.”

The P5’s commitments to meet their disarmament obligations are welcome, as is their ongoing and hard work to create the conditions for further progress.

But absent concrete actions and creative, new initiatives to overcome longstanding problems between the United States and Russia, as well as more active leadership from the other nuclear-armed states, the P5 rhetoric simply does not represent a fulfillment of their NPT obligations.

Ways Forward

All people, including the leaders of the nations of the world, have a moral, legal, and international security imperative to come together around new and practical approaches to accelerate progress toward the elimination of the risk of global nuclear catastrophe. More than one path can and should be pursued simultaneously.

The conferences on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons are a useful and important venue for dialogue that should be welcomed by the nuclear-armed states. The conferences can play a powerful role in increasing awareness as well as political will on nuclear disarmament.

Rather than dismiss the next Humanitarian Consequences Conference scheduled for Vienna, Austria in December, the United States and the other nuclear-weapon states should actively participate in the meeting and support joint statements warning of the consequences of nuclear weapons use. The nuclear-armed states must also recognize that unless they propose and pursue practical, new ways to accelerate action on their disarmament commitments, frustration from the non-nuclear weapon state majority will increase.

Leading non-nuclear-weapon states must also better utilize the Humanitarian Consequences dialogue to develop and come together around proposals that more effectively challenge the dangerous nuclear doctrines of the nuclear weapons states.

As Ambassador Desra Percaya, Indonesia’s Representative to the United Nations, said in a speech in Washington D.C. in March: “…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 things – we will all suffer.  We must act now.”

While there are few quick solutions to stubborn nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation challenges, present circumstances demand that serious international leaders consider new approaches to accelerate the agonizingly slow pace of the so-called step-by-step approach.

The following are some ideas that could be pursued beginning this year.

1. Engage the P5 In a Discussion on the Impacts of Their Nuclear Weapons Use Plans

Before the 2015 NPT Review Conference, the nuclear weapon states should be called upon to explain the effects of their nuclear weapons use doctrines and war plans, if they were to be carried out, and explain how the use of such weapons would be consistent with international human rights and humanitarian law.

The June 2013 Report on the Nuclear Weapons Employment Strategy of the United States claims that “[t]he new guidance makes clear that all plans must also be consistent with the fundamental principles of the Law of Armed Conflict. Accordingly, plans will, for example, apply the principles of distinction and proportionality and see to minimize collateral damage to civilian populations and civilian objects. The United States will not intentionally target civilian populations or civilian objects.”

The NPT nuclear weapon states should, as part of their reporting responsibilities for the 2015 NPT Review Conference, report in detail on their nuclear weapons employment policies so that states parties can evaluate whether such practices are consistent with international humanitarian law.

Particularly if the P5 states do not participate in the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons, the United States and other nuclear-armed states should be called upon to explain the legal rationale and practical effects their nuclear weapons employment plans at the 2015 NPT Conference.

The discussion would, in the very least, highlight the importance of reducing the role and number of nuclear weapons, reinforce the norm against their use, and stimulate new thinking within the nuclear weapons states on the need to revise their nuclear weapons employment plans.

2. Explore a ban on the use of nuclear weapons

One implication of the catastrophic, global effects of even a relatively small number of nuclear weapons detonations is that nuclear weapons should not ever be used. As President Reagan once said: “a nuclear war cannot be won and must not be fought.”

One very logical way for responsible states to address the NPT Action plan goals of diminishing the role and significance of nuclear weapons in military and security doctrines and assuring nonnuclear-weapon states against the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons would be to explore options for a legally-binding instrument banning the use of nuclear weapons for any purpose.

This is the approach taken with respect to chemical weapons in 1925 when states agreed in the Geneva Protocols that their use "has been justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilized world" and that "this prohibition shall be universally accepted ... binding alike the conscience and the practice of nations.”

The negotiation of such a ban on the use of nuclear weapons could take place in a dedicated diplomatic forum, possibly to be established by the UNGA in 2015, beginning with the convening of a Group of Governmental Experts.

Even if the nuclear weapons states do not initially join in the negotiation or sign the instrument, the process itself and the final product would in the very least help to delegitimize nuclear weapons, promote a robust, serious debate on the nuclear use doctrines of the nuclear weapons possessor states, strengthen the legal and political barriers against their use, and help create the conditions for the elimination of all nuclear weapons.

Such an approach would, in my view, have a greater chance of winning broad, international support than a treaty banning the possession of nuclear weapons.

For many years, India has, in fact, supported a convention on the prohibition of the use or threat to use nuclear weapons under any circumstances.[6]

3. Steps to Accelerate Progress on Nuclear Disarmament.

With the progress toward most of the key steps outlined in the 2010 disarmament action plan at a near standstill, it is also essential that the nuclear-armed states consider, and the nonnuclear-weapon states push for, actions that can jumpstart the process. Such steps might include:

Accelerate Pace of New START Reductions: Even after New START, U.S. and Russian stockpiles will still far exceed any plausible deterrence requirements and the use of just a few nuclear weapons by any country would have catastrophic global consequences.

As a 2012 report by the U.S. Secretary of State’s International Security Advisory Board[7] suggests, with New START verification tools in place, further nuclear reductions need not wait for a formal follow-on treaty. President Obama, the report suggests, could announce he will accelerate the pace of reductions under New START to meet the treaty ceilings ahead of the 2018 implementation deadline.

So long as Russia takes reciprocal steps, Obama could announce or simply act to reduce U.S. force levels below the treaty’s ceiling of 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed strategic delivery vehicles. A reasonable target would be for both side to reduce their stockpiles to 1,000 deployed strategic warheads and 500 strategic delivery vehicles each.

Such an initiative could induce Moscow to build down rather than build up to U.S. strategic force levels, which currently exceed Russia’s by more than 275 deployed strategic launchers, and could allow both sides to trim the high cost of planned strategic force modernization.

Adjust Nuclear Readiness Posture of Some ICBMs: As a confidence-building measure, U.S. and Russian experts could commence technical discussions on verifiably reducing the alert status of an agreed portion of their respective stockpiles, beginning with a portion of their land-based intercontinental ballistic missile forces.

In 2008, president-elect Obama said: “Keeping nuclear weapons ready to launch on a moment’s notice is a dangerous relic of the Cold War. Such policies increase the risk of catastrophic accidents or miscalculation. I believe that we must address this dangerous situation—something that President Bush promised to do when he campaigned for president back in 2000, but did not do once in office. I will work with Russia to end such outdated Cold War policies in a mutual and verifiable way.”[8]

Capping the Arsenals of the Other Nuclear-Armed States: Nuclear disarmament is a global enterprise that requires leadership from all states, including China, France, and the United Kingdom, as well as states outside the NPT, specifically India and Pakistan, which continue to expand their fissile stocks and weapons holdings.

A realistic and pragmatic contribution to global nuclear disarmament would be for all other nuclear-armed states to exercise restraint by not increasing the overall size of their nuclear weapons stockpiles or increasing the size of their fissile material stockpiles, so long as the United States and Russia continue to make further progress in reducing all types of their nuclear weapons.

At their eighth ministerial meeting in Hiroshima on April 12, the foreign ministers of the ten-nation Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament Initiative[9] called on “those not yet engaged in nuclear disarmament efforts to reduce arsenals with the objective of their total elimination.”

Missile Defense Restraint and Cooperation: Despite the cancellation of phase IV of the European Phased Adaptive Approach, U.S. missile defense plans continue to complicate the nuclear arms reduction enterprise. The United States and Russia should resume and intensify U.S.-Russian talks to achieve verifiable measures to make missile defense capabilities more transparent, consider exchanges of data on technical parameters, and conduct regular joint exercises.

They should also explore options for a joint center for the surveillance and monitoring of missile threats and space objects.

Redouble Efforts In Support of the CTBT: Despite statements of support for ratification by President Barack Obama and senior administration officials, the path to approval by the Senate remains challenging due to a lack of political will and partisan divisions in Washington.

Ratification is only possible if President Obama decides to direct his administration to organize a “New START-like” ratification campaign with efforts peaking in 2015. So far, he has not done so. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller has recently pledged to step up public outreach in support of the treaty. The Obama administration’s goal and our goal should be to:

  • Continue to underscore the value of the CTBT in heading off proliferation in the Middle East, South Asia, and Northeast Asia;
  • Bolster CTBT outreach efforts and demonstrate the broad public and opinion-leader support that exists for the CTBT; and
  • Encourage Senators to agree to “reconsider” the CTBT in light of new information about the treaty.

Other states can take leadership on the CTBT, advance its entry into force, and bolster the nuclear nonproliferation regime.

Specifically, ratification by Israel, Egypt and Iran would reduce nuclear weapons-related security concerns in the region. It would also help create the conditions necessary for the realization of a Middle East Zone free of Nuclear and other Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Following a mid-March visit to Israel by CTBTO Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made clear that he considers the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to be of no use in the Middle East, the sources said, but by contrast Israel considers the CTBT to be “very significant,” is “proud” to have signed it, and “has never had a problem with the CTBT,” according to a report in The Times of Israel.

Iran was at one time an active participant in the CTBT negotiations and on September 24, 1996, Iran signed the treaty. Today, Iranian ratification and transmittal of data from international monitoring stations on its territory to the International Data Center in Vienna would help reduce concerns that its nuclear program could be used to develop and deploy deliverable nuclear warheads.

The Bottom Line

As President Obama said last year, “[S]o long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe. Complacency is not in the character of great nations.”

In the coming months and years, creative, bold approaches will be needed to overcome old and new obstacles to the long-running effort to reduce nuclear dangers.

[1] An April 1979 U.S. Arms Control Disarmament Agency report found that an exchange of U.S. and Soviet nuclear forces involving a total of approximately 18,000 strategic warheads would kill from 25-100 million people in both the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Under the scenario examined the population centers would not be targeted but would be within the range of effects of the weapons targeted against military and industrial targets. As a result, the 200 largest cities in each country would be destroyed and 80% of all cities with 25,000 people or more would be attacked by at least one nuclear weapon.

[2] The Medical Implications of Nuclear War, Steering Committee for the Symposium on the Medical Implications of Nuclear War, Fred Solomon and Robert Q. Marston, Editors. U.S. Institutes of Medicine, 1986.

[3] “The Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear War,” Ira Helfand, M.D., Arms Control Today, November 2013.

[4] “Nuclear Arsenal Costs to Rise, CBO Says,” by Tom Collina, Arms Control Today, January/February 2014.

[5] “The Case for a Ban Treaty,” from the Web site of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

[6] Statement of Amb. D.B. Venkatesh Varma, Permanent Representative of India to the Conference on Disarmament to the First Committee of the 68th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, October 18, 2013.

[7]International Security Advisory Board Report on Options for Implementing Additional Nuclear Force Reductions,” Nov. 27, 2012.

[8] “Arms Control Today 2008 Presidential Q&A: President-elect Barack Obama,” Arms Control Today, December, 2008.

[9] The group includes: Australia; Canada; Chile; Germany; Mexico; the Netherlands; Nigeria; the Philippines; Poland; Turkey; and the United Arab Emirates.