Banning Nuclear Weapons

Banning Nuclear Weapons



Introduction and Executive Summary

The humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapon use are more destructive than those of any other weapon developed throughout history.  The main immediate effects are intense light and heat, a massive blast wave, and ionising radiation. Matter is vaporised.  People are blinded.  Blast effects pull apart buildings, crush people to death and cause hurricane force winds that hurl cars and masonry.  The heat burns through skin and sets the landscape ablaze.  Radiation and radioactive fallout cause sickness, that breaks down the organs of those that survived the blast.  The effects cover wide areas.

Humanitarian organisations such as the UN relief agencies and the ICRC have made it clear that they would not have the capacity to respond meaningfully to the impacts of a nuclear weapon explosion.

The use of a single nuclear weapon in an urban area would cause hundreds of thousands of casualties and massive social and economic destruction.  The use of multiple nuclear weapons could have longer-term consequences on a global level, with recent research showing that soot from massive firestorms could cause climate disruption that could affect food production worldwide, causing large-scale famine.


This paper argues for the agreement of a treaty banning nuclear weapons.  It argues that the humanitarian consequences of a nuclear weapon attack make it vital to avoid their use, and this in turn makes the elimination of nuclear weapons an imperative.  Existing multilateral instruments and approaches provide building blocks towards a prohibition, but currently too much special status and authority is given to the states that are armed with nuclear weapons.  In order to delegitimise nuclear weapons within those countries, and so take the next necessary step towards the elimination of these weapons, committed states need to develop and agree an instrument that makes the illegality of nuclear weapons explicit.  This can be done even if the nuclear-armed states will not participate.

Such an initiative would be coherent with the obligation of Article 6 of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to pursue in good faith negotiations relating to nuclear disarmament.

Such an initiative would allow states within existing nuclear weapon free zones (NWFZs) to stand together in a common instrument that asserts more strongly their rejection of nuclear weapons.  With treaty text banning the use, production and possession of nuclear weapons, with acceptance by the international community that states can adopt such a position even if their neighbours do not follow suit, and with applause from the international community for this contribution to international security, the NWFZs stand as clear building blocks for a stronger prohibition regime – one that binds this existing body of support together, reinforcing the existing treaties and providing an open architecture into which any committed individual state can accede.

Finally, a ban treaty would put nuclear weapons, where they belong, on the same footing as the other weapons of mass destruction.  As with treaties banning chemical and biological weapons, the prohibition of nuclear weapons would precede their elimination, with the treaty providing a framework for the subsequent stockpile destruction.  Whilst the process of developing and agreeing such an instrument may seem daunting, the task in hand could be seen as little more than correcting a legal anomaly that has been allowed to persist, dangerously and for far too long.

In November 2011, the Council of Delegates of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement appealed to all states “to pursue in good faith and conclude with urgency and determination negotiations to prohibit the use of and completely eliminate nuclear weapons through a legally binding international agreement, based on existing commitments and international obligations.”[1] Even amongst the armed forces of major powers, there are growing questions about the utility of nuclear weapons in today’s world, discussions that further serve to devalue them. In 2012, a growing number of governments endorsed international statements arguing that due to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences their use would cause, moves should be taken to outlaw nuclear weapons.[2] This is coupled with a renewed sense of confidence within civil society under the banner of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which is drawing both upon the decades of work towards nuclear disarmament as well as upon more recent efforts to prohibit certain weapons and to mobilise NGOs in coalitions around the world.[3]  There is an opportunity within reach to take this crucial next step towards nuclear disarmament.

[1] ‘Working towards the elimination of nuclear weapons’, resolution of the Council of Delegates of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, Geneva, Switzerland, 26 November 2011.

[2] See the Joint Statement on the humanitarian dimension of nuclear disarmament, delivered by Switzerland, 2 May 2012, on behalf of 16 countries at the First Session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2015 Review Conference to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons ( and the Joint Statement on the humanitarian dimension of nuclear disarmament, delivered by Switzerland, 22 October 2012, on behalf of 34 countries at the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly First Committee (

[3] See the website of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons:

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