Norway has announced that it will be holding a conference on the humanitarian consequences of using nuclear weapons. The concept was first officially recognized by NPT members in the 2010 Final Document. Since then, it has been picked up not only by NGOs but also by States as an opportunity to address the disarmament and non-proliferation debate from a new perspective.
This conference allows for a pronged examination of the legal nature of nuclear weapons; firstly from the perspective of humanitarian law as the law of armed conflict, and secondly from the perspective of international human rights law, which is increasingly being used complimentarily with humanitarian law in areas affected by conflict.
By addressing nuclear issues from a humanitarian perspective, civil society is given a chance to really make a strong argument for abolishing nuclear weapons by relating the concept of “catastrophic humanitarian consequences” to existing obligations under human rights instruments and humanitarian law. Recent developments in international humanitarian law have increasingly emphasised the need to comply with international human rights standards in applicable situations. This synergy provides an excellent opportunity for NGO’s operating in the field of nuclear disarmament to use both systems of law to demonstrate the illegality of the use of nuclear weapons. The linkages are manifold and can be used to strengthen the arguments for non-proliferation and abolishment.
Right to life
A clear example is the incompatibility of nuclear weapons with the right to life. The right to life found in Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is the highest-ranking human right and states that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life”. It is important to note that the distinguishing line between humanitarian law and human rights law is diminishing and that the right to life may also apply in certain circumstances as well as in wartime. As the International Court of Justice confirmed in its 1996 advisory opinion on the use of nuclear weapons, humanitarian law prohibits using weapons that fail to discriminate between civilians and combatants. This means that using nuclear weapons will not only violate humanitarian law, but will also constitute a mass violation of the highest-ranking human rights, the right to life.
Essential to nuclear weapons is that they make a civilized, peaceful life impossible. By referring to existing obligations such as the ones mentioned above, the argument that the existence of nuclear weapons has catastrophic humanitarian consequences can be strengthened and is of incredible importance in ensuring that the NPT is not only implemented but also enforced. And at the same time, working together with the human rights and humanitarian movements in trying to realize the full arsenal these complimentary norms provide to bring us closer to a world free of nuclear weapons.
*Katja van Hoorn and Mathew Truscot participated in our Crash Course Nuclear Diplomacy and join our No Nukes team this week at the NPT PrepCom in Vienna. Katja is Master student in International and European Law at Amsterdam University. Mathew is Masterstudent Public and International Law at Leiden University.