Over the past 12 years efforts have been growing to centre the catastrophic humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, as well as their disproportionate impact on indigenous and colonised peoples, in global nuclear policy. Last month’s NPT Review Conference saw unprecedented attention given to one aspect of this – the ongoing harms from past use and testing – as the majority world sought to hold the nuclear armed states to account.   

The past use and testing of nuclear weapons – as well as other activities involved in these weapons’ possession – continue to affect communities and their environments in countries around the world today. This includes through ongoing physical and mental health impacts, socio-economic effects, displacement, cultural harm and radioactive contamination. Activities involving nuclear weapons have disproportionately affected Indigenous peoples and their rights – these weapons were often tested on colonised lands or areas considered ‘peripheral’ – as well as women and girls.

The TPNW’s international policy response to ongoing harm

Recognition in international nuclear policy discussions of the current humanitarian and environmental legacies of nuclear weapons use and testing – and the need to address these – has been growing in recent years. This has been driven by the Humanitarian Initiative to examine the risks and humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, and the negotiation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) that resulted.

Negotiated by over 120 states and coming into force in January 2021, the TPNW  prohibits nuclear weapons due to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences that any further use would bring. It also contains obligations to assist the victims of past nuclear weapons use and testing and to take steps to remediate contaminated environments. This is supported by legal obligations on international cooperation and assistance. Contained in articles 6 and 7, these obligations provide the first international policy structure for addressing these impacts, unprecedented in nuclear weapons treaties. The TPNW also highlights the disproportionate impacts of nuclear weapons in its preamble.

With this new framework, the most significant international policy developments in relation to addressing nuclear legacies were at the first Meeting of States Parties of the TPNW in June this year. States heard recommendations from affected communities and other experts, and committed to concrete steps to respond to affected communities’ rights and needs. These included starting to conduct assessments of ongoing harm, developing guidelines on what age- and gender-sensitive assistance to affected individuals should entail, and, crucially, including and consulting affected communities at all stages of implementation. States parties also committed to involving a wide range of other stakeholders in this work, including civil society, youth, and Indigenous peoples.

Though building on precedents from the implementation of other weapons prohibition treaties, these are new commitments in nuclear weapons policy-making, which before the Humanitarian Initiative and TPNW largely neglected equitable inclusion and the impacts of nuclear weapons on communities.

New attention to nuclear legacies at the NPT

In this context, it was significant to see states highlight efforts to address ongoing harm from nuclear weapons use and testing at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference (RevCon) last month. RevCons are supposed to be held every five years to assess progress, including on nuclear disarmament as committed to under the NPT. The Tenth RevCon was delayed from 2020 due to COVID-19.

Under its consideration of disarmament matters, the last draft of the RevCon’s ultimately unadopted outcome document noted that the conference welcomed, in general, increased attention to assisting communities and remediating environments affected by nuclear weapons use and testing, and called on states to engage with these efforts. These issues have not seen much attention at previous NPT meetings – and have never been considered for mention in the disarmament part of the final document (though aspects of the economic and environmental legacies at former nuclear weapons programme sites have previously been mentions in outcome document sections on the ‘peaceful uses’ of nuclear energy).

This year, however, in the NPT’s general debate and disarmament discussions, at least 14 countries and state groupings[1] and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) variously: highlighted the ongoing humanitarian and environmental legacies of nuclear use and testing; raised the importance of efforts to address these; noted the challenges of doing so; welcomed and called for support to efforts; and noted the TPNW’s provisions on victim assistance, environmental remediation and international cooperation and assistance in particular.

At least five countries and groupings also called for references to victim assistance and environmental remediation to be included in the Review Conference outcome document during the discussions open to civil society monitoring, resulting in the text in the unadopted draft.

Potential for international collaboration to address nuclear harm

States also highlighted this subject as an area for dialogue and cooperation in a challenging international policy environment, which includes strong opposition to the TPNW amongst many nuclear-supporting states. The Holy See suggested this could be an area for collaboration between nuclear armed and other states, as well as for exploring complementarity between the NPT and TPNW. Germany, which is a member of NATO and hosts US nuclear bombs at its Büchel Air Base, stated that having observed the TPNW first Meeting of States Parties it wished to “improve dialogue and cooperate in addressing the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons – in the field of victim assistance or the remediation of areas contaminated by nuclear testing.”

Engaging with efforts to address nuclear harm could provide a promising area for constructive collaboration on humanitarian matters between states that share humanitarian, environmental and sustainable development goals. As some first steps, states with these interests could examine ways to engage with efforts to address nuclear harm that are currently being developed, including through contributing their expertise and resources to ongoing discussions, and through looking at their and other states’ past practice in contributing to humanitarian mine action, for example. The UK, which previously tested nuclear weapons, should consider the information, expertise and resources it could contribute to such work.

The significance of attention to nuclear harm at the NPT

International developments since the last NPT Review Conference – including states’ upgrading and expansion of their nuclear arsenals, and various countries’ nuclear rhetoric and threats – have underlined the urgency of making progress on nuclear elimination. The NPT Review Conference’s role should have been to drive the agreement of meaningful commitments to implement the treaty’s disarmament obligations and address the global threats to us all represented by nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, in a highly confrontational political environment between the NPT’s nuclear-armed states – and within a treaty structure in which their views are overprivileged in the negotiation of outcomes – such outcomes, once again, were not agreed. The outcome document, which did not in any case contain strong commitments on most disarmament matters, was ultimately blocked by Russia.

The significance of attention at the NPT to addressing nuclear legacies should not be overstated in this broader context – but its importance should be recognised as part of the progressively developing response in global nuclear policy to the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. Alongside broader attention to the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, discussion at the NPT on the ongoing impacts of use and testing for the first time can be seen as part of a changing nuclear policy discourse that gives greater privilege to humanitarian concerns, driven by the TPNW.

Attention to nuclear legacies is significant not only for the practical impact it could bring for affected communities seeking justice and responses to their rights, which should be its most immediate function. It can also contribute to a wider process of developing the norm against nuclear possession, through building recognition of what these weapons are and do to people and places. This changing discourse will be essential to creating an international environment which is conducive to disarmament, through eroding the legitimacy – and desirability – that some states still attach to these weapons of catastrophic destruction.

[1] These states and groupings were: Austria, Central Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone, Costa Rica, Germany, Holy See, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kiribati, Liechtenstein, Pacific Islands Forum, Pacific Small Island Developing States, Peru, Republic of Marshall Islands, joint statement of TPNW States Parties. This analysis relies significantly on monitoring by Reaching Critical Will of WILPF.

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

Image Credit: Colourised photo of July 1946 ‘Baker Test’ US nuclear detonation over Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands, courtesy of US National Nuclear Security Administration/Nevada Field Office.

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