By Roger Hamilton-Martin
UNITED NATIONS (IPS) - Civil society groups are urging the UN General Assembly to pass a resolution declaring nuclear strikes on cities to be a clear-cut violation of international humanitarian law.
At the December 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.
“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 UN General Assembly (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. “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,” he told IPS.
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 UN 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 see it as a step forward towards extrication from the situation.
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 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.”
These legal arguments are hotly contested, however. Proponents of the resolution point to the final document from the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference of 2010 which “reaffirms the need for all States at all times to comply with applicable international law, including international humanitarian law.”
Those in support of the proposal seem undeterred. Alyn Ware of the World Future Council told IPS, “I think it’s a good proposal. I don’t think it’s the only path. The idea of ‘non-first use’ also has traction.”
Ware stands in opposition to Dunlap, saying: “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 it’s far away from populated areas, then maybe it will not violate IHL, but there would still be enormous problems with fall out and controlling its trajectory… but you can’t even make the argument when it’s in a populated area.” (IPS News Agency| December 10, 2014)
Top photo: 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