Peter Low

2015 may prove a significant year in the long struggle to eliminate nuclear weapons. It is 70 years since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is a review conference of the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty). And the matter has again been placed before the International Court of Justice.

In December I was in Vienna, attending a large intergovernmental conference hosted by the Austrian government, and the associated “civil society” event organized by ICAN (the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons). I was impressed by a new energy in this debate: hundreds of NGO people, often young, are working to abolish nuclear weapons; most of the 158 government delegations that attended have similar hopes; and various influential nations (e.g Austria, Mexico and Norway) are putting pressure on the nuclear-armed states. The US and UK delegations were very much on the defensive. New Zealand put on a good showing, asking by what definition “security” is enhanced by their bombs. Russia and France were conspicuously absent (I went as a delegate of a French NGO).

One crucial change has been the re-framing of the discourse. Whereas these weapons have usually been discussed in terms of (unprovable) deterrence doctrines or the need to prevent proliferation to “rogue states”, the focus shifted in 2013-14 to the humanitarian aspects of the question – the vast and indiscriminate suffering that could (undisputably) be caused by estimated 16000 warheads in existence. There is even talk also of the wider consequences – on environment, infrastructure, food security, climate, development, social cohesion and the global economy. Even 100 small nuclear explosions could result in global famine. In view of this, the international community is disputing the justifications used by the nuclear states, and insisting more strongly that these weapons reduce the security of everyone. The international Red Cross, which since 2010 has taken a strong line, is now saying out loud that no emergency services can cope with nuclear explosions.

But didn’t the “balance of terror” keep us safe through the Cold War? Actually, evidence of accidents, flashpoints and close calls shows that there were several times when humankind was lucky to escape a nuclear exchange between 1960 and 1990. But aren’t there fewer warheads now? True, yet we face increased dangers: more nuclear states (nine currently known), more widespread fissile materials and knowledge of bomb-making, more ruthless terrorist groups keen to obtain them, and greater risks of cyber-attack on weapons-systems.

Besides, the old risks of accidental, mistaken, unauthorized or intentional use of nuclear weapons persist, due to the vulnerability of control networks to human error, the maintaining of nuclear arsenals on high levels of alert, and their ongoing modernization Even if the probability of disaster remains low, the catastrophic consequences of a nuclear weapon detonation mean that the risks are unacceptable. And they increase over time. So the only proper solution is abolition – and the path to that end is outlawing and stigmatization.

Doesn’t international law ban them already? No, to quote one expert: “It strangles the beast from many directions, but it does not strike at its heart.” Outlawing them will require a new legal instrument, similar to those in place already for chemical and biological weapons. Many in Vienna favour a nuclear weapons convention, and hope that a timeline for this will emerge from the forthcoming NPT review (April-May in New York). Will the “Permanent Five” cooperate with progress to such an agreement? Or will they be called “rogue nations” for their failure to honour the NPT clause requiring them to negotiate the elimination of their weapons? Perhaps we need to be patient: they have ignored that clause for only 45 years!

A different approach is being taking by the Marshall Islands, apparently unwilling to wait for a new convention. In a breath-taking move, this mini-state (north of the Solomons, formerly a victim of US nuclear tests) has lodged nine lawsuits in the International Court of Justice, targeting the nine nuclear nations and alleging that they have breached existing law, especially the law of treaties. I sincerely hope these cases get past the procedural stages this year.


REIKO YAMADA (A hibakusha, nuclear survivors) – Japan’s remaining hibakusha  hope to live to see these weapons abolished.

You can sign an abolitionist petition at

The ICAN website is

You can follow the NPT review also on or or

To follow the Marshall Islands case, visit