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Foreword to Viewing Nuclear Weapons through a Humanitarian Lens

Although the number of nuclear weapons in the world has fallen dramatically since the Cold War, more than two decades after it ended there are still approximately 17,000 of these arms in the arsenals of states.

The detonation of even a single nuclear weapon, whether intentional or accidental, could cause catastrophic short and longer-term consequences for human beings, their societies and the environment. Such a detonation would probably have lasting, global implications.

Recently, the notion of examining the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use has begun to gain renewed attention, along with the higher political profile given to the continued dangers nuclear weapons pose. Statements of concern about these human consequences range from United States President Barack Obama’s speech in Prague on 5 April 2009 to the outcome document of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty’s Review Conference in 2010. In November 2011, the international Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement sounded the alarm about the immense suffering that would result from the detonation of nuclear weapons. The Movement noted with concern the worrying lack of any adequate international response capacity to assist the victims. In addition, there is accumulating scientific work indicating that the consequences of even small-scale detonation of nuclear weapons would be more serious than previously widely thought.

The consequences of a nuclear detonation are relevant to practitioners in such diverse fields as health services, development, environment, finance, and emergency preparedness. Yet when my colleagues and I looked around for a forum in which to engage on these questions, we found that there was no such arena. That is why Norway held a Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in Oslo in March 2013, and to invite a wide-range of stakeholders including states, international humanitarian actors such as the Red Cross Movement and United Nations agencies, civil society organizations, and other experts.

The Oslo Conference was a success. It took debates on nuclear weapons out of the somewhat traditional and institutionalized arenas that already exist. I believe that we succeeded in reframing the issue of nuclear weapons by introducing the humanitarian impacts and humanitarian concerns at the very centre of the discourse. Taking that approach, it becomes clear that this is everybody’s concern and that it is equally legitimate for nuclear and non-nuclear states alike to care about this issue. The Oslo Conference reminded us in very sharp terms that these weapons exist. We cannot approach them through a strategy of denial: they exist, hence they can be used. We have to think about the unthinkable and raise awareness of this danger.

The 128 states represented in Oslo expressed their shared desire to see a world free from nuclear weapons. That is not a new goal, and there are different possible paths to reaching it. Some believe in mutual negotiations in good faith; some in regional agreements. Some believe in new legal instruments, like a convention, to ban nuclear weapons. This was not the subject of the Oslo Conference, but I do believe that the conference introduced new knowledge, prompted some fresh thinking, and injected a renewed sense of urgency into the international nuclear weapons discourse. That is why I was happy that Mexico said it would host a conference in early 2014 to build upon what occurred in Oslo.

Overall, I feel there is a clear need to look at the issues around nuclear weapons from different angles, including for policy makers to be continually reminded of the human impacts the use of these have. Together, these perspectives could provide glimpses vital to finding a way through current impasses. The Oslo Conference and this publication both contribute to this purpose. The chapters in this book provide information and analysis from diverse perspectives that complement and indeed extend aspects of the Oslo Conference discourse.

It is in that spirit of further developing the discourse around the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons that I am pleased to contribute this foreword. It also marks a fruitful decade of partnership between the Government of Norway and UNIDIR on research and improved policy thinking related to disarmament as humanitarian action.

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Read more at the Unidir's website.

 

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