The Humanitarian Approach: A New Perceptual Paradigm for Nuclear Disarmament

Polaris Nuclear Missile, Wikimedia Commons

By Maciej Lempke, Columnist

The sheer destructive power of nuclear weapons and unimaginable consequences of their potential use continue to challenge the way we think about them. Contemporary academic and political debates on nuclear disarmament largely focus on arms reduction agreements, support of the non-proliferation regime, and– most importantly– the responsibility of nuclear weapons states (NWS) to lead the process of achieving nuclear zero. While these debates do much to advance pro-disarmament initiatives, they promote a perceptual paradigm that focuses solely on state-centric security issues concerning nuclear disarmament and overlook the most important aspect of nuclear weapons – the unacceptable humanitarian consequences of their potential use. This inseparable feature of nuclear weapons should be the principal driving force for their abolishment.

The notion of humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons gained wider recognition following the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, which unanimously expressed a deep concern about the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons”.[1] A similar sentiment was echoed by the conferences on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in Oslo in March 2013 and in February 2014 in Nayarit, Mexico. These two events highlighted the need to change the perceptual paradigm with respect to nuclear weapons and raise awareness about the dangers of their use. However, both the Oslo and Mexico meetings were boycotted by Britain, China, France, Israel, Russia and the United States, which reaffirmed persisting challenges to nuclear disarmament.

The lack of consensus among NWS about the timeline, measures and the scope of nuclear weapons rollback remains a major factor hampering current disarmament initiatives. Moreover, NWS continue to demonstrate blatant opposition to any proposals requiring concrete commitments to disarmament such as the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) or delegitimization of nuclear weapons under the International Law. This defiance stems from the common conviction of state leaders and policymakers that nuclear weapons are the ultimate security guarantee. This belief determines states’ interests and identities, which consequently shape their security-centered perceptions on disarmament. One might argue that this renders the goal of nuclear zero unattainable, since some states will inevitably view nuclear rollback as a potential threat to their security and survival. However, by changing the perceptual paradigm for nuclear disarmament, the international community has a chance of achieving a global consensus on this issue. The proposed shift shares its core assumptions with the constructivist understanding of international relations – that the international system is a product of states’ interactions and knowledgeable practices, which determine their interests, identities and collective meanings.[2] In this respect, disarmament initiatives should be framed by a normative belief that the existence of nuclear weapons is unacceptable as their potential use has unimaginable humanitarian consequences.

To advance this process, state leaders and policymakers must realize that the logic behind nuclear weapons is inherently tied to an idea that states are prepared to commit mutual suicide in the name of self-protection.[3] In this light, the only assured aspect of these weapons is not security maximization but the horrific consequences of their use. In 2013, a project from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom entitled “Reaching Critical Will” released a chilling report on the potential humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapon use. This comprehensive study concluded that even a limited nuclear exchange would have global repercussions, affecting the climate, food production, states’ economies, development, social structures and people’s health.[4]

A separate 2011 study conducted by Patrick Webb, Steven Block, and Ernesto Valenzuela of Tufts University examined the projected effects on food production over ten years following a nuclear war in South Asia involving 100 nuclear weapons (each with a 15 kiloton payload). Their results suggested that 215 million people would become malnourished – the result of dramatic increases in global food prices, particularly affecting developing states and those relying on food imports.[5] For example, in South Asia, as a whole, the report estimates that food prices would rise 140.6%, and in India alone they would rise 159.6%.[6] The study indicates that the effects of such increase would double those of the historic food price rises in 2008, which triggered riots across the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, causing widespread political instability.[7]

In terms of economic consequences, the estimated costs to a major urban area affected by a single nuclear explosion would run into tens of billions if not hundreds of billions of dollars.[8] This would cause a significant economic crisis, dramatically affecting the living conditions of all the people around the world and exacerbating social inequalities.[9] The ensuing political instability would elevate states’ security concerns and possibly lead to a rapid spread of armed conflicts around the globe.

Most importantly, a nuclear explosion would have detrimental health consequences on an unimaginable scale. As the Chernobyl accident demonstrated, radioactive particles would contaminate a vast area extending to thousands of square miles, causing radiation sickness and cancerous diseases among the immediate victims and seriously impeding the genetic development of future generations.

Taking into consideration these substantial issues, steady progress towards nuclear disarmament will only become credible once it is no longer viewed through the security lens. State leaders and policymakers should promote a normative shift emphasizing that nuclear weapons are not about deterrence or negative security assurances, but rather about their effects on our lives. There needs to be a universal understanding that nuclear weapons are inherently immoral and that their existence contradicts fundamental human rights, particularly the right to peace and the right to life.[10] Ultimately, nuclear disarmament is the responsibility of leaders and decision-makers around the world, who must put a stronger emphasis on discounting their relevance and facilitating a global awareness campaign focused on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons as a key component of any disarmament agenda.


Maciej is first year M.A student in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. For the past two years he has focused his research on issues related to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. He has worked in the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Poland to the United Nations and National Atomic Energy Agency of Poland. He received a B.A degree in International Relations and International History from Aberystwyth University.


[1] 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Final Document, Document NPT.CONF.2010/50 (Vol.I), 2010, part I, para.80,

[2] Alexander Wendt, “Anarchy is what states make of it: the Social Construction of Power Politics”, International Organization 46, (1992), pp. 394-395,

[3] J.E Doyle, “Why eliminate nuclear weapons”?, Survival 55, (2013), p.26,

[4] “Unspeakable suffering – the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons”, edited by Beatrice Finh, Reaching Critical Will of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, 2013, available from:, p.99,


[5] “Unspeakable suffering – the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons”, p.43, P. Webb, Steven A.Block, and E.Valenzuela, “Projected Impact of a Regional Nuclear Conflict on Global Food Supply, Consumption and Undernutrition”, International Physicians for the Perception of Nuclear War, 2011, p.2, available from:,

[6] “Unspeakable suffering – the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons”, p.43,

[7] Neha Paliwal, “Actually food riots might not be the ‘new normal’, Foreign Policy, March 8, 2013, accessed 12 December, 2014, , “Riots, instability spread as food prices skyrocket”, CNN, April 14, 2008, accessed December 12, 2014,

[8] 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Final Document, Document NPT.CONF.2010/50 (Vol.I), 2010, part I, para.80,

[9] 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Final Document, Document NPT.CONF.2010/50 (Vol.I), 2010, part I, para.80,

[10] [10]Peter Weiss and John Burroughs, “Weapons of mass destruction and human rights”, Disarmament Forum, p.25,

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.