World War I and the Humanitarian Imperative for Nuclear Disarmament

This week’s guest writer is John Siebert, executive director of Project Ploughshares, a non-governmental organization that works with churches, governments and civil society, in Canada and abroad, to advance policies and actions to prevent war and armed violence and build peace. Project Ploughshares is a longtime coalition partner of MCC.

The widespread use of weapons of mass destruction in World War I (WW1), particularly chemical weapons such as chlorine gas, shocked the public conscience and added to the existing demand for banning such weapons. The staggering numbers — 100,000 dead but more the hideously disfigured bodies of the wounded 1 million — shocked the conscience of the public as these poor souls returned home and compelled efforts to make chemical and biological weapons illegal to possess or use.

Attempts by nations to ban chemical weapons reached back into the 19th century, and extended well forward into the 20th. And yet in Syria chemical weapons were recently used in civilian areas. You scratch your head and wonder how long and how effective these efforts are if, after over a century of work to outlaw this particular class of weapons, it is worth the candle.

It is.

Photo credit cbc.ca

Photo credit cbc.ca

Setting norms in international law is notoriously difficult and time consuming. Implementation and verification are even more difficult and more time consuming. The difficulties of implementation and verification typically are used by opponents of constraints as an argument for not even trying to set new international norms. It becomes a vicious circle favouring a lack of action.

So, the advocates of legal restraint on specific military technologies have to somehow overwhelm the natural momentum of advocates for hard security realism, those who argue for the primacy of power as determining the outcome of conflicts and the use of dodgy military technologies, with another kind of argument.

The good news is that the machinery of disarmament for conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction has made great strides since WW1. Chemical and biological weapons have been deemed illegal; both possession and use. Certain classes of conventional weapons have been banned as well, including personnel land mines and cluster munitions.

But efforts dating from WW1 took almost a century to bear the less than comprehensive results we have today in outlawing and eradicating chemical weapons.

The way it works in practice is that these international norms are eventually nearly universally accepted and observed. The legitimacy of these weapons is then permanently degraded so the world can focus on the outliers, or spoilers, who continue to possess or use them. It isn’t perfection but the process makes the world considerably safer if not absolutely safe from the banned weapons.

no nukesSimilar arguments used to ban chemical and biological weapons, and some classes of conventional weapons, are just as applicable and arguably more so to nuclear weapons.

The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (ICRC), following the 1996 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice, in 2011 passed a resolution indicating “that the principles and rules of international humanitarian law apply to nuclear weapons and that the threat or use of such weapons would generally be contrary to the principles and rules of international humanitarian law.”

Why? Nuclear weapons violate the principles of war because their use fails with respect to distinction, precaution and proportionality. Nuclear weapons cause incalculable human suffering that are unconstrained by time or space, there is no way to prepare for, or to meet, the overwhelming humanitarian needs of those affected even by a limited nuclear exchange, and damage to the natural world would be incalculable and could not be mitigated. We often explain this by the term “nuclear winter.”

In short, the possession or use of nuclear weapons threatens the future of human and other species, and the biosphere of the earth itself.

The ICRC sought in 2011 and going forward to “reframe the international debate” on nuclear weapons from considerations of geopolitical, security and deterrence to the humanitarian imperative to make them illegal and eliminate them.

Experience from other disarmament processes says that certain weapons, or a class of weapons, have been eliminated only after they have been outlawed. Civil society reflects and focuses widespread public disgust and mobilizes sympathetic states against the outlier and spoiler states who want to continue having them in their arsenals.

Not since the post-Cold War draw down of nuclear weapons from approximately 60,000 warheads to the current 17,500 has there been such a sense of optimism about the prospect for eliminating nuclear weapons. Let’s make the momentum continue!

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