The site of North Korea’s three underground detonations, annotated by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization. Photo: Google Earth via CTBTO

The site of North Korea’s three underground detonations, annotated by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization. Photo: Google Earth via CTBTO

North Korea has carried out its third nuclear weapon test, despite warnings from the UN Security Council, triggering widespread condemnation. The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called the test “deplorable” and a “clear and grave violation of the relevant UN security council resolutions”. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) has said that the test “highlights the urgency for all countries, including those without nuclear weapons, to start negotiations to outlaw and eliminate these weapons”.

The test was condemned by a number of states including nuclear-armed states.

–  China’s Foreign Minister said China was “strongly dissatisfied and resolutely opposed” to the test

–  France’s President said that it “condemns [the test] in the strongest terms

–  Russia’s Foreign Minister said it “decisively condemned” the testing and called on North Korea to “abandon its nuclear arms programme”

–  The UK’s Foreign Secretary William Hague said that he “strongly condemned” the test and called on the UN security council to provide a “robust response”.

Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Norway, South Korea, Sweden, and the United States are among other states that have also issued public statements responding to the nuclear test.

Representatives at the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation condemned the test, and NATO described the test as an “irresponsible act”.

The development, stockpiling, and testing of nuclear weapons should be a major concern to all states, not only because of the threat to national and international security posed by further proliferation of nuclear weapons, but also because continued existence of these weapons bears the risk of nuclear weapon use or accidental detonation.

Despite the catastrophic consequences that nuclear weapon use would undoubtedly cause, so far international agreements on nuclear weapons have not provided adequate frameworks to achieve a global ban on nuclear weapons.

Up until now, discussions around nuclear weapons have focused on national security and deterrence, which have given nuclear weapons a sense of legitimacy and a value for the political and military elites in certain countries. By some states acquiring nuclear weapons and arguing that they are essential for national security, it places a certain value on them, and provides an incentive – albeit irrational, for other states to also acquire nuclear weapons.

A reframing of the debate on nuclear weapons is needed to shift the focus to the devastating humanitarian impact of these weapons. Renewed engagement with the evidence on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons amassed following nuclear weapon use in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and nuclear weapon tests elsewhere, can be used to challenge assertions made over the legitimacy and necessity for the continued existence of nuclear weapons.

In less than a month’s time, more than a hundred countries are expected to participate in the upcoming Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in Oslo from 4-5 March 2013. This will be the first time that states will gather to address the issue of nuclear weapons through a humanitarian lens. In the run up to this meeting a number of publications are being developed that look at the humanitarian aspects of nuclear weapons, including recently issued publications by UNIDIR and Reaching Critical Will, and a video presentation by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.

It is hoped that following this important conference states will begin work to effectively prevent the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, most importantly by commencing negotiations on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons.

Whilst some may continue to argue that nuclear weapons are essential for their own security, devaluing and delegitimizing these weapons through an international treaty that bans nuclear weapons will set a strong international standard at which future decisions regarding nuclear weapons must be measured. Such a norm will be an important barrier against nuclear weapon use, and lay the foundations for their complete elimination.



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