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Examining Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Conflict
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The creation of the nuclear bomb may have had a greater influence on the development of international relations than any other technological advancement in modern history. Many historians, military experts and diplomats have argued on its precise influence on international affairs, specifically on the benefits and negatives of their impact. There are numerous historical arguments, both – for and against the development and use of nuclear weapons. There are arguments that agree that the use of the nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were crucial to swiftly bring an end to the World War. In this regard, Wilson Miscamble emphasized that, the atomic bombs caused far fewer casualties to both Japanese civilians and military, and also spared American military and thousands of Allied prisoners of war imprisoned on the Japanese home islands, whom Japan had planned to execute. Miscamble further notes, “the losses in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were horrific, but they were pale in comparison to the estimates of seventeen to twenty-four million deaths attributed to the Japanese’s hideous rampage from Manchuria to New Guinea”, indicating that the longer the war continued the more innocents in Manchuria would die.[1] Other prominent strategists such as Bernard Brodie and Thomas Schelling express their support for nuclear weapons through the theory of nuclear deterrence, meaning that a state will not attack another state with nuclear weapons when the consequence will be the aggressor’s destruction when the attacked state launches its own nuclear weapons.

However, on the other hand, there are several arguments against the possession of nuclear weapons and their use. Political scientist Graham Allison has noted that if nuclear weapons continue to be prevalent and rise throughout the world, then a nuclear terrorist attack on the United States is not only likely, but inevitable.[2] Even though scholars like Henry Kissinger were one of the biggest supporters of nuclear deterrence for maintaining peace during the Cold War, this stance can be seen changing. In an essay titled ‘A World Free of Nuclear Weapons’ which Kissinger published, along with George Shultz, William Perry, and Sam Nunn, he argues that while nuclear weapons were useful during the Cold War, in modern day they only present instability. The essay further highlights that “the end of the Cold War made the doctrine of mutual Soviet-American deterrence obsolete” and that although deterrence still remains a relevant consideration for many states “reliance on nuclear weapons for this purpose is becoming increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective.”[3]

Humans are well aware of the horrors caused by “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” – the only nuclear weapons used in warfare so far – that showed the world the great number of causalities a nuclear bomb can cause, with the exact number of dead and injured still unknown. On the other hand, incidents such as the Chernobyl disaster, became an example of “the largest uncontrolled radioactive release into the environment ever recorded for any civilian operation, where large quantities of radioactive substances were released into the air for about 10 days”, leading to “serious social and economic disruption for large populations in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine.”[4] Hundreds or thousands of explosions would take place minutes apart if a nuclear conflict takes place. According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists estimates, if ‘a global all-out nuclear war was to take place between the US and Russia with the use of over four thousand 100-kiloton nuclear warheads, that would lead to a minimum of 360 million quick deaths.’ This estimate was based on the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) restrictions, which allow for the deployment of up to 2,200 strategic warheads by each nation. The 2010 New START Treaty substantially reduced the number of long-range nuclear warheads down to 1550. Nonetheless, given that the average yield of Russia's and the United States' strategic nuclear arsenals already exceeds 100 kilotons, a complete nuclear war between the two nations involving about 3,000 warheads would probably cause comparable direct casualties and soot emissions.[5]

The obvious and horrific local consequences of a nuclear explosion, often times overshadows the long-term regional and global effects of it. The focus mainly remains on short-term effects of nuclear explosions, due to the facts that from a military perspective ‘estimating the capabilities of nuclear forces on civilian and military targets’ remains of more priority. However, the long-term impacts should be of a much greater concern in a nuclear conflict scenario. A nuclear war could have widespread effects on Earth systems. Global climatic changes that could result in ‘nuclear winter’ - a deadly period of darkness, famine, toxic gases and sub-zero cold.[6] This could further result in a situation where, “global temperatures would drop lower on land than on oceans, potentially causing an agricultural collapse worldwide.”[7] Furthermore, the heat and blast from a nuclear explosion can initiate large-scale fires in both urban and rural settings. Maurin however notes that, “nuclear war will set not just one city on fire, but hundreds of them, all but simultaneously” – where smoke from mass fires could inject massive amounts of soot into the stratosphere.

Since Russia's war in Ukraine began, President Putin and other Russian officials have repeatedly threatened to use nuclear weapons in an apparent effort to deter the West from engaging in direct military engagement. If Russia were to start a nuclear war with the US and the NATO allies, then the number of devastating nuclear explosions involved in a full exchange could send more than 150 Tg of soot into the stratosphere, resulting in the disruption of virtually all forms of life on Earth over several decades. Stratospheric soot injections linked to various nuclear war scenarios will result in a wide range of significant climatic and biogeochemical changes, including alterations to the atmosphere, oceans, and land.[8]

Therefore, even a much more limited nuclear war would result in a global catastrophe, with severe humanitarian consequences, that will not just impact the countries involved but also extend to the countries far beyond.[9] During the Cold War, there was a widespread understanding of the medical consequences of the nuclear war. The growth of a sizable civil society movement encouraged by this knowledge and the subsequent realisation that nuclear war was an actual, present-day threat was crucial in persuading the nuclear superpowers' leaders to halt and ultimately reverse the weapons race. Unfortunately, the problem of nuclear war did not end with the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, fortunately, there is an increasing effort to raise awareness of the actual effects of nuclear war and the necessity of making these effects the foundation from which future nuclear policy arises.

In November 2011, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) urged for complete elimination of nuclear weapons and urged all national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies to launch educational campaigns about "the catastrophic humanitarian consequences" of nuclear conflict and the inability of the Red Cross and Red Crescent to respond in a meaningful way if nuclear weapons are used.[10] The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), a non-partisan federation of national medical groups, has launched the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, ‘that has grown far beyond the medical community and encompassed a broad swath of civil society.’[11] At a meeting of the Preparatory Committee for the 2015 NPT Review Conference held in Geneva from April 22–May 3, South Africa spoke on behalf of 80 nations and read a statement that cited the inability to effectively address the devastating humanitarian effects of nuclear conflict and called for the elimination of nuclear weapons.[12]

Thus, it is important that the public is made informed of the profoundly dangerous concerns attached with maintaining nuclear arsenals in the present times. In fact, a lot of decision-makers don't appear to be aware of the potential effects of the policies they are pursuing.[13] The central belief of these campaigns and movements still remains – to make the global community informed, and when that happens – to demand that nuclear weapons be eliminated.

Anusua Ganguly has completed her MA in Conflict Analysis and Peace-building from Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. Her current main interests are Non-Traditional Security Issues, South Asia, as well as Gender and Conflict related issues.


[1] Miscamble, Wilson. (2011, 12 December). The Least Evil Option: A Defense of Harry Truman. Public Discourse

[2] Allison, G., Carnesale, A., & Nye, J. (1986). Hawks, Doves, and Owls: An Agenda for Avoiding Nuclear War

[3] Kissinger, H., Shultz, G., Perry, W., & Nunn, S. (2007, January 4). A World Free of Nuclear Weapons. The Wall Street Journal. Available at https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB116787515251566636

[4] Chernobyl Accident 1986. World Nuclear Association. (2022, April). Available at https://world-nuclear.org/information-library/safety-and-security/safety-of-plants/chernobyl-accident.aspx#:~:text=Immediate impact of the Chernobyl,air for about 10 days

[5] Maurin, F. D. (2022, October 20). Nowhere to hide: How a nuclear war would kill you - and almost everyone else. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Available at https://thebulletin.org/2022/10/nowhere-to-hide-how-a-nuclear-war-would-kill-you-and-almost-everyone-else/#top

[6] Francis, M. R. (n.d.). When Carl Sagan Warned the World About Nuclear Winter. Smithsonian Magazine. Available at https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/when-carl-sagan-warned-world-about-nuclear-winter-180967198/

[7] Supra 5

[8] Ibid

[9] Helfand, Ira. (November 2013). The Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear War. Arms Control Today, 43(9). pp 22-26

[10] International Committee of the Red Cross, resolutions of the 2011 Council of Delegates of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and of the 31st International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, October 20. Available at https://www.icrc.org/en/doc/assets/files/publications/icrc-002-1130.pdf

[11] Ibid

[12] Government of South Africa, "Joint Statement on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons”, April 24, 2013 (statement by South Africa on behalf of the Humanitarian Initiative during the second session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons). Available at https://www.gov.za/joint-statement-delivered-ambassador-abdul-samad-minty-permanent-representative-south-africa-united

[13] Ibid

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