11 December 2014
The Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons spoke to the risks and moral questions of nuclear weapons, and raised important questions for the global nuclear community.

Heather Williams

Former Chatham House Expert


Paper lanterns float in the Motoyasu River in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome at the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima on 6 August 2014. Photo by Getty Images.
Paper lanterns float in the Motoyasu River in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome at the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima on 6 August 2014. Photo by Getty Images.


On 8-9 December the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosted a conference, the third of its kind, on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, which was attended by nearly 160 states. The conference differed from its predecessors in being more politically charged but it continued to ask paradigmatic and practical questions of the global nuclear order. In closing, Austria offered a comprehensive pledge to share the findings of the conference and to work with all relevant stakeholders ‘in efforts to stigmatize, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons in light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences and associated risks.’

Nuclear weapons are back on the agenda with North Korean belligerence, the Iran nuclear talks, and the crisis with Russia and concerns about its compliance with arms control agreements. There have also been changes in the nuclear discourse, largely due to the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons initiative, launched in 2012. With around 160 participants, the Vienna Conference was bigger than its predecessors (128 states attended the 2013 conference in Oslo, Norway and 146 attended Nayarit, Mexico in 2014) and there was a greater diversity of views. The United States and United Kingdom joined this conference for the first time, along with an unofficial representative from China.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Vienna and its predecessors, however, was that the conference dealt more directly with strategic and political issues. The Oslo and Nayarit conferences avoided debates over deterrence and geopolitical balancing, aside from occasional comments about regional security concerns.  At the talks in Vienna, numerous countries used the diplomatic opportunity to express opposition to Russian aggression. In particular, Ukraine made a statement about Russian ‘military dominance’ and its capability and desire to demonstrate nuclear superiority over NATO and the US.

In addition, while the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was mentioned in previous conferences, it was at the forefront in Vienna in the lead-up to the NPT Review Conference in May 2015. Expectations are low for the Review Conference, but many states, such as Germany, referred to the ’joint interest’ in strengthening and sustaining the NPT. Hopefully, this effort and focus will broaden to include India and Pakistan, which have participated in all the conferences, as well as  Israel and North Korea. In addition, the statements by the US and UK and their presence in Vienna demonstrated that countries with nuclear deterrence policies are willing to participate in a humanitarian approach. The permanent five members of the UN Security Council (P5) previously accused the humanitarian impacts approach of being a ‘distraction’ from the step-by-step process towards disarmament and of risking undermining the NPT.

At the Vienna Conference, four questions and themes emerged for the global nuclear order, as it evolves in response to the Iran talks, a resurgent Russia, and pressure from non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) for further progress on disarmament.

First, is there an acceptable level of risk in living with nuclear weapons? According to the chair’s summary, the risks of nuclear weapons are ‘unacceptable’ and ‘increase over time’ and ‘limiting nuclear weapons to a deterrence role does not eliminate the risk of their use.’ With the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons shifted from the forefront to the back-burner of political and public thought. As a result, much of the expertise on the risks associated with nuclear weapons has stagnated. These risks include accidents, miscalculation, and the escalation of crises in regions where nuclear weapons are present. The Vienna meeting captured the scale of the risks and the increasing worries about the cyber vulnerabilities of nuclear forces.

Second, the humanitarian impacts of nuclear testing were in the forefront at Vienna with a panel of victims of nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, Australia, and the US and, later from the floor, a contribution from Kazakhstan. This theme offers a way ahead for the initiative, particularly for the P5, along with India and Pakistan, to acknowledge the humanitarian impacts of nuclear testing and to promote the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, building on the prohibition of nuclear testing in the atmosphere and underground.

Third, hearing the testimony of victims of nuclear bombings and testing has a deep emotional impact, and raises awareness of the consequences of nuclear weapons detonation with potential policy impact. Ethical and moral questions were both implicit in hearing about children playing in the ‘snow’ in the Marshall Islands, and explicit with a message from Pope Francis questioning the ethical framework of nuclear deterrence and calling on us to stay true to the tenets of the peace and love in the human heart.

Fourth, ‘trust’ was a frequent theme in Vienna. India discussed the need to increase trust on the path towards disarmament within the context of the Conference on Disarmament. Activists, such as Michelle Thomas, a victim of US nuclear testing, spoke of distrust towards their governments. And the UK stated that trust, confidence, and verification measures are needed on the path to disarmament in order to maintain strategic stability.

Distrust seems pervasive in the current global nuclear order, particularly the deteriorating situation with Russia and lack of opportunities for further US-Russia arms control, along with Russia’s announcement that it will not attend the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit. This is compounded by the end of cooperation with the US to secure Russian nuclear materials. What the Vienna Conference demonstrated, however, was that the majority of countries understand what is at stake. They want to build trust and take seriously their nuclear responsibilities, to move forward within the global nuclear community.

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback