12 October 2016

Nuclear weapons pose overwhelming dangers to global health, development, climate, social structures and human rights. It is time to connect up the issues and place human security and survival of the species at the centre of international decision-making.


Patricia Lewis

Dr Patricia Lewis

Research Director, International Security, Chatham House
Beyza Unal

Dr Beyza Unal

Senior Research Fellow, Nuclear Weapons Policy, International Security Department

Sasan Aghlani

Former Consultant, International Security


An Iraqi carries a gas mask that he found in the marshes crossing the southern Iraqi town of al-Azeir, April 2007. Photo: ESSAM AL-SUDANI/AFP/Getty Images.
An Iraqi carries a gas mask that he found in the marshes crossing the southern Iraqi town of al-Azeir, April 2007. Photo: Getty Images.



The purpose of this paper is to outline the connections between nuclear disarmament and some of the key issues facing humanity today. So far, enormous effort has been invested in tackling these challenges, for example, in climate change prevention and mitigation, socio-economic development, and establishing and implementing the rule of law. Furthermore, recent efforts over the protection of cultural heritage in conflict, stemming the rise of terrorism, developing cybersecurity, understanding gendered impacts and addressing urgent public health issues have all benefited from energized governmental and non-governmental diplomatic actions.

A single detonation of a nuclear weapon would have disastrous impacts on these important issues, yet the possibility of nuclear weapons use is rarely factored into policymaking in these areas. Experts and officials working on these headline issues are often unaware of the dangers that nuclear weapons still pose. There is a persistent belief that the risks associated with nuclear weapons are no longer as high as they were during the Cold War. There is also a belief that nuclear disarmament is underway and therefore no longer requires the same level of attention. Furthermore, perhaps because of these beliefs, there seems to be a lessening of interest in the connections between nuclear disarmament and sustained human progress.

This paper explores how the detonation of nuclear weapons would impact the following headline issues and how they connect to nuclear disarmament:

  1.  Climate change
  2.  Development
  3.  International law
  4.  Gender
  5.  Protection of cultural heritage
  6.  Public health
  7.  Non-state armed groups
  8.  Humanitarian action
  9.  Cybersecurity

The paper concludes that nuclear weapons pose overwhelming dangers to global health, development, climate, social structures and human rights. The detonation of nuclear weapons – whether accidentally, inadvertently or deliberately – would have disastrous immediate and long-term consequences both in the location of the detonation and also in many others parts of the world. It is time that the international community linked the issues in a coherent multilateral, high-level approach, in which human security and survival of the species is placed at the centre of international decision-making.