Humanitarianism and Weapons: Should a ban on nuclear weapons rely on humanitarian principles?

4-5 March 2013, The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosts an international conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. In conjunction with this event, the international campaign to abolish nuclear weapons (ICAN) organised a two day ‘civil society forum’ in Oslo this weekend, with more than 500 participants. This blog post is based on my brief introduction to a panel there on ‘ethics in international politics’ that centered on the following questions: ‘What does it take for ethical arguments to trump the vested interests of powerful actors? How can we elevate ethical concerns to the center-stage of international decision-making processes?’

Often, a distinction is drawn between instrumental self-serving reasoning and ethical reasoning concerned with the interests of others. A similar distinction is commonly drawn in international politics between realpolitik, based on the self-serving reasoning of states, and ethics, involving an altruistic commitment to issues like humanitarianism, human rights and peace. Framing nuclear weapons as a humanitarian concern situates it in the latter category.

If ethical arguments in favour of banning nuclear arms are limited to this notion of ethics as altruism, it will fail in trumping the vested interests of powerful states. Crudely speaking, international politics are driven by the self-preservation of states and corporations, and a campaign against nuclear weapons has to engage with these premises in order to be ‘speaking truth to power’. This is not to say that any commitment by states to universal human rights and humanitarianism would be a fraud. However, as soon as these norms start conflicting with self-interest, they stand to lose. The strength and condition for international humanitarian law, like the laws of war, is that they actually are useful for the do not

The campaign to abolish nuclear weapons is inspired by successful campaigns for the abolishment of anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions. As these were rooted in a humanitarian agenda, one might claim that they prove me wrong. Yet, when it comes to the self-preservation of major powers there are fundamental differences between landmines and cluster munitions on the one hand and nuclear weapons on the other. Rather than being an essential source of self-preservation, landmines have been a nuisance to major Western powers when intervening in war-torn states around the world over the past decades. Substantive resources have been devoted to de-mining, and a ban on landmines was a useful alternative in this regard. Concerning cluster munitions, the military use of these for major powers was also limited. This recognition was partly obtained by virtue of the campaign against cluster munitions, and this exemplifies how ethical arguments should address the premises of instrumental self-serving reasoning in addition to appealing to humanitarian ideals.

In stark contrast to landmines and cluster munitions, nuclear weapons are commonly conceived as a cornerstone of the power of the permanent five (P5) in the UN Security Council, as well as an existential prerequisite for countries like India, Pakistan and Israel. In a situation where the monopoly of the P5 on nuclear weapons is waning, their skepticism to nuclear disarmament will only be growing. Only if a legal ban were to be combined with credible security guarantees and enforcement mechanisms beyond economic or political sanctions, could their concern for national security be met. To governments with a primary mandate of promoting state security, humanitarian principles appear as irrelevant in this connection.

The good news in this story stem from the extremely bad news of nuclear weapons: that they are inherently contradictory to self-preservation and national security. Combined with a reliable sanctioning regime, a ban would be far more conducive to the security of the citizens of nuclear powers than the reliance on ‘mutual assured destruction’. That the security risk of a conventional military attack is reduced by possessing the weapon is outweighed by far by the security risk of getting caught up in nuclear war. The only way for another nuclear power to win militarily is to launch an attack so devastating that it makes retaliation unlikely. And for non-state actors, launching a nuclear attack may seem more justifiable against countries whose military predominance relies on nuclear arms. In a long term perspective, the likelihood of such scenarios is far from zero if the Non-Proliferation Treaty is not reinforced by a stronger and more consistent regime of nuclear disarmament.

Hence, in addition to appealing to humanitarian norms, the campaign to ban nuclear arms should primarily rely on realist arguments against nuclear weapons as a source of national security. It should seek the support of the citizens of nuclear powers in particular, appealing to their concern for their own security. This, however, would require coupling a ban with enforcement mechanisms of a sort that would require a revolution in multilateralism. Arguably, this would nonetheless be fully in line with the self-interest of major powers.

Given the magnitude of that task, one might rather opt for a humanitarian ban to be adopted by countries that are currently not possessing nuclear weapons. Both in order to prevent them from acquiring such in the future, and as a way of adding moral pressure against the outsiders of the treaty. Yet, in the absence of support by the P5, it would be unlikely that the ban would be coupled by sufficient oversight mechanisms beyond the current UN regime for preventing state and non-state actors from secretly acquiring nuclear weapons. Then, states committed to the ban for humanitarian reasons would suffer militarily, and the division would increase between ‘nuclear rogue states’ on the one hand and ‘good states’ backed by Western nuclear powers on the other. If humanitarian principles were to be blamed for this mistake, it would be a radical blow to the political foundations of the international humanitarian regime as well.