The humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons
Articles and op-ed
14 February 2014
This week, representatives from around the world, including Australia, will meet at a conference in Mexico to discuss the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons.
Countless studies paint a terrible picture of the impact on humanity of a large-scale nuclear exchange, including through longer-term effects on human health, the environment, our climate and the global economy. The images and stories of those who suffered in Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain haunting reminders of why a nuclear war should never be fought.
That is why under successive governments, Australia has long and actively supported nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation and worked tirelessly toward the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.
But the stark reality today remains that as long as nuclear weapons exist, many countries, including Australia, will continue to rely on nuclear deterrence to help prevent nuclear attack or coercion. Indeed, the horrendous humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons are precisely why deterrence has worked.
Meeting this existential challenge needs sustained, practical steps and trust-building. It needs high-level political will, most crucially from states with nuclear weapons, including those outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Some will seek to use this week’s conference to push for a ban on nuclear weapons. Their argument ‘to ban the bomb’ may be emotionally appealing, but the reality is that disarmament cannot be imposed this way. Just pushing for a ban would divert attention from the sustained, practical steps needed for effective disarmament. The global community needs to engage those countries that have chosen to acquire nuclear weapons and address the security drivers behind their choices. They are the only ones that can take the necessary action to disarm.
We have seen progress. The five NPT nuclear weapon states – the US, Russia, UK, France and China – have committed to a world free of nuclear weapons through the NPT, the ‘grand bargain’ between the nuclear weapons states and those forgoing nuclear weapons: disarmament in exchange for non-proliferation .
The US and Russia have negotiated arsenal reductions. The UK and France have also announced their own unilateral cuts. President Obama announced last June that the US had reduced the role of nuclear weapons in its strategic planning and was willing to negotiate further cuts. I urge the other nuclear-armed states to follow this lead.
But while there are now fewer nuclear weapons than when the NPT was signed in 1970, more states have them and some states’ arsenals are still growing. So there is still a long way to go. We must keep up the pressure.
Australia will continue to push hard for the practical steps and political will needed to bring about the elimination of nuclear weapons. We were instrumental in pursuing a comprehensive ban on nuclear tests, and have campaigned ever since to bring that treaty into effect. We remain focused on efforts to cap the production of fissile material used to make nuclear weapons.
Most of the steps the nuclear-armed states need to take are included in the 64-point Action Plan agreed at the 2010 NPT Review Conference. We are working with Japan, Mexico and other partners through the 12-nation Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI) to take forward that Action Plan. NPDI Ministers will meet in Hiroshima in April to discuss further practical steps towards elimination of nuclear weapons.
We are pressing the nuclear-armed states to provide greater transparency for their nuclear arsenals. We are encouraging them to reduce further the role of nuclear weapons in their strategic doctrines. We are pushing them to de-alert their nuclear forces to help lower the risk of inadvertent use. We are seeking further reductions in their nuclear arsenals that are verifiable and irreversible. We are working towards a successful 2015 NPT Review Conference that further strengthens the disarmament and non-proliferation framework.
Ultimately, we need to create an environment where all countries, including the nuclear-armed states, believe themselves to be more secure without nuclear weapons than with them. Only when the nuclear-armed states accept that as an objective fact –based not just on humanitarian but also security arguments – will we be able to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons.
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