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Nuclear weapons are a humanitarian issue

‘An attack would be a decades-long humanitarian atrocity.’

Residents walk at the site of a building damaged by a Russian missile strike in Dnipro, Ukraine on 10 October. Russia's war appears to be entering a dangerous and unpredictable new phase. Mykola Synelnykov/REUTERS
Residents walk at the site of a building damaged by a Russian missile strike in Dnipro, Ukraine on 10 October. Russia's war appears to be entering a dangerous and unpredictable new phase.

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As the world faces an unprecedented level of nuclear threat following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, all countries must heed the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and join the movement to ban their use.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons have only escalated over the course of the war. There are currently no signs that Russia is actively preparing to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, according to Western intelligence officials. But with Russia facing setbacks, including retreats on several fronts, the war appears to be entering a dangerous and unpredictable new phase. 

Russia’s leadership has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to indiscriminately target civilian populations – most recently by unleashing a wave of missile strikes on Ukrainian cities following a blast targeting the symbolically and strategically important bridge connecting the illegally annexed Crimean Peninsula to Russia.

Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden recently said that the risk of nuclear “Armageddon” is at its highest level since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis – a statement experts say is either worryingly accurate or not alarmist enough. 

As Russian nuclear sabre-rattling has escalated, so too have threats of retaliation from US and NATO officials, as well as speculation from commentators about when the use of nuclear weapons may be considered, and even more concerningly, when it may be justified

North Korea also recently rejoined the fray by launching a barrage of missile tests aimed to show its ability to use nuclear weapons to hit South Korean and US targets. 

What is often lost in these geopolitical chess games are the basic facts: Any use of nuclear weapons would have catastrophic humanitarian consequences and constitute a grotesque violation of international humanitarian and human rights law. 

Consequences of a strike

Even a “small”, tactical nuclear weapon would cause a huge loss of life and devastating humanitarian crisis. Most Russian tactical nuclear weapons are believed to be in the 10-100 kiloton range. In comparison, the bombs that decimated the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 were about 15 and 21 kilotons respectively. 

These “small” nuclear weapons killed hundreds of thousands of people, and generations following have continued to suffer from diseases, including cancers and genetic defects. In Hiroshima, 90 percent of physicians and nurses were killed or injured, and 42 out of 45 hospitals were put out of service. 

Based on its experience attempting to help survivors in the aftermath of the bombings, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warns that there is no humanitarian response possible following a nuclear weapon detonation – and it advocates in the strongest possible terms for their elimination. 

In Kyiv, an estimated 41,000 people would be killed, and 150,000 more would be injured.

One of the most frightening aspects of the current moment is that no one – except perhaps for Putin himself – knows what a realistic scenario is when it comes to the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

So what would it likely look like? According to simulators like NukeMap, the detonation of a 15-kiloton nuclear weapon – the size of the bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima – over cities in Ukraine would kill tens of thousands of people instantaneously and result in hundreds of thousands of injuries. In Kyiv, an estimated 41,000 people would be killed, and 150,000 more would be injured. Medical professionals who survived the detonation would be overwhelmed and unable to cope. 

A recent ICAN study surveyed 10 major cities around the world and found that none of them could provide adequate assistance to survivors following a nuclear attack. No city, particularly one at war, has enough hospital beds free to accommodate hundreds of thousands of victims in an instant – let alone the specialised care facilities needed to treat people exposed to nuclear radiation. 

Ukraine’s cities are no different: Before the war, Ukraine had an average of 746 hospital beds per 100,000 people. In the days, months, and years following a nuclear attack, many more people would suffer and perish from radiation exposure and fallout. An attack would be a decades-long humanitarian atrocity, with the potential to escalate into total human destruction. 

Time for prohibition

The world has already seen enough of the use of nuclear weapons to understand the immense harm they cause. In addition to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, about 2,000 nuclear weapons have been tested in more than 60 locations, often on colonised or Indigineous lands where civilian populations and official personnel were given scarce protection. 

Sue Coleman-Haseldine of Kokatha Nation, a survivor of British nuclear testing in Australia, says, “Even 60 years later, babies are dying of really complicated defects that there is no explanation for.” 

Due to these drastic consequences, 122 countries – working in tandem with survivors of nuclear weapons use and testing, civil society organisations, and international organisations – launched the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) in 2017.   

The TPNW prohibits the use, testing, and threat of the use of nuclear weapons and commits countries to support survivors and clean up the toxic, radioactive legacy of nuclear testing. In comparison, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), adopted in 1968, only aimed to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. 

The five original nuclear-armed countries (the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China) that are party to the NPT have made little to no progress towards their commitments to pursue disarmament during the past five decades. When they last met in August, NPT countries failed for the second time since 2010 to come to an agreement on further implementation of the treaty because Russia blocked the final outcome document due to its references to Ukrainian nuclear power plants.

“We were not content to be victims… We rose up. We shared our stories of survival. We said: humanity and nuclear weapons cannot coexist.” 

The TPNW was created specifically because of the NPT’s failure to produce nuclear disarmament. The treaty is seen as a way to break the logjam and move the world towards the abolition of these weapons by stigmatising and delegitimising their possession. 

Support for the TPNW is growing. The treaty officially entered into force in 2021 and held its first major meeting this June, adopting a landmark political declaration and 50-point plan of action to implement the treaty. On the sidelines of the recent UN General Assembly, five more countries signed and two more ratified the treaty, bringing the number of signatories so far to 91, with 68 ratifications. 

The TPNW is a beacon of hope in a bleak international security environment. It is a reaffirmation that the majority of the world’s countries seek to pursue their security through the elimination of nuclear weapons – not through nuclear armament. Just as biological and chemical weapons were banned under international conventions as a first step towards their stigmatisation and near-elimination, nuclear weapons are now banned under international law as a step towards ending them for good. 

As Setsuko Thurlow, who survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima when she was 13 years old, said when she accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) in 2017: “We were not content to be victims… We rose up. We shared our stories of survival. We said: humanity and nuclear weapons cannot coexist.” 

In this moment of great peril, it is time for humanitarians around the world to push for nuclear abolition through the universalisation of the TPNW. 

Edited by Eric Reidy.

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