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Any use of nuclear weapons would be catastrophic for humanity
by more than 100 medical journals, ICRC, agencies
10:19am 4th Jul, 2023
Aug. 2023
Any use of nuclear weapons would be catastrophic for humanity
More than 100 medical journals issue urgent call for the elimination of nuclear weapons, warning that the “danger is great and growing.”
In January, 2023, the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock forward to 90 seconds before midnight, reflecting the growing risk of nuclear war.
In August, 2022, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that the world is now in “a time of nuclear danger not seen since the height of the Cold War”. The danger has been underlined by growing tensions between many nuclear armed states.
As editors of health and medical journals worldwide, we call on health professionals to alert the public and our leaders to this major danger to public health and the essential life support systems of the planet—and urge action to prevent it.
Current nuclear arms control and non-proliferation efforts are inadequate to protect the world's population against the threat of nuclear war by design, error, or miscalculation.
The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) commits each of the 190 participating nations ”to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control”.
Progress has been disappointingly slow and the most recent NPT review conference in 2022 ended without an agreed statement.
There are many examples of near disasters that have exposed the risks of depending on nuclear deterrence for the indefinite future.
Modernisation of nuclear arsenals could increase risks: for example, hypersonic missiles decrease the time available to distinguish between an attack and a false alarm, increasing the likelihood of rapid escalation.
Any use of nuclear weapons would be catastrophic for humanity. Even a “limited” nuclear war involving 250 of the 13 000 nuclear weapons in the world could kill 120 million people outright and cause global climate disruption leading to a nuclear famine, putting 2 billion people at risk.
A large-scale nuclear war between the USA and Russia could kill 200 million people or more in the near term, and potentially cause a global “nuclear winter” that could kill 5–6 billion people, threatening the survival of humanity.
Once a nuclear weapon is detonated, escalation to all-out nuclear war could occur rapidly. The prevention of any use of nuclear weapons is therefore an urgent public health priority and fundamental steps must also be taken to address the root cause of the problem—by abolishing nuclear weapons.
The health community has had a crucial role in efforts to reduce the risk of nuclear war and must continue to do so in the future.
In the 1980s the efforts of health professionals, led by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), helped to end the Cold War arms race by educating policy makers and the public on both sides of the Iron Curtain about the medical consequences of nuclear war. This was recognised when the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the IPPNW.
In 2007, the IPPNW launched the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which grew into a global civil society campaign with hundreds of partner organisations. A pathway to nuclear abolition was created with the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in 2017, for which the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons was awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.
International medical organisations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, the IPPNW, the World Medical Association, the World Federation of Public Health Associations, and the International Council of Nurses, had key roles in the process leading up to the negotiations, and in the negotiations themselves, presenting the scientific evidence about the catastrophic health and environmental consequences of nuclear weapons and nuclear war.
They continued this important collaboration during the First Meeting of the States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which currently has 92 signatories, including 68 member states.
We now call on health professional associations to inform their members worldwide about the threat to human survival and to support efforts to reduce the near-term risks of nuclear war, including three immediate steps on the part of nuclear armed states and their allies: first, adopt a no first use policy; second, take their nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert; and third, urge all states involved in current conflicts to pledge publicly and unequivocally that they will not use nuclear weapons in these conflicts.
We ask them to work for a definitive end to the nuclear threat by supporting the urgent commencement of negotiations among the nuclear armed states for a verifiable, timebound agreement to eliminate their nuclear weapons in accordance with commitments in the NPT, opening the way for all nations to join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
The danger is great and growing. The nuclear armed states must eliminate their nuclear arsenals before they eliminate us. The health community played a decisive part during the Cold War and more recently in the development of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. We must take up this challenge again as an urgent priority, working with renewed energy to reduce the risks of nuclear war and to eliminate nuclear weapons.
Mar. 2023
Izumi Nakamitsu, the head of the United Nations disarmament division has warned of the need for urgent global action to eliminate atomic weapons, especially during the current heightened tensions between the United States and Russia—the world's major nuclear powers—over the conflict in Ukraine.
Addressing the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons Forum in Oslo, Norway via video, United Nations High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu linked the concept of "humanitarian disarmament" with international agreements including the Convention on Cluster Munitions, the Anti-Personnel Landmine Ban Convention, and the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).
"It is clear that a desire to avoid the unspeakable human suffering caused by the use of nuclear weapons is a driving force for nuclear disarmament efforts," Nakamitsu said. "Such efforts are needed now more than ever."
"Since the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation just over one year ago, we have witnessed an increase in dangerous nuclear rhetoric," she noted. "There has been a further breakdown of trust among the two states with the world's largest nuclear arsenals. In the past weeks, we have seen the suspension of inspections under the last remaining treaty limiting the size of these arsenals."
"Nuclear risk is at the highest level since the depth of the Cold War," said Nakamitsu, who highlighted "five key measures that can be taken" to "reverse current dangerous trends":
State parties to the TPNW should make headway in implementing their treaty and continue to forcefully advocate for its principles;
States that have yet to sign or ratify the TPNW should make a serious study of the treaty that takes into account its articles, its normative value, and its operation to date;
States that choose to remain outside the TPNW should use the avenues available to them—including victim assistance, environmental remediation, nuclear disarmament verification, and further study of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons—to make progress on nuclear disarmament;
States should condemn nuclear threats and blackmail and demand progress toward the total elimination of nuclear weapons—not in spite of, but precisely because of today's deteriorating security environment; and Civil society must continue to hold states—and the United Nations—accountable for living up to their promises, and for making tangible progress toward our shared goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.
To date, 92 nations have signed the TPNW, while 68 countries are state parties to the agreement, according to the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs. None of the world's nine nuclear powers has signed the treaty.
"Though we are living in a moment of increased confrontation and militarization, one fundamental truth remains unchanged: The only way to eliminate nuclear risk is to eliminate nuclear weapons," Nakamitsu concluded. "This remains the highest disarmament priority of the United Nations and we will continue to work with all member states and all other stakeholders to that end."
The Doomsday Clock was created in 1947 by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to convey how close humanity is to destroying itself. The Clock has become an international symbol of the world’s vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons, climate change and disruptive technologies.
Jan. 2023
The Doomsday Clock is set at 90 seconds to midnight, due largely but not exclusively to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the increased risk of nuclear escalation.
The new Clock time was also influenced by continuing threats posed by the climate crisis and the breakdown of global norms and institutions needed to mitigate risks associated with advancing technologies and biological threats such as COVID-19.
Rachel Bronson, president of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:
“We are living in a time of unprecedented danger, and the Doomsday Clock time reflects that reality. 90 seconds to midnight is the closest the Clock has ever been set to midnight, and it’s a decision our experts do not take lightly.”
The Doomsday Clock statement explains that “Russia’s war on Ukraine has raised profound questions about how states interact, eroding norms of international conduct that underpin successful responses to a variety of global risks. And worst of all, Russia’s thinly veiled threats to use nuclear weapons remind the world that escalation of the conflict—by accident, intention, or miscalculation—is a terrible risk. The possibility that the conflict could spin out of anyone’s control remains high... Russia has also brought its war to the Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia nuclear reactor sites, violating international protocols and risking widespread release of radioactive materials. Efforts by the International Atomic Energy Agency to secure these plants so far have been rebuffed.”
Mary Robinson, Chair of The Elders and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights:
“The Doomsday Clock is sounding an alarm for the whole of humanity. We are on the brink of a precipice. But our leaders are not acting at sufficient speed or scale to secure a peaceful and liveable planet. From cutting carbon emissions to strengthening arms control treaties and investing in pandemic preparedness, we know what needs to be done. The science is clear, but the political will is lacking. This must change in 2023 if we are to avert catastrophe. We are facing multiple, existential crises. Leaders need a crisis mindset.”
Ban Ki-moon, former Secretary-General of the United Nations:
“Three years ago, I helped unveil the Doomsday Clock when its hands were last moved. Today they are even closer to midnight, showing how much more perilous our world has become in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, extreme weather events and Russia’s outrageous war on Ukraine. Leaders did not heed the Doomsday Clock’s warnings in 2020. We all continue to pay the price. In 2023 it is vital for all our sakes that they act.”
Elbegdorj Tsakhia, former President of Mongolia and member of The Elders:
“As a former President of a country landlocked between two large powers, I know how important international diplomacy is when it comes to tackling existential threats. Today our world faces multiple crises. A common thread runs through them all: failure of leadership. We need a collective response rooted in the spirit and values of the UN Charter that can put us back on a pathway to peaceful co-existence and sustainable development.”
Sivan Kartha, senior scientist, Stockholm Environmental Institute, lead author for the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report said:
“Dealing with the crisis of climate change requires faith in institutions of multilateral governance and cooperation. The geopolitical fissure opened by the invasion of Ukraine has weakened trust among countries and the global will to cooperate.”
Suzet McKinney, member, Science and Security Board (SASB), Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:
“Devastating events like the COVID-19 pandemic can no longer be considered rare, once-a-century occurrences. However, disease-induced disaster can be avoided if countries around the world cooperate on global health strategies.”
Steve Fetter, National Academy of Sciences Committee on International Security and Arms Control, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:
“Even if nuclear use is avoided in Ukraine, the war has challenged the nuclear order—the system of agreements and understandings that have been constructed over six decades to limit the dangers of nuclear weapons.”
The 2023 Doomsday Clock statement details other threats and threat multipliers beyond the most immediate risks related to the Russia-Ukraine War.
Aug. 2022
Humanity’s just one misunderstanding away from ‘nuclear annihilation’ warns UN chief. (UN News)
As geopolitical tensions reach new highs, and some governments are spending billions on nuclear weapons in a false bid for peace and security, countries must uphold the nearly 80-year norm against their use, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in New York on Monday.
The UN chief was speaking at the opening of the Tenth Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which runs through 26 August.
Mr. Guterres highlighted some of the current challenges to global peace and security, with the world under greater stress due to the climate crisis, stark inequalities, conflicts and human rights violations, as well as the devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
He said the meeting is taking place amid these challenges, and at a time of nuclear danger not seen since the height of the Cold War.
“Geopolitical tensions are reaching new highs. Competition is trumping co-operation and collaboration. Distrust has replaced dialogue and disunity has replaced disarmament. States are seeking false security in stockpiling and spending hundreds of billions of dollars on doomsday weapons that have no place on our planet,” he said.
Currently, almost 13,000 nuclear weapons are now being held in arsenals around the world, he added.
“All this at a time when the risks of proliferation are growing and guardrails to prevent escalation are weakening. And when crises — with nuclear undertones — are festering, From the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula. To the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, and to many other factors around the world.”
He said today, humanity was “just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation.”
The Secretary-General underlined the importance of the non-proliferation treaty, saying it is needed “as much as ever”, while the review meeting provides an opportunity “to put humanity on a new path towards a world free of nuclear weapons.”
He outlined five areas for action, starting with reinforcing and reaffirming the norm against the use of nuclear weapons, which requires steadfast commitment from all parties to the treaty. “We need to strengthen all avenues of dialogue and transparency. Peace cannot take hold in an absence of trust and mutual respect,” he said.
Countries also must “work relentlessly” towards the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons, which begins with new commitment to shrink their numbers.
This will also mean reinforcing multilateral agreements and frameworks on disarmament and non-proliferation, which includes the important work of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
For his third point, Mr. Guterres focused on the need to address the “simmering tensions” in the Middle East and Asia.
“By adding the threat of nuclear weapons to enduring conflicts, these regions are edging towards catastrophe. We need to redouble our support for dialogue and negotiation to ease tensions and forge new bonds of trust in regions that have seen too little,” he said.
He urged governments to fulfill all outstanding commitments in the treaty, “and keep it fit-for-purpose in these trying times.”
Mar. 2022
Red Cross urgently appeals to states to ensure that nuclear weapons are never used, by Helen Durham - Director of Law and Policy, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is alarmed by recent statements made with respect to nuclear weapons.
Five years ago this month, as States were beginning the negotiations of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the ICRC recalled that "nuclear weapons are the most terrifying weapon ever invented. They are unique in their destructive power, in the unspeakable human suffering they cause, and in the impossibility of controlling their effects in space and time. They threaten irreversible harm to the environment and to future generations. Indeed, they threaten the very survival of humanity."
The ICRC and the Japanese Red Cross Society witnessed first-hand the suffering and devastation caused by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 as humanitarian personnel attempted, in near-impossible conditions, to assist the dying and injured. We cannot allow a repetition of this dark part of our past.
We know that a nuclear explosion would cause insurmountable challenges to humanitarian assistance. No State or humanitarian organization is prepared to respond to the enormous needs that a nuclear explosion would create. What we cannot prepare for, what we cannot respond to, we must prevent.
It is extremely doubtful that nuclear weapons could ever be used in accordance with the principles and rules of international humanitarian law.
The only way to guarantee that nuclear weapons are never used again is by prohibiting and eliminating them. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, of which the ICRC is a part, has repeatedly expressed its deep alarm at the increasing risk that nuclear weapons will again be used by intent, miscalculation or accident and stressed that any risk of use of nuclear weapons is unacceptable, given their catastrophic humanitarian consequences.
The introduction of nuclear weapons renders armed conflicts significantly more dangerous and risks a global conflagration in which humanity will suffer irreparably. This is a wake-up call and a call for utmost caution.
States must now heed the Movement's call on all States to promptly sign, ratify or accede to, and faithfully implement the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Pending their elimination, all States and, in particular, the nuclear possessors and nuclear-allied States must take immediate steps to reduce the risk of intentional or accidental use of nuclear weapons, based on their existing international commitments.
In 2022, the first meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and the 10th Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty will provide key opportunities, but also tests, for States to make tangible progress towards achieving nuclear disarmament, a legal obligation of the international community as a whole.
Seldom have collective action and concrete, meaningful steps to free the world of the dark shadow of nuclear weapons been more urgent.

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