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Second Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in Mexico

Last updated: 19.02.2014 // Norway attended the Second Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in Mexico February 13 and 14th.

Mr. Minister, Mr. Governor, ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to start by thanking the Government of Mexico for hosting this important conference.

For decades political leaders and experts have debated the challenges posed by nuclear weapons and possible further proliferation.

For some time there has been an interest in taking a closer look at the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. At the last Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in May 2010, all member states of the NPT expressed their – quote – "deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons" (end quote). 

The Oslo conference in March last year raised a very deep and serious question: If nuclear weapons actually were to be used, what would the consequences be? Would we be able to handle the humanitarian catastrophe that would follow a detonation? 

Through several decades of Cold War, the fear of nuclear annihilation represented one of the most principal existential fears of mankind. But as the Cold War drew to an end, the perception of imminent fear faded. A decade of nuclear disarmament followed, until the attention of people, governments and non-governmental organizations was drawn to other and serious global concerns. While fewer in numbers, it is a fact that more states have nuclear weapons today than during the Cold War years. And the technology exists, is on more hands than before, and we know that states and non-state actors are seeking to acquire nuclear weapons. In addition to this, comes the risk of an accidental detonation. The probability might be limited. But the consequences would be no different. 

Which leads many to draw the conclusion that while a full-scale nuclear exchange might be less likely, the risk that nuclear weapons would intentionally be used might be higher today than it was a few decades ago. Consequently, non-proliferation and disarmament are just as important issues as ever before. And they must remain high on our collective political agenda.

The purpose of the Oslo-conference was to provide an opportunity to develop a greater understanding of what the consequences would be, and how we – as states and the international community, would respond to these consequences. As president Maurer of the ICRC pointed out in his opening address in Oslo; “No informed political or legal position on these weapons can be adopted without a detailed grasp of the immediate consequences of these weapons on human beings and on medical and other infrastructure.” Any detonation of a nuclear weapon, intended or accidental, would concern – and could affect – all members of the international community. Consequently, we need to understand how we can meet these challenges and indeed whether we would be able at all to meet them. 

And, important to bear in mind, the consequences of a nuclear detonation are relevant to practitioners in such diverse fields as health services, development, environment, finance, and emergency preparedness and response.

In the conference we heard expert presentations and discussions around three key issues:

 The first was the immediate human impact of a nuclear weapon detonation. Any meaningful discussion about preparedness must be based on a common understanding of the actual situation the world would be facing. Leading experts of nuclear physics, medicine and disaster response discussed questions such as: What is a nuclear weapon detonation? What are the medical effects? And what lessons may be learnt from historical experience?

The second key issue was the wider economic, developmental and environmental consequences of a nuclear weapon detonation. These consequences are not always considered in current inter-state discourses about these weapons. However, in an increasingly interconnected world, they may prove to be broader and more significant than previously anticipated. As was stated by the UNDP in Oslo; “Scientists predict that the smoke and soot from urban firestorms in a regional war would rise into the upper atmosphere, and induce significant climatic effects on global scales. (…) Indeed, recent research shows that even a relatively limited nuclear exchange (with 100 15 kiloton bombs being detonated as air bursts in urban areas), could cause long-lasting global damage to the world’s ecosystems and economic systems and threaten hundreds of millions of already poor people.”

The third and final key topic concerns the preparedness of states, international organizations, civil society and the general public. How would we deal with the humanitarian consequences that would follow from a nuclear weapon detonation? Both the ICRC and the UN stated that “effective assistance that would benefit a substantial portion of survivors of the use of a nuclear weapon is presently not available at national level and not possible at international level.”

Through the presentations and discussions, the Conference succeeded in underlining the humanitarian impacts and humanitarian concerns. This is an issue that concerns everyone, and that is equally legitimate for nuclear- and non-nuclear states alike. Through the Oslo-conference the debate on nuclear weapons was taken out of the traditional and institutionalized arenas. The intention was never to replace these existing arenas. The purpose was to supplement these established fora.

The NPT Conference in 2010, the Conference in Oslo and developments since then have underlined that a concern with the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons is shared by the vast majority of States. In March last year, we heard interventions from States that have never possessed nuclear weapons; States that possess nuclear weapons; States that formerly possessed nuclear weapons; States that have been affected by testing or use of nuclear weapons; and States that host nuclear weapons or otherwise participate in nuclear weapons-related activities. Importantly, all expressed a concern that nuclear weapons represent a distinct humanitarian challenge - thereby underscoring that all States have a stake in this, and that the discussions that have since continued is a welcome supplement to other debates on nuclear weapons. 

In conclusion let me reiterate the key points from the Chair’s Summary from the Oslo-conference;

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  • It is unlikely that any state or international body could address the immediate humanitarian emergency caused by a nuclear weapon detonation in an adequate manner and provide sufficient assistance to those affected. Moreover, it might not be possible to establish such capacities, even if it were attempted.
  • The historical experience from the use and testing of nuclear weapons has demonstrated their devastating immediate and long-term effects. While political circumstances have changed, the destructive potential of nuclear weapons remains.
  • The effects of a nuclear weapon detonation, irrespective of cause, will not be constrained by national borders, and will affect states and people in significant ways, regionally as well as globally.

This conference aimed at presenting key aspects of the humanitarian consequences of a nuclear weapon detonation. During the discussions a number of states expressed an interest in further exploring this important issue in ways that ensure global participation. States expressed their interest in continuing the discussions, and to broaden the discourse on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. The chair welcomed the offer from Mexico to host a follow-up meeting to this conference.

Thank you

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