The horrors of the attack in Syria have shown the danger inherent in the continued possession of weapons of mass destruction. The global outrage in response to the carnage caused by the use of chemical weapons is proof that until they are eradicated, there is a significant risk that one day they will be used, whether by intention or by accident. Nuclear weapons, for all their status and symbolism, are not exempt from this stark reality, and the cost of neglecting to recognize this would be disastrous.
Nuclear weapons are designed to destroy cities. They are indiscriminate weapons, whose effects cannot be limited or controlled. Furthermore, the use of even a small fraction of existing arsenals -- more than 17,000 warheads -- would disrupt the climate and threaten agricultural production, leading to the starvation of up to two billion people.
As was made clear by the Hiroshima Committee of Experts in their analysis of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima, "It is not possible to protect civilians from a nuclear weapons attack. To protect civilians, there is no measure other than to prevent a nuclear weapons attack from occurring, whether it be deliberate or accidental. To prevent the use of nuclear weapons, there is no way other than to abolish nuclear weapons themselves."
Study upon study has pointed to the inability to prevent or care for civilian casualties on a mass scale. Mitigation is simply impossible for a weapon capable of producing temperatures comparable to the centre of the sun.
Nuclear weapon possessors are, of course, not ignorant of the true effects of nuclear weapons, just as they are not ignorant of the double standard that is afforded these weapons compared to other weapons of mass destruction. The truth is that, for decades, nuclear weapons have been given an almost mythological status: they are seen as 'keepers of the peace' or 'necessary evils.' They have been transmuted into symbols of power and prestige for the political and military elites of nuclear possessor states.
By keeping the focus on their humanitarian impact, we acknowledge that nuclear weapons are weapons -- not policy tools. No security doctrine or theory can completely obscure the fact that any use of nuclear weapons would entail catastrophic humanitarian consequences -- massive civilian casualties and irreparable damage to the environment, public health and the world economy.
Nuclear disarmament is not solely the province of nuclear weapon possessors. Nuclear weapons are a global humanitarian threat, and the responsibility to eliminate them lies with nuclear free states as much as it does with nuclear weapon possessors. On September 26, the UN General Assembly will hold the first ever High-Level Meeting on Nuclear Disarmament, which will be attended by heads of state and foreign ministers. This is an opportunity for nuclear free states to seize the day and steer their own course toward a world free from nuclear weapons.
Images and reports from Syria have reminded us of the reason why international standards must be set. Weapons that cannot discriminate between military targets and civilians, between armed combatants and infants, are anathema to any sense of human dignity. Chemical and biological weapons have been banned through legally binding international instruments. Nuclear weapons are, therefore, an anomaly among weapons of mass destruction. The acceptability of this status quo must end, and this starts with a treaty banning nuclear weapons. While armed conflicts persist, international norms that condemn civilian casualties and demand the preservation of human dignity must respected, and where there are gaps, we must fill them.
Recognising the catastrophic humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons means taking a clear position against the acceptability of these weapons. It means clearly articulating that the possession and threat of use of nuclear weapons are directly opposed to humanitarian principles and formulating that stigma into a legally binding instrument which bans them outright.
Liv Tørres, Secretary General, Norsk Folkehjelp (Norwegian People's Aid)
Madeleine Rees, Secretary General, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF)
Philip Jennings, General Secretary, UNI Global Union
Jan Gruiters, Executive Director, IKV Pax Christi
Kate Hudson, General Secretary, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND)
Akira Kawasaki, Member of the Executive Committee, Peace Boat
Michael Christ, Executive Director, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW)
Hirotsugu Terasaki, Executive Director, Soka Gakkai International (SGI)
Partners of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a global campaign coalition of more than 300 organisations in 80 countries with the goal of achieving a ban on nuclear weapons.