Urgent action needed to reduce the risks of nuclear weapons

10 April 2017

Nuclear Weapon Risks Symposium, United Nations Institute for Disarmamaent Research (UNIDIR), Geneva, Switzerland, Statement by Yves Daccord, director-general of the ICRC.

Let me commend UNIDIR for the important research it has carried out to further the understanding of nuclear weapon risks.  UNIDIR’s work builds on the alarming evidence of the increasing danger that nuclear weapons will be used – intentionally, accidentally, or by miscalculation.  (William J. Perry has eloquently exposed this risk in his video message just now).

It is now widely acknowledged that the use of nuclear weapons would have catastrophic humanitarian consequences, with suffering on an unimaginable scale in terms of their immediate and long-term effects on people, societies, health-care systems and the environment.  The international community therefore has a moral responsibility to ensure that nuclear weapons are never again used – that is, to ensure that the risk of use of nuclear weapons is reduced to zero.  Later in this address, I will outline some of the measures States must take, individually and collectively, to get us there.

But let me first put my cards on the table:  since 1945, International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, of which the ICRC is a part, has been calling for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.  Our call was first driven by the unspeakable suffering caused by the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which the ICRC and the Japanese Red Cross witnessed first-hand while attempting to bring relief to the dying and injured.  Seventy-two years on, we still bear witness to the long-term effects of nuclear weapons, as Japanese Red Cross hospitals continue to treat many thousands of victims of cancers caused by radiation exposure.

The calls of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons have also been guided by the fact that we would be unable to provide any meaningful humanitarian response in the event of the use of nuclear weapons.  The reality is that if a nuclear weapon were to detonate in or near a populated area, there would be an overwhelming number of people in need of treatment, while most of the local medical facilities would be destroyed.  Assistance providers would also face serious risks associated with exposure to ionizing radiation.  The ICRC’s own studies, and those of other organizations such as UNIDIR, have found that in most countries and at the international level, there is little capacity and no realistic or coordinated plan to deal with these tremendous challenges.

In 2011, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement appealed to all States to prohibit the use of and completely eliminate nuclear weapons through a legally binding international agreement, based on their existing commitments.  We have therefore welcomed the negotiation of a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons, currently underway in the framework of the UN General Assembly.

The ICRC believes that these negotiations present a real opportunity to make progress towards nuclear disarmament, and we have called on all States to seize this moment.  In our view, a ban treaty is an essential step to “create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons”, as resolved by the 2009 Summit of the UN Security Council.  It would also be a concrete step towards fulfilling the obligation “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures” relating to nuclear disarmament, as required under Article VI of the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty, and as affirmed by the International Court of Justice in 1996.  And until the elimination of nuclear weapons gets underway, the nuclear weapon ban treaty will reinforce the stigma against their use and be a disincentive for proliferation.

Of course, a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons will not make them immediately disappear.  And as long as these weapons exist, there is an ongoing risk of accidental or deliberate detonation, with an ensuing threat of horrific consequences on people and societies around the globe.  In his statement to the UN in Geneva in January, the President of China, Xi Jinping, referred to nuclear weapons as “the Sword of Damocles that hangs over mankind” and the need for their prohibition and total elimination over time.

Though some States may not be prepared, at this time, to join negotiations for a treaty to ban nuclear weapons, surely they recognize the absolute necessity to prevent their use.  Regardless of their views on a ban treaty, all States should acknowledge that any risk of use of nuclear weapons is unacceptable given their catastrophic humanitarian consequences, even if employed on a limited scale.

The ICRC believes that risk reduction efforts could provide a common ground for dialogue between States involved in the negotiation of the nuclear weapon ban treaty, and those not yet ready to support this effort.  Risk reduction is an intermediate step that nuclear-armed States and their allies can and must pursue, pending the fulfilment of nuclear disarmament obligations.  Action must be taken now.  The risks are too high, the dangers too real.

We know today that malfunctions, mishaps, false alarms and misinterpreted information have nearly led to the intentional or accidental detonation of nuclear weapons on numerous occasions since 1945.  In a recent study, Chatham House documented 13 incidents of “near use”of nuclear weapons resulting from computer errors, miscalculation, miscommunication and breakdowns in command and control systems.  And these were just the publicly known cases.

The organization Global Zero has documented some 320 “military incidents” over the two years ending in March 2016 involving nuclear-armed States and their allies.  Of these, 25 were classified as “high risk” incidents and 76 as “provocative”.  Each entailed risks of escalation and miscalculation.

An additional concern is the cyber threat to nuclear control.  Digital technologies have become an integral part of nuclear attack warning systems and their command and control networks.  This provides a potential opening for hackers to break into such systems and provoke false warnings of an impending attack or, worse still, to gain access to launch codes and circuitry.  Despite intense efforts to protect such networks, security lapses have been reported.

A range of eminent security and military experts (such as William J. Perry) have recently concluded that the risk of nuclear weapon use today has reached levels not seen since the Cold War.  This is profoundly disturbing.  It should further compel nuclear-armed States and those under a nuclear umbrella to urgently implement their long-standing political commitments to reduce nuclear dangers, including those made in the 2010 NPT Review Conference Action Plan and in UN General Assembly resolutions.

Let me outline here some of the key actions and practical steps that we feel are needed to reduce nuclear risks, deriving from existing commitments.

First, in the short-term, there is an urgent need to decrease the operational readiness of nuclear weapons.  This involves taking nuclear weapons off of “hair trigger” alert.  “De-alerting” is critical to reduce the ever present risk that nuclear weapons will be detonated as a result of false warnings, cyber-attack or irrational decision-making in these times of high tension.  With an estimated 1,800 US and Russian nuclear warheads are on hair trigger alert, and reports that other nuclear-armed States may be moving towards similar rapid reaction postures, promoting the de-alerting of nuclear weapons should be a high priority for all States.

Secondly, nuclear weapon States must make good on their promise, made at the 2010 NPT Review Conference, to diminish the role and significance of nuclear weapons in national security postures, and to report on steps taken to this end.  Progressively reducing this role will not only reduce the risk of accidental or intentional use, it will decrease military reliance on nuclear weapons and help to create the conditions for their elimination.  Yet reports that some States are massively investing in modernizing their nuclear weapon arsenals are at odds with their commitments.  This trend is all the more alarming that in the context of current international tensions, some have evoked the potential use of nuclear weapons.  This is simply unacceptable.

Thirdly, in light of the history of false warnings and miscalculation involving nuclear weapons, and against the backdrop of today’s complex security environment, we urge nuclear-armed States to agree concrete confidence-building measures aimed at reducing the chances of a deliberate or inadvertent use of nuclear weapons.  These include advance warning and other measures to clarify the intentions behind training exercises involving nuclear-weapon-capable systems and the deployment of nuclear ships or aircraft close to the territories of potential adversaries.  It can also include the establishment of a joint early warning center, as has previously been agreed by some nuclear-armed States.  Such confidence-building measures have long been on the international agenda.  They are crucial to reduce risks and must be accorded greater urgency.

At the First Preparatory Meeting of the 2020 NPT Review Conference in Vienna next month, it will be critical for the 191 NPT States Parties to reaffirm the importance of nuclear risk reduction commitments, and for nuclear weapon States to renew these commitments and report on the practical steps they are taking to fulfil them.  Reducing the risk of nuclear weapon use is a humanitarian imperative.

The fact that nuclear weapons have not been used for seven decades must not be a cause for reassurance or complacency.  As long as they continue to exist, humanity faces the real risk of a nuclear catastrophe.  Preventing the use of nuclear weapons is of vital interest to all States, and a global concern.

Ultimately, the only guarantee that nuclear weapons will never be used again is to prohibit and eliminate them.  The current negotiations of a nuclear weapon ban treaty are the best chance for real progress towards the universal goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.  All States should participate in this endeavor.  The future of humanity depends on it.

Subscribe to the ICRC newsletter