International Humanitarian Law, nuclear weapons and the role of parliamentarians

There are a number of exciting developments in the area of international humanitarian law (IHL) and nuclear weapons that are opening the door to the global abolition of nuclear weapons. Parliamentarians have a unique opportunity to seize these developments and strengthen the growing norm against nuclear weapons through your respective legislatures.

IHL governs the use of weaponry and force in war. It prohibits the use of weapons or methods of warfare that cause indiscriminate harm to civilians (who are protected), cause unnecessary suffering to combatants, violate neutral territories, are dis-proportionate to the precedent attack or military objective, or cause long-term and severe damage to the environment.

The inhumane and indiscriminate effects of landmines and cluster munitions provided an imperative to prohibit those weapons despite their potential military utility. This helped bring about the landmines and cluster munitions treaties. Recent initiatives to apply IHL to nuclear weapons provide a similar imperative to achieve a global treaty banning nuclear weapons.

In May 2010, States Parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty agreed that all States must 'at all times comply with applicable international law, including international humanitarian law', and that 'any use of nuclear weapons' would cause 'catastrophic humanitarian consequences'.

On February 11, 2011, a group of international law experts released the Vancouver Declaration: Law's Imperative for the Urgent Achievement of a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World. Click here for a list of endorsers.

On October 19, 2011, a group of leading non-governmental organisations including the Global Security Institute, launched the Nuclear Abolition Forum to facilitate dialogue on the process to achieve and sustain a nuclear weapons free world. The inaugural issue focuses on IHL and Nuclear Weapons. The launch included a presentation by Rosalyn Cook (World Court Project UK) of Citizens' Affirmations of the Criminality of Nuclear Weapons Use.

On November 26, 2011, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movements adopted a resolution on the irreconcilability of nuclear weapons with IHL, calling for States to undertake in good faith, and conclude, negotiations to prohibit the use of and completely eliminate nuclear weapons through a legally binding international agreement. The resolution also calls on Red Cross and Red Crescent societies to engage with relevant actors on the humanitarian and international humanitarian law issues associated with nuclear weapons. The International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) and some Red Cross/Crescent societies have produced excellent materials and activities. See:

Suggested parliamentary actions:

  1. Endorse the Vancouver Declaration; (send endorsement to johnburroughs@lcnp.org)
  2. Contact your national section of Red Cross/Red Crescent to see what they are planning to do to implement the November resolution;
  3. Submit the Vancouver Declaration and the Red Cross/Red Crescent resolution to your parliament;
  4. Affirm the criminality of nuclear weapons use;
  5. Call on your government to join with others in commencing negotiations on a global ban on nuclear weapons. (See A Global Law to Ban Nuclear Weapons)

Further reading: