Prohibiting nuclear weapons is a humanitarian imperative

May 22, 2015

An abbreviated version of this letter appeared in The Guardian on 21st May 2015.

To the States Parties of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

Amnesty International and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) share the concern of the States Parties to the NPT regarding the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons.”

The discussions on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, which started in Oslo, Norway, continued in Nayarit, Mexico and Vienna, Austria, have represented a turning point in the international nuclear weapons debate. The alarming evidence presented by physicians, physicists, climate scientists, human rights organizations, humanitarian agencies, and survivors have been successful in changing the nuclear weapons discourse, and opened space for greater engagement from civil society, international organizations, and states.

Amnesty International and ICAN oppose the use, possession, production and transfer of nuclear weapons, given their indiscriminate nature. We are opposed to the possession of nuclear weapons by any country, including permanent members of the UN Security Council.

Nuclear weapons stand alone in terms of their extreme potential to be indiscriminate. The destructive power of nuclear weapons at the time of detonation is so great as to almost necessarily impact on civilians and soldiers alike.  They affect the environment and human health for decades after their initial use, presenting a long-term hazard for civilians. The only time nuclear weapons were used in war (at Hiroshima and Nagasaki) they killed tens of thousands of civilians, and those two bombs were relatively small by today’s standards.  For these reasons, their use would invariably violate international humanitarian law and international human rights law.

The three conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and the 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference have highlighted that there is a legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.

It is clear to us and to a growing number of states that a diplomatic process to prohibit nuclear weapons needs to commence urgently. This diplomatic process should proceed with all interested states, even if the nine countries that already possess nuclear weapons are not yet ready to join. Launching such a process will require strong leadership, and we anticipate non-nuclear weapon states to be well placed to take a leading role in this endeavour.

As the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) ends tomorrow in New York, we believe states must now agree to initiate a process to create an international prohibition on the use, possession, production and transfer of nuclear weapons, particularly given their inherently indiscriminate nature. While we do not foresee a possibility for the Review Conference to initiate negotiations, given that such a decision would need to be agreed by consensus, we expect a group of likeminded states to launch such a process by the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 2015.

We believe that the overwhelming majority of states would join this process, and that such a prohibition is a humanitarian imperative, not least given their capacity to inflict unspeakable human suffering and destruction. Nuclear weapons also raise serious concerns under international human rights and humanitarian law.

There is an opportunity before us as an international community to prohibit nuclear weapons. Amnesty International and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons look forward to playing a supportive and constructive role in such process.

Marek Marczynski
Head of Military, Security and Police
Amnesty International
Beatrice Fihn,
Executive Director
International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)

  • aiweiwei

    “Let’s act up! Ban nuclear weapons completely and unconditionally.”

    Ai Weiwei Artist and activist

  • sheen

    “If Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr were alive today, they would be part of ICAN.”

    Martin Sheen Actor and activist

  • bankimoon

    “I salute ICAN for working with such commitment and creativity.”

    Ban Ki-moon Former UN chief

  • yokoono

    “We can do it together. With your help, our voice will be made still stronger. Imagine peace.”

    Yoko Ono Artist

  • jodywilliams

    “Governments say a nuclear weapons ban is unlikely. Don’t believe it. They said the same about a mine ban treaty.”

    Jody Williams Nobel laureate

  • desmondtutu

    “With your support, we can take ICAN its full distance – all the way to zero nuclear weapons.”

    Desmond Tutu Nobel laureate

  • herbiehancock

    “Because I cannot tolerate these appalling weapons, I whole-heartedly support ICAN.”

    Herbie Hancock Jazz musician

  • dalailama

    “I can imagine a world without nuclear weapons, and I support ICAN.”

    Dalai Lama Nobel laureate