Michael KreponThe Humanitarian Pledge, Nuclear Weapons, and the Laws of War

Dear Readers of ACW: I have posted the perspectives of others in this space on whether the explosive use of nuclear weapons can be reconciled with the laws of war. This discussion is useful, in my view, because it clarifies that the continued abundance of nuclear weapons held by the United States and the Russian Federation is indefensible except on the most abstract and arcane basis of nuclear deterrence. This discussion is especially timely with the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki just around the corner. Missing from this debate until now has been a perspective from the Humanitarian Initiative. I am grateful to Ira Helfand, Co-President of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, for rectifying this omission. Ira’s piece, below, is titled “The ‘Legal Gap’ is a Yawning Chasm.”

Dan Joyner’s piece on this blog several months ago argues that while there is a gap in international law concerning nuclear weapons, the gap isn’t that big. That is a defensible claim if we are talking about international law on the explosive use of nuclear weapons, where the World Court has ruled that such use is illegal in almost all cases. The Court, however, chose not to rule on the “extreme” case where the survival of a state is in question, and no other international agreement, including the NPT, explicitly prohibits nuclear weapons because of their inherently unacceptable consequences.

As a result, the legal gap regarding everything other than the explosive use of nuclear weapons is more than large enough for the nuclear-armed states to maintain the full range of practices related to possession, modernization, and operational readiness. The gap in international law concerning the possession of nuclear weapons is actually a yawning chasm. There is simply no legal prohibition on the states that currently possess these weapons, and the usual security-based arguments that have framed the nuclear disarmament debate until recently leave no room for prohibition as an option. The Humanitarian Pledge seeks to address this massive gap, and a Nuclear Ban Treaty will close it.

It is critically important that we focus on the question of possession from a medical/humanitarian point of view. The undisputed evidence about the consequences of nuclear weapons makes it clear that they are simply too dangerous for us to permit their existence.

Defenders of the continued possession of nuclear weapons usually base their arguments on deterrence and the apparently faith-based belief that deterrence will not fail. In fact, deterrence has failed already on numerous occasions. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, neither side wanted a nuclear war, but both stumbled in the dark for days, planning to use nuclear weapons if the other side crossed red lines which they could not possibly know existed. On several occasions, both Moscow and Washington prepared to launch nuclear war in the mistaken belief that it was already under nuclear attack. On each of these occasions, dumb luck, rather than wise nuclear policy, kept us from destroying human civilization.

In reality, nuclear-armed states do not maintain their arsenals purely to deter nuclear attack from their enemies. We use the term “explosive use” of nuclear weapons to emphasize an important point. No nuclear-armed state has detonated a nuclear weapon over an enemy state since the US atomic bombing of Nagasaki, but possessor states use them all the time to project national power and to bully the rest of the world.

The United States, for example, threatened to use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear China during the Korean War, during the Vietnam War, and during the Iranian Revolution in 1978. Most recently, the US refused to take the “nuclear option” off the table during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Russia has introduced the possibility of nuclear weapons use during the crisis in Ukraine; the French president has suggested he might use them in response to a terrorist attack; and India and Pakistan talk openly about their nuclear weapons while engaging in all-too-frequent armed conflicts. This history certainly supports Dan’s assertion that many situations look like nails to the hammer-holding nuclear-armed states, which are clearly willing to use their arsenals and do not appear to understand the consequences that will follow.

The Humanitarian Initiative disrupts the status quo and the rationale behind it in three specific ways.

First, it reframes the discussion by insisting that the inherent nature of nuclear weapons and their consequences become the focal point for the nuclear disarmament process. Medical, environmental, and humanitarian evidence about consequences has led to prohibiting and eliminating entire classes of weapons that are far less devastating in their effects than nuclear weapons. In the course of negotiating the treaties banning chemical and biological weapons, antipersonnel landmines, and cluster munitions, the security-based arguments for keeping them or delaying their elimination were raised and rejected.

Second, the Humanitarian Initiative gives equal weight to everyone’s security, and exposes the fact that nuclear weapons in the hands of some states endanger all states, whether or not they have the weapons themselves or are participants in the conflict in which they are used. Data developed over the last decade, and discussed at length at the Humanitarian Impact conferences, show that even a very limited use of nuclear weapons will cause catastrophic climate disruption. A war employing less than 0.5% of the world’s current nuclear arsenal would drop temperatures across the globe 1.30 to 20 C and cause catastrophic declines in food production, triggering a global famine that would put two billion people at risk and threaten to end modern civilization. Truly these weapons need to be seen as suicide bombs and those who possess them as suicide bombers. The Humanitarian Initiative leaves no other way to look at them.

Third, the Humanitarian Initiative adds a much-needed element of urgency. The nuclear-armed states have stalled and backtracked and explained away their failure to comply with their disarmament obligations for decades. As Patricia Lewis explained persuasively to the Open-Ended Working Group when it met in Geneva in May, when the consequences are so extreme that our ability to recover is in doubt, the risk of incurring those consequences must be brought to zero or near-zero as quickly as possible.

The non-nuclear-weapons states increasingly understand this reality. One hundred thirty-nine of them have either formally joined the Humanitarian Pledge or voted to support it at the UN. In growing numbers they are working for a Ban Treaty as the next step towards the complete elimination of these weapons, and the General Assembly will almost certainly establish a forum to negotiate such a treaty this fall. The proponents—including a clear majority of states, civil society campaigners working with ICAN, and international organizations including the leading global associations of doctors, nurses, and public health professionals—believe the treaty will pressure the nuclear-armed states to move in this direction.

Whether they can overcome the dangerous determination of the nuclear-armed states to retain their arsenals is not clear. But the effort to ban nuclear weapons is the most hopeful development since the end of the Cold War and those of us who work in the US need to figure out how best to support it.


  1. Steven Starr (History)

    Thank you for this intelligent and thoughtful analysis. Consider also the peer-reviewed scientific predictions concerning the consequences of the detonation of the strategic nuclear arsenals in conflict. Nuclear firestorms ignited by the launch-ready US and Russian strategic arsenals would cause many tens of millions of tons (up to 180 million tons) of smoke to rise above cloud level, into the stratosphere, where high winds would quickly spread it around the Earth.

    A dense, intensely hot global stratospheric smoke layer would form, which would lead to the destruction of Earth’s protective ozone layer, and which would block enough warming sunlight from reaching Earth’s surface to produce Ice Age weather conditions in a matter of weeks. Temperatures in Iowa and central Eurasia would fall below freezing every day for one to three years; the smoke layer would remain for at least a decade, as would the nuclear winter it produced. For a detailed explanation, see http://www.nucleardarkness.org/warconsequences/hundredfiftytonessmoke/

    It would be too cold to grow food crops for ten years or longer. Most humans and animals would starve from global nuclear famine. This is what awaits us all if we do not abolish the 15.000 nuclear weapons that sit in the global nuclear arsenals, waiting for some fool or madman to start a nuclear war.

    One minor problem with your article; you state that a war fought with “less than 0.5% of the world’s current nuclear arsenal would drop temperatures across the globe 1.30 to 20 C”; you mean 2.0 C rather than 20 C. A large nuclear war is predicted to drop average surface temperatures by 7C or 8 C.

    Steven Starr

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Thank you for clarifying that a regional war would drop global temperatures by up to 2.0 C rather than 20 C. A regional nuclear war has been estimated to lead to starvation death of 1-2 billion people, but not everyone on earth.

      In a U.S.-Russia full-scale nuclear war, your link above states: “Hundreds of large cities in the U.S., Europe and Russia are engulfed in massive firestorms which burn urban areas of tens or hundreds of thousands of square miles/kilometers…. The smoke blocks up to 70% of the sunlight from reaching the Earth’s surface in the Northern Hemisphere, and up to 35% of the sunlight is also blocked in the Southern Hemisphere…. There would be rapid cooling of more than 20°C over large areas of North America and of more than 30°C over much of Eurasia, including all agricultural regions…. Unable to grow food, most humans would starve to death…. Even humans living in shelters equipped with many years worth of food, water, energy, and medical supplies would probably not survive in the hostile post-war environment.”

      From the above scenario, it appears there could be a 99%-100% mortality rate for people living in the Northern Hemisphere. Have you or your colleagues ascertained whether it may still be possible to grow food in the Southern Hemisphere or Equatorial region? If so, has anyone estimated how many people might be able to survive this grim scenario?

  2. Gregory Matteson (History)

    I think it’s worth noting that neither the U.S. nor Russia, the largest holders of nuclear weapons, are parties to either the anti-personnel land mine ban nor the cluster bomb ban (actually a limitation treaty rather than a ban), and both countries are currently supplying cluster munitions to clients that are using them in ongoing conflicts. How do we get the big guys to play nice?

  3. Dan Joyner (History)

    This is an excellent piece and I have no disagreement with it. I have always been generally supportive of the humanitarian initiative’s aims and basic arguments. Any reservations I have had have only related to strategy and process and likelihood of success. I recently reviewed a piece by Tom Sauer over at my blog that I think is the best proposal for process related strategy I’ve seen. You can see my comments on the piece here: https://armscontrollaw.com/2016/04/18/time-to-outlaw-nuclear-weapons/

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