We hate to tell you this, but the only thing that might prevent a nuclear war, at least one involving the United States (US), could be the willingness of some poor soul in the White House to tackle the President, perhaps rugby style, before he gives the order that will launch a nuclear strike. Hot money would be that it would be towards the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) but then there are other targets waiting in the wings.
How on earth did we get here? Since 1945 and the creation of the United Nations, we have built an entire system to regulate international relations: institutions for dialogue and negotiation, courts and tribunals to adjudicate disputes, and, with the International Criminal Court (ICC), to prosecute those who commit international crimes. We also have many fora for discussion and debate, such as the Human Rights Council, the General Assembly, and the Security Council. We also have the Secretary-General and his office, and other UN agencies and international treaty bodies. And yet, it looks like we may have to rely instead on the rugby tackle noted above.
If this doesn’t sound right to you, it shouldn’t. We really don’t want that the chain of event is leading from the command to launch a nuclear weapon and the execution of that command, but we shouldn’t be relying on people tackling the President to be a part of that sequence.
Discussions about how to prevent the US President from ordering nuclear war have been in the news recently. But such discussions should not be focused on one President. This is a much bigger issue. It’s about nuclear weapons, not who possesses them.
No one could have missed the build-up of tensions, yet again, around the unfinished war in the Korean peninsula. Unfinished, since there is no peace agreement, only a ceasefire precariously keeping war at bay since 1953. The DPRK government has consistently said that it sought to develop nuclear weapons to prevent US-led regime change or invasion of the country. This thinking is the inevitable result of a few countries insisting on their “right” to nuclear weapons as a “deterrent” to conflict or proliferation. The reality is that nuclear weapons do not deter conflict, they exacerbate tensions. Nuclear weapons do not prevent nuclear proliferation, they incite it.
No one should be allowed to threaten cities and countries with weapons designed to slaughter civilians. Not the United States, not the DPRK, not any one. And countries that are feeling caught in the crosshairs of this escalation of verbal threats and missile tests must not use this moment as an excuse to call for armament or for actions against nationals of these countries. Instead, these countries should join the majority of the world in supporting the total prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons by signing and ratifying the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and rejecting these heinous weapons once and for all. This would be the most rational choice governments can make.
On Tuesday this week, the DPKR test launched an intercontinental ballistic missile. The Security Council held an emergency session on Wednesday afternoon. Trump tweeted about more sanctions, while the US ambassador at the Council said it doesn’t seek a war with the DPRK, but “If war comes, make no mistake, the North Korean regime will be utterly destroyed.”
Coercion, military rhetoric, and global politicking has not worked. More of the same will not work. And for sure, there can be no military solution that will work.
Ahead of the emergency meeting, UN Secretary-General António Guterres “strongly condemned” the ballistic missile launch, urged the DPRK to desist from further testing, and reaffirmed “his commitment to working with all parties to reduce tensions.”
In New York last month, we asked questions of UN officials and representatives of member states regarding measures that are being taken to address the current, very serious threat to international peace and security. The question was something of a surprise to many.
On one hand, business was going on as usual in New York. NGOs and the UN were engaging in the Sustaining Peace resolution (as an institution established to keep the peace, why is such a resolution necessary some would ask), but without mentioning the very obvious need to apply it to the Korean peninsula and the bellicosity of the US and DPRK. Indeed, why was the US not censured for Trump’s remark, made in his first address to the General Assembly this year that the US may “have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea”?
In response to our questions, we were told that we should be pleased that the Security Council was unanimous in increasing sanctions on DPRK. We are not. Sanctions tend to affect civilians more than governments—particularly women. But that wasn’t the question in any case. We wanted to know what is happening in terms of bringing the parties together, reducing the war mongering rhetoric, and finding a permanent solution. A selection of answers ensued: It is assumed that there are discussions, but this is not known for sure; it is assumed that the Secretary-General will be using his good offices to mediate, but its not known if that has yet happened; it is assumed that the UN will be asked to intercede, but there is nothing being tabled so far. Privately, officials, when asked directly, admitted that they were personally very, very worried.
An alternative to war is disarmament
On the other hand, however, business is not usual in New York. Just this past July, 122 governments that have rejected nuclear weapons adopted a new international instrument. The Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons outlaws these weapons completely—not just their use, but also their possession. It recognises that nuclear weapons are safe in no one’s hands: it’s not just about Trump or Kim. The problem is the existence of weapons that are designed to slaughter civilians en masse, lead to generations of radioactive violence, and create conditions for famine and economic collapse.
For years and continuing, advocates of nuclear disarmament have been called naïve. The dominant mantra by the political elite in countries that possess them or use them as a security blanket was and is that nuclear weapons have kept us safe, and that the absence of a world war is, apparently, the evidence of that. (Though don’t ask a Syrian, an Afghan, an Iraqi, a Yemeni, a Libyan, or a long list of others whether they would agree that nuclear weapons have “prevented conflict”). Even after the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) not only helped states achieve a Treaty but was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, those derogatory comments have continued.
Let us look at what is happening and where naïveté really lies. Right now the world has to rely on assumptions: that in any conflict, nuclear weapons will not be used. That the “system” will kick in to prevent international conflict. That, even in the event of conflict and the possibility of using nuclear weapons, the checks and balances within the US system are such that no random act of an unstable president could cause a nuclear exchange.
No, no, and no. Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un have made it clear that they would use nuclear weapons. The “system” is designed to enable them to do so. We don’t know much about the DPRK’s system, but what we know about the US system is cause for alarm. The exact sequence of events necessary to launch nuclear weapons are classified, but debate is raging within the US “system” about whether commanders could refuse orders they deemed “illegal,” or how they would make such an assessment”. Former nuclear missile launch officer Bruce Blair has said that it would be “almost impossible” to override a decision by the US President to implement an existing nuclear strike plan.
The underlying problem here is that nuclear weapons exist at all. The “system” has failed us already by allowing nuclear-armed states to backtrack on their legal obligations to disarm, by allowing them instead to invest billions of dollars upgrading their arsenals, extending the lifetimes of their bombs and their missiles into the indefinite future.
The naïveté of security through nuclear weapons is the real problem. The idea that nuclear weapons provide security is based on a belief that these weapons will never be used. But they have been used. They were used to slaughter civilians in Japan at the end of World War II. They have killed civilians and soldiers, and led to massive contamination, on the lands on which they have been tested—including aboriginal Australians, Pacific islanders, Kazakhs, Algerians, and more. Nuclear weapons create massive instability—and inequality—throughout the world. They suck up incredible economic and human resources. They distort global politics: nine countries possess them and rule the world with terror. They are a point of instability across Europe, where US allies argue they need “protection” from nuclear weapons from a potential Russian threat. Or Iranian threat. Or insert-country-name-here threat. They are perceived as benefits of an elite minority clinging to power. But at the end of the day, they are weapons of genocide and of suicide. A nuclear war would not just kill “the enemy”. It would kill us all.
The importance of international law
So where are the rest of us left? With the law. Law must govern our “system”. Law should also accurately describe and reflect the events that it is called upon to adjudicate. If there were to be conflict, even a so-called conventional war, in the Korean peninsula, the calculation is that there would be 500,000 casualties in the first hour. If nuclear weapons were used, then it is likely that the majority of people in Korea will die, ether immediately or eventually. What chances are there for those in the region and further afield? What chances are there for the environment to ever recover?
How would or should law describe and reflect such destruction? And after the fact, would it really matter? Maybe not—as who would be around to seek justice? But it does matter now, since it should dictate how states and the UN should respond to this “threat to international peace and security”.
The Secretary-General has prioritized prevention of conflict and taking “early action on preventing violent conflict” by:
- Mapping, linking, collecting, and integrating information from across the international system;
- Supporting national capacities for facilitation and dialogue; and
- Ensuring that UN good offices, mediation, crisis response, and peacebuilding services are easily and rapidly deployable.
This is absolutely needed now. He needs to be doing all of the above. Not least because it is where international law leads us.
Three areas of law are implicated in the emerging crisis: human rights, international humanitarian law, and genocide.
No question that conflict will lead to violations of human rights. There are so many rights which would be violated in a conflict, particularly in a nuclear conflict, that for the moment we focus purely on the right to life. To short circuit the point, we cite the following from the draft General Comment of the Human Rights Committee 2015:
The [threat] or use of weapons of mass destruction, in particular nuclear weapons, which are indiscriminate in effect and can destroy human life on a catastrophic scale, is incompatible with respect for the right to life and may amount to a crime under international law. ……They (States) must also respect their international obligations to pursue in good faith negotiations.
Not adopted, as yet, but it builds on all existing law relating to the right to life and to any normal person is undeniably right. It is law accurately describing the realities of what would happen in the event of nuclear war.
Adding in the other violations, there is an obvious need for the human rights institutions to kick in.
So, High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid, please apply that kick! Call for an emergency session of the Human Rights Council to come up with a resolution, identify the interested parties (all states in the region would be affected), and call for negotiations so as to prevent massive violations of human rights.
Under international humanitarian law (IHL), all states have a positive obligation to “respect and ensure respect” for the Geneva Conventions (1949) (Common Article 1). IHL insists on the protection of non-combatants, in particular civilians, from prohibited acts, one of which is the targeting of areas where civilian casualties would be disproportionate to the military goal sought. The rhetoric of both Trump and Kim make it clear that they are prepared to slaughter hundreds of thousands of civilians, although neither have stated what the military goal actually is in such an exchange. There is more to be said on the grave breaches that would undoubtedly occur, but the targeting of or “indiscriminate attacks on” civilians should be sufficient to start the prevention mechanisms rolling.
In this regard, it is vital that the International Committee of the Red Cross, as the custodians of the Geneva Conventions, add its powerful voice to those who can see a violation of IHL waiting to happen and seek to prevent it.
Lastly there is the Prevention of Genocide Convention (1948), which obliges states to prevent and punish genocide. Genocide is considered the most heinous of crimes and for good reason. The recent decision of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in the case of Mladic shows the horrors that it covers, but also the very high bar that has been set for its effective prosecution. Intent has to be shown.
“… genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
This is the core of the Convention. The obligation is to prevent genocide. There is not enough time to adjudicate whether Trump or Kim “intend” to commit genocide at this stage, to see if we can argue that Donald Trump wants to obliterate Koreans because of his General Assembly remarks? Or vice versa, for comments made by Kim Jong-un, about dropping a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific or attacking Guam? We know already that in real life, the result of any use of nuclear weapons would, as mentioned above, lead to the destruction of an entire group, “in whole or in part”. We all know this. Is it impossible then to suggest that if you proceed to carry out an act that you know will lead to genocide you do NOT have that intention? That must be the logical interpretation even if not adjudicated in courts as yet. Our plea is that it will not HAVE to be adjudicated in a court.
What we do know is that the International Court of Justice (ICJ), in the case of Bosnia v. Serbia (2007), affirmed that the obligations of third-party states expand or contract in scope in relation to the state’s knowledge, capacity, and connections to the violating state, in particular the geographic proximity, military, political, economic ties, or other influence that can be exerted. This applies to relations with the potentially violating state, vis the US and DPRK.
The members of UN General Assembly and the Security Council do have such relations with the potential belligerents, in multiple ways. Sanctions have been applied to one party, but it seems as if no reciprocal influence has been brought to bear on the US. There must be.
The importance of prevention
In October this year, Nobel Peace laureates wrote to the Secretary-General building on the work done by Women Crossing the DMZ (of which some of the laureates are members), who have for a long time and at considerable risk been trying to draw attention to the dangers of leaving the Korean peninsula without a Peace Agreement. They received no answer. That is not acceptable. The Secretary-General must now use his good offices, openly and with a view to “kick start” the system of law and of “peace and security” into action. Civil society are part of the system, and we too must take our responsibilities seriously. We cannot do “business as usual” either.
We can be fairly sure that the vast majority of people on the planet do not want a nuclear war, or a conventional war. The UN can no longer ignore the considerable risks being faced and assume that all will be well.
Prevention takes action. At the moment there are fires burning in too many places already where we failed to prevent humanitarian catastrophes. In Myanmar it looks as if there has been genocide. Korea is slipping along the runway to war. Lebanon? Saudi Arabia? Iran? The Balkans again?
Action must be taken: coordinated, coherent, calmly and objectively orchestrated, and guided by international law, promulgated as a result of past human failures, to try to prevent us repeating erstwhile horrors. We can and must do better.
- Madeleine Rees - Secretary General for WILPF International
- Ray Acheson - Director of WILPF’s Reaching Critical Will Programme