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Nuclear Energy - Nuclear Weapons

U.N. Urged to Ban Nuke Strikes Against Cities

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (centre) speaks at the Seventh Ministerial Meeting of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), held on the margins of the General Assembly general debate in September 2014. Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

UNITED NATIONS, Dec 10 2014 (IPS) - Civil society groups are urging the U.N. General Assembly to pass a resolution declaring nuclear strikes on cities to be a clear-cut violation of international humanitarian law.

At the Dec. 8-9 Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, supporters of the proposed resolution argued that after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is undeniable that the explosion of a nuclear weapon on a populated area would engender destruction beyond acceptable human limits.

“The maximalist demand of a complete ban on weapons, and the 'incremental steps' towards disarmament are both jammed. Will advancing IHL help both of these processes?" -- Jonathan Granoff

“There are over 6,000 cities already members of our campaign called Cities Are Not Targets! declaring it illegal to target cities with nuclear weapons,” said Aaron Tovish, campaign director for Mayors for Peace.

“This initiative to have the bodies of the United Nations explicitly outlaw such conduct is of great value,” he said.

Proponents argue that just raising the issue would bring a dose of reality into the debate about the threat of nuclear weapons, and that a GA resolution calling on the Security Council to affirm the illegality of using nuclear weapons on populated areas under international humanitarian law (IHL) could be a real, practical step to advance nuclear disarmament.

Jonathan Granoff, head of the Global Security Institute, said that other uses also violate international law but there should be no question that destroying a city is illegal.

Granoff told IPS, “Pending obtaining a legal ban, a convention, or a framework of instruments leading to nuclear disarmament, which is required by the promises made by the nuclear weapons states under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the unanimous ruling of the International Court of Justice, this step would make us all a bit safer and downgrade the political status of these horrible devices.”

Is a resolution necessary?

In recent years, it has become apparent that failure to fulfill promised progress on nuclear disarmament has been caused by deeply entrenched security policies that do not seem likely to change.

U.S. President Barack Obama and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have raised hopes of further nuclear disarmament, yet this has flown in the face of a reality in which nuclear weapons states continue to either modernise or expand their arsenals, or do both.

Nuclear states agree that the warheads are bad (often recognising a legal responsibility to disarm), yet critics note that in an act of impressive cognitive dissonance, these states simultaneously advance that they are good because they are necessary for deterrence purposes and strategic stability, the disturbance of which could be bad.

Thus, while they exist, so these states say, it is good to rely on them.

China, Russia, the UK, U.S. and France have agreed they have a legal responsibility to disarm, based on the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970.

India has called for negotiations in the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva on a universal, nondiscriminatory, treaty to eliminate nuclear weapons and Pakistan has said it would join such a process. Israel has said nothing.

In 2000, 13 steps were agreed upon to move towards disarmament – and then in 2010, 64 additional commitments were made by 188 states.

Yet despite the non-realisation of these incremental moves towards disarmament, the nuclear weapons states maintain that any other attempt to delegitimise, ban, and eliminate the warheads is a distraction.

Proponents of the resolution like Granoff see it as a step forward towards extrication from the situation.

Granoff told IPS, “The maximalist demand of a complete ban on weapons, and the ‘incremental steps’ towards disarmament are both jammed. Will advancing IHL help both of these processes? Will it provide impetus to get a ban on testing, fissile materials, and more cuts of arsenals?”

Criticism of the proposal

The proposal is likely to face robust criticism from nuclear weapons states and those under the “umbrella of deterrence” (those states allied to a nuclear power that claim to be protected by affiliation).

Speaking to IPS, former deputy judge advocate general, U.S. Air Force Major General Charles Dunlap Jr. expressed reservations about the advancement of such a resolution.

Dunlap remains unconvinced on the question of whether there is an authoritative prohibition on the use of nuclear weapons in IHL, saying, “It sounds as if Mr. Granoff assumes that IHL applicable to the use of conventional weapons would automatically apply to the use of nuclear weapons. This is incorrect.

“In fact, even some of the countries which are parties (as the U.S. and some other nuclear powers are not) to Additional Protocol 1 of the Geneva Conventions (which contains targeting rules) made an express reservation to it to the effect that it did not govern the use of nuclear weapons.”

Alyn Ware of the World Future Council disputes the claim that IHL does not apply to nuclear weapons. “The International Court of Justice affirmed in 1996 that the laws of warfare, and in particular international humanitarian law, apply to nuclear weapons. The Nuclear Weapon States accepted this, and reaffirmed in the final document of the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference of 2010 “the need for all States at all times to comply with applicable international law, including international humanitarian law.”’

Ware argues that IHL renders any use of nuclear weapons illegal. “A nuclear weapon has a much larger blast impact than conventional weapons. The blast impact can’t be contained to a specific military target. If a nuclear detonation is far away from populated areas, some might argue that such use could be consistent with IHL, even though there would still be widespread impact from radioactive fallout… but you can’t even make this argument when a nuclear weapon is targeted on a military asset in or near a populated area.”

Ware supports the proposal, but adds that there are other complementary initiatives to strengthen the taboo against nuclear weapons-use that are also gaining traction, such as an affirmation of the practice of non-use (advanced by President Obama) and a global agreement prohibiting use.

IPS spoke to former Senior Political Affairs Officer in the Office of Ms. Angela Kane, the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs at the United Nations, Randy Rydell, who said, “The nuclear powers will almost certainly try to deal with this humanitarian campaign by diverting it onto the track of “arms control” — namely, we need to improve the safety and security of nukes and “keep them out of the wrong hands”.

Both arguments divert attention from the risks inherent in such weapons, in anybody’s “hands”.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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  • Alyn Ware

    An excellent proposal. However, I
    was misquoted in the article. My response to former deputy judge
    advocate general, U.S. Air Force Major General Charles Dunlap Jr. was
    that the International Court of Justice advisory opinion affirmed that
    the threat or use of nuclear weapons was
    generally illegal… it did not say that there would be a threat or use
    that would be legal – only that it could make no conclusive
    determination in the extreme case of self-defense when the very survival
    of a State is at stake. I argued that this puts the onus on nuclear
    States to prove that a threat or use of nuclear weapons in such a
    situation would be exempt from the general affirmation of illegality.
    There is no question that targeting populated areas be illegal even in
    the extreme circumstance. There is a very remote possibility that a
    nuclear weapon use far away from populated areas might not violate
    international humanitarian law, but the ICJ noted that the nuclear-armed
    States were not able to prove this. Indeed, in considering the
    catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear tests far from
    populated areas, the ICJ concluded that ‘The destructive power of
    nuclear weapons cannot be contained in time or space.’

    I argued that the ICJ did not support Dunlap’s argument that the
    Additional Protocol 1 of the Geneva Conventions does not apply to
    nuclear weapons. Rather, in paragraph 84 of its decision, the ICJ
    affirmed that the additional protocols of 1977 were an ‘expression of
    the pre-existing customary international law’ and that the exclusion of
    any specific mention of nuclear weapons in the 1977 protocols does not
    exclude them from the application of the law.

    in addition to giving support for Mr Granoff’s proposal, I indicated
    that there are other proposals to strengthen the norm of non-use, such
    as adopting policies of no-first-use, security council affirmation of
    the practice of non-use, and negotiations on an agreement prohibiting
    use of nuclear weapons as a step toward negotiations on elimination. I
    did not indicate a preference for no-first-use, as implied in the

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