19 March, Palais des Nations, Geneva. A 2020 Vision Campaign presentation drew the attention of disarmament diplomats to the central position of cities in the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapon use: both the immediate, local slaughter of a city’s citizenry and the long-term, global catastrophic climate disruption. As such, plans and threats to use nuclear weapons in any way which would cause mass destruction in populated areas should be treated by the United Nations as a “threat to the peace.”
This presentation was made at the first-ever informal session of the Conference on Disarmament (CD) with Civil Society, convened at the initiative of the CD’s Secretary General, Michael Møller, who has produced a brief summary of five panel discussions. The Director of the 2020 Vision Campaign of Mayors for Peace, Aaron Tovish, was invited to be on the panel regarding “Negative Security Assurance” – commitments by nuclear armed states not to use their nuclear weapons under specified conditions, such as against members of nuclear weapon free zones.
Mr. Tovish pointed out that the concerns addressed during the series of Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons Conferences (2013-2015) largely centered on cities. This is hardly surprising since, to cause mass destruction, the weapon of mass destruction must be used in built-up, populated areas, such as Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Furthermore, newly disseminated knowledge highlights that the immediate, local impact is only a part of the story; the other part is that the wholesale incineration of cities would have long-term global consequences that dwarf the original carnage.
Nuclear weapons are the ‘ideal’ device for triggering firestorms, which then, because of their intense heat, inject smoke and soot into the Earth’s upper atmosphere, which in turn absorb sunlight which would other warm the lower atmosphere. This leads to a sharp and prolonged drop in surface temperatures worldwide; the greater the urban area incinerated, the more intense and long lasting the impact. The implications of such climate disruption are manifold; most scientific attention has been on the impact on agricultural production. Incineration of urban areas equivalent to 100 “Hiroshimas’ (which can be achieved by exploding less than twenty modern nuclear weapons over large metropolises) would reduce agricultural output 15 to 20% for over a decade. Those who today live essential hand to mouth would starve to death; nations that rely heavily on food imports would also be hit hard by famine. From 20 explosions: 100 million deaths within months; 1000 million within a decade.
Given the local and global impacts, Mr. Tovish suggested that any nuclear weapon targeting plan which could inflict such damage on cities should be deemed a “threat to the peace,” the term used in Chapter VII of the UN Charter. And, consequently, they should be treated as such by the Security Council and the General Assembly. Since targeting policies are tightly held secrets, nuclear armed states should be required to go on record explicitly ruling out any use of nuclear weapons which would result in mass destruction in populated areas, along with training and disciplinary measures to ensure such rules are not breached.
A lively discussion followed as participants sought to understand the proposal more fully and assess its relationship with other possible disarmament measures. Mr. Tovish welcomed this debate as Mayors for Peace would be looking at this and other means for cities to maximize their contribution to the overall task of establishing a nuclear weapon free world.