Growing attention to nuclear weapons’ ongoing humanitarian impacts reaches the NPT
By Elizabeth Minor
A shorter version of this discussion piece was first published on Rethinking Security.
Over the past 12 years efforts have been growing to centre the catastrophic humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, as well as their disproportionate impact on indigenous and colonised peoples, in global nuclear policy. Last month’s NPT Review Conference saw unprecedented attention given to one aspect of this – the ongoing harms from past use and testing – as the majority sought to hold the nuclear-armed states to account.
The past use and testing of nuclear weapons – as well as other activities involved in these weapons’ possession – continue to affect communities and their environments in countries around the world today, including through ongoing physical and mental health impacts, socio-economic effects, displacement, cultural harm and radioactive contamination. Nuclear weapons activities have disproportionately affected Indigenous peoples and their rights – these weapons were often tested on colonised lands or areas considered ‘peripheral’ – as well as women and girls.
The TPNW’s international policy response to ongoing harm
Recognition in international nuclear policy discussions of the current humanitarian and environmental legacies of nuclear weapons use and testing – and the need to address these – has been growing in recent years. This has been driven by the humanitarian initiative, led by states over the past decade to examine the risks and humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, which has brought evidence about these to greater international attention; and the negotiation and first steps towards implementation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) that resulted from this. Alongside understanding and responding to the risks and consequences of any further use, appreciating and taking steps to address the ongoing impacts of nuclear weapons activities is a part of developing an effective policy response to the humanitarian and environmental consequences of these weapons.
The TPNW, as well as being negotiated by states to prohibit nuclear weapons due to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any further use, therefore also contains obligations to assist the victims of past nuclear weapons use and testing and to take steps to remediate contaminated environments. This is supported by obligations on international cooperation and assistance, to create a framework of solidarity for affected states. Contained in its articles 6 and 7, these obligations provide the first international policy structure for addressing these impacts, unprecedented in nuclear weapons treaties. The TPNW also highlights the disproportionate impacts of these weapons in its preamble.
With this new framework, the most significant international policy developments this year in relation to addressing nuclear legacies took place at the first Meeting of States Parties of the TPNW in June. States dedicated an agenda item to discussing articles 6 and 7, heard recommendations from affected communities and other experts during formal discussion and side events, and committed to concrete steps to commence their implementation to better respond to affected communities’ rights and needs.
These steps included starting to conduct assessments of ongoing harm, developing guidelines on what age- and gender-sensitive assistance to affected individuals should entail, and, crucially, including and consulting affected communities at all stages of implementation. States parties also committed to involving a wide range of other stakeholders in this work, including civil society, youth, and Indigenous peoples. Though building on precedents and taking inspiration from the implementation of other weapons prohibition treaties, these commitments have not been seen before in global nuclear weapons policymaking – which before the humanitarian initiative and TPNW largely neglected addressing equitable inclusion and the impacts of nuclear weapons on communities.
New attention to nuclear legacies at the NPT
In this context, it was significant to see states highlight efforts to address ongoing harm from nuclear weapons use and testing at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference last month. Under its consideration of disarmament matters, the last draft of the ultimately unadopted outcome document noted that the conference welcomed, in general, increased attention to assisting communities and remediating environments affected by nuclear weapons use and testing, and called on states to engage with these efforts (paragraph 125). These issues, and this recognition, have not seen significant attention at previous NPT meetings, particularly in its disarmament discussions – and have never been considered for mention in this part of the final document before.
Issues around accidents, waste management and – more recently – aspects of the economic and environmental legacies at former nuclear weapons programme sites have featured under the NPT’s discussion of ‘peaceful uses’ of nuclear energy at Review Conferences. A welcoming of efforts to address these latter issues, and an encouragement to assist states in addressing contamination, was recorded in paragraphs 70 and 71 of 2010’s report. Similar language was slated for 2015’s unadopted outcome document – and a more limited reference was also included in 2022’s unadopted document in paragraph 93.
This year, however, in the NPT’s general debate and main committee I (disarmament) discussions, at least 14 countries and state groupings and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) variously: highlighted the ongoing humanitarian and environmental legacies of nuclear use and testing; raised the importance of efforts to address these; noted the challenges of doing so; welcomed and called for support to efforts; and noted the TPNW’s provisions on victim assistance, environmental remediation and international cooperation and assistance in particular. (By contrast to this new attention to these issues in the RevCon’s discussions, outside the room the mission of France provided a misleading display about its Pacific testing programme, minimising its present-day impacts and apparently seeking to perpetuate myths around the ‘emptiness’ of the area at the time of its nuclear tests. Meanwhile, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) also hosted an interactive display of its new map resource on the impacts of nuclear testing and survivors’ campaigns for justice.)
At least five countries and groupings also called for references to victim assistance and environmental remediation to be included in the Review Conference outcome document during the discussions open to civil society monitoring. TPNW first Meeting of States Parties president Austria, and TPNW facilitators on victim assistance, environmental remediation and international cooperation and assistance Kazakhstan and Kiribati, made proposals on this as the drafts developed. These suggested that the final document welcome attention to victim assistance and environmental remediation for past use and testing and encourage these efforts – language close (though closer to TPNW wording) to that which would have been adopted had the conference outcome not been blocked. The Holy See also proposed during main committee III (peaceful uses) that references be made in the final documents to victim assistance and environmental remediation for the consequences of both nuclear weapons and nuclear energy-related activities.
Potential for international collaboration to address nuclear harm
States also highlighted victim assistance, environmental remediation and international cooperation and assistance as an area for dialogue and cooperation in a challenging international policy environment, which includes strong opposition to the TPNW amongst many nuclear-supporting states. The Holy See and ICRC suggested that this was an area to explore complementarity between the NPT and TPNW (a matter of somewhat confected political tension, with states opposed to the TPNW accusing the treaty of undermining the NPT). States at the TPNW Meeting of States Parties had begun to explore this complementarity. The Holy See also suggested this could be an area for collaboration between nuclear armed and other states.
Germany, which is a member of NATO and hosts US nuclear bombs at its Büchel Air Base, stated that having observed the TPNW first Meeting of States Parties it wished to “improve dialogue and cooperate in addressing the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons – in the field of victim assistance or the remediation of areas contaminated by nuclear testing.” At the TPNW meeting itself, Germany had stated its interest in developing engagement and cooperation in this area, as had Switzerland. Observers Norway and Sweden also recognised ongoing humanitarian impacts in their statements.
Engaging with efforts to address nuclear harm could provide a promising area for constructive collaboration on humanitarian matters in nuclear policy between states that share humanitarian, environmental and sustainable development goals. It could be a theme around which to develop dialogue and contribute to efforts with and for the benefit of affected communities. As some first steps, states with these interests could examine ways to engage with efforts to address nuclear harm that are currently developing, including through seeking to engage with and contribute their expertise and resources to ongoing discussions, and through looking at their and other states’ past practice in contributing to humanitarian mine action, for example. The UK, which previously tested nuclear weapons, should consider the information, expertise and resources it could contribute to this work.
The text in the draft final document, welcoming “increased attention in the last review cycle on assistance to the people and communities affected by nuclear weapons use and testing and environmental remediation following nuclear use and testing”, and calling on NPT states parties to “engage with such efforts to address nuclear harm,” would have been a constructive contribution to developing collaboration in this area if the document had been adopted.
The significance of attention to nuclear harm at the NPT
International developments since the last NPT Review Conference – including states’ upgrading and expansion of their nuclear arsenals, and various countries’ nuclear rhetoric and threats – have underlined the urgency of making progress on nuclear elimination. They have underlined why the humanitarian initiative to examine the risks and consequences of nuclear weapons led states to negotiate the TPNW. For its parties and broader community, the treaty is a step towards changing the international political and legal environment, eroding the legitimacy of nuclear possession, and building the norm against it, to facilitate elimination.
The NPT Review Conference’s role in the current context should have been to drive the agreement of meaningful commitments to implement the treaty’s disarmament obligations and address the global threats to us all represented by nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, in a highly confrontational political environment between the NPT’s nuclear-armed states – and within a treaty structure in which their views are overprivileged in the negotiation of outcomes, meaning that pressure is challenging for the majority of countries to bring to bear on disarmament matters – such outcomes, once again, were not agreed. The outcome document, which did not in any case contain strong commitments on most disarmament matters, was ultimately blocked by Russia.
The significance of attention at the NPT to addressing nuclear legacies should not be overstated in this broader context – but its importance should be recognised as part of the progressively developing response in global nuclear policy to the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. Alongside broader attention to the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons in general, significant attention at the NPT to the ongoing impacts of use and testing for the first time can be seen as part of a changing nuclear policy discourse that gives greater privilege to humanitarian concerns.
Attention to nuclear legacies at the NPT Review Conference last month was driven by the TPNW and the commitments states made at its Meeting of States Parties earlier this year – including commitments to promote the norms and values of the treaty. (This likely also drove references in the draft outcome document to the value of “positive interaction with…affected communities” – another theme that was a key focus of work at the TPNW this year, including work to address nuclear legacies, but that was not previously acknowledged as significant at the NPT.)
Attention to nuclear legacies is significant not only for the practical impact it could bring for affected communities seeking justice and responses to their rights, which should be its most immediate function. It can also contribute to a wider process of developing the norm against nuclear possession, through building recognition of what these weapons are and do to people and places. This changing discourse, which the continued development of policy and action to address the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons is part of, will be essential to creating an international environment which is conducive to disarmament, through eroding the legitimacy – and desirability – that some states still attach to these weapons of catastrophic destruction.
 Austria, Central Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone, Costa Rica, Germany, Holy See, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kiribati, Liechtenstein, Pacific Islands Forum, Pacific Small Island Developing States, Peru, Republic of Marshall Islands, joint statement of TPNW States Parties
 For example, Costa Rica, Kazakhstan, Kiribati, Liechtenstein, Pacific Islands Forum, Republic of Marshall Islands
 In publicly available statements these TPNW obligations were explicitly mentioned by Costa Rica, Germany, Holy See, Kiribati, Peru, TPNW States Parties
 Austria, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kiribati, Pacific Small Island Developing States in publicly available statements
Featured image: The UN general assembly room in NY, where states met for the NPT Review Conference in August 2022 Photo: ICAN/Jeenah Moon https://flic.kr/p/2nCAGE6