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« Humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons »

25th UNCDI Hiroshima Conference

Hiroshima - August 27th, 2015


Distinguished guests,

Dear friends,

Ladies and Gentlemen, 


I. This Conference organised in Hiroshima, only a few months after the NPT Review Conference, is all the more welcome and useful. We highly appreciate this opportunity to take a fresh look at the situation and the way forward before the next UN General Assembly.


I would like to thank the organisers for having invited me to take part in this debate, which I am deeply moved to attend. Deeply moved to be here for the first time in Hiroshima, after having spent over twenty-five years dealing with nuclear issues.


On coming here, one tries to understand, but one soon realises one cannot understand everything. As head of the French delegation to the 2010 NPT Review Conference in New York, I had the privilege of talking at length with some hibakusha. I listened to them, with enormous respect. And I also sensed all that was beyond words about Hiroshima, the limit of any representation of what happened here. Yesterday, I visited - with you and then alone - some of the town’s memorial sites. The impression of being utterly stunned by seeing what man can inflict upon himself will remain with me all my life, as the “endpoint” that forces us to question the very meaning of History.


It is obviously fundamental and legitimate to address the humanitarian impact of the atom bomb, particularly in this town that has become, with Nagasaki, the symbol of the extreme suffering caused by a nuclear explosion.


The difficulty springs from the fact that, in a matter of months, such a humanitarian concern has become, or has become once again, a political approach. This has met with some success in the form of the “humanitarian initiative”, with which everyone here is familiar. But such an approach, while interesting and legitimate, eludes, in the debate on the future of nuclear weapons, some essential aspects to which I would like to draw attention.


II. 1. The question of its humanitarian consequences arose with the bomb itself. With the very first United Nations resolution on January 24, 1946, therefore well before the first Soviet test, the issue of the humanitarian consequences, not just of the atom bomb as such, but of a nuclear confrontation, was under discussion. And should we recall that the Preamble of the NPT starts with the words: “Considering the devastation that would be visited upon all mankind by a nuclear war…” 


We can therefore ask ourselves if there is anything in the current situation that makes the humanitarian consequences particularly relevant today? Have we anything really new to contribute to the debate? For some, the answer is yes, and they advance two kinds of argument: On the one hand, the risk of a nuclear explosion should be greater than before, and secondly, the humanitarian consequences of an explosion would be greater than originally estimated.


2. These arguments deserve to be considered very seriously, even if their presentation is often more the expression of a fear than the assessment of a risk.


It is true that some States have attempted to engage in limited research on the manufacture of nuclear weapons, and others, at times, let out very disturbing statements on their possible intentions. But the two most alarming cases of proliferation, Iran and North Korea, have been, for more than ten years, the subject of constant attention and a strong sanctions regime. Ultimately, no other country has, to a lasting degree, got through the ever-more finely meshed net of international vigilance.


The question of non-State actors, terrorist groups in particular, has long been a matter of grave concern. It is probably because it is extremely difficult to steal a nuclear weapon and its vector and even more difficult to make one, that the terrorist groups have opted for infinitely easier and cheaper methods.  What is more to be feared is (i) a cyber attack on a command or control system and (ii) the manufacture and use of a “dirty” bomb, with a real humanitarian impact, although far more limited than that of a nuclear weapon.


As for the accidental triggering of a weapon, and even when considering a cyber attack, who can honestly claim that the probability is greater now than in the past?


I would not like my remarks to be misunderstood: not only should we not deny the existence of such risks but, on the contrary, we should relentlessly circumscribe them with the utmost vigilance and determination. The question is simply whether or not, present circumstances actually increase them. The answer is no. What has increased, however, is our modern societies’ aversion to risk and the enlargement of international humanitarian law.


III. Let’s turn to the humanitarian consequences. Since the building up of the cold war arsenals, the possible destruction of the planet has been at the heart of the nuclear arms issue. What new research tells us today, is that considerable damage could occur with a smaller number of nuclear weapons, because of their increased power and the greater accuracy of their vectors.


In fact, although the total number has decreased considerably, there are still enough nuclear weapons in the world to destroy all life on earth. We have known this since the sixties. There is nothing really new in this field, except for those who want to assert that the apocalypse to be feared in the future would be worse than the one we have avoided so far.


Beyond these virtual calculations, it is the political dimension of the debate we should address. For as we all know, the humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons has once again come to the fore in all disarmament circles. You all know the position of my country in this respect, and I need not repeat it.


Allow me however, in my strictly personal capacity, to say that the humanitarian approach contains elements of weakness that are difficult to overcome.


(i) The first weakness is that it short-circuits the extraordinarily complex relationship between the possession of a weapon and its use. The humanitarian approach postulates, without any demonstration, that possession leads to use and that the risk of the weapon being used is simply too great to be acceptable.


(ii) It is this fundamental difference between possession and use that leads us to the second weakness of the humanitarian approach. By denouncing the immoral and illegal nature of the use of the weapon, it bypasses the question of the morality and of the legality of its possession, which is a much more central issue in the context of a disarmament process. It leads to a sort of injunction addressed to the Nuclear States to disarm: the use of the weapon being immoral and illegal, you cannot in all conscience use it, therefore there is no point in keeping it.


I am personally convinced that such undue simplification of the relationship between possession and use, implying in fact that they are one and the same thing, may today add to the momentum of the humanitarian initiative but will in the long run, weaken its credibility.


It also comes up against its own attempt to delegitimize deterrence, by saying that a nuclear weapon is like any other weapon, in that its possession inevitably leads to its use. Yet History has shown the opposite to be the case.


Some will see, in these remarks, a defence of a “nuclear order”, which the nuclear countries only accept to modify at a snail’s pace, so much does it suit them. But the image of a nuclear asymmetry in favour of eight or nine countries and at the expense of all the others, is misleading.


Let me elaborate on that. Take the population of the eight or nine countries, add on the population of the non-nuclear NATO States who enjoy extended deterrence, and you get more than half the world population. If you add on the countries, in Asia in particular, to whom the United States has promised the protection of the American “nuclear umbrella”, you get 59% of world population - which, one might add, represent 87% of world GDP. If you say that the nuclear paradigm benefits to some States, then you must admit it does not benefit a minority of States, but the majority of world population.


Such a situation also explains to a large extent why the nuclear disarmament process is so slow. I take the world as it is. The nuclear element is an integral part of our collective security system, and one cannot change this system fundamentally, despite its shortcomings, real or imagined, without a credible alternative. I shall come back to this point.


(iii) That being said, how could one not understand that some show signs of impatience? They must be heard, but without accepting attempts to denounce falsely urgent situations, which can but widen the rift between Nuclear and Non-Nuclear States. Therein lies the third weakness of the humanitarian approach as a political dynamic. If the common goal is a world without nuclear weapons, that implies, strategically, the existence of a “higher level” common goal: the building of a credible collective security system without weapons of mass destruction. That is what should mobilise all our efforts, but it will not be possible if the dialogue is constantly marred by stigmatisation of particular States. We can only regret that this year’s NPT Review Conference in New York did not send the right signal and failed to put us on the right track.


And that is why I do not believe that nuclear disarmament can, for example, be achieved by legal means alone, for instance a convention on global elimination, developed without any reference to the strategic context.


I would like to pay tribute here to the Japanese contribution to efforts aiming at nuclear disarmament while taking into account the security interests of all states, including nuclear countries. The Japanese approach on nuclear disarmament is embodied by the resolution introduced each year in the UNGA first committee. My country supports this resolution.



IV. What is at stake is the question of peace and security in the foreseeable future in a world that has become post-nuclear.


1. Three main elements must be taken into consideration.


(i) The first, the simplest of the three, corresponds to a sad fact: the bomb cannot be unlearnt. And yet, one cannot move towards complete nuclear disarmament as long as the question of a possible resurgence of atomic weapons has not been solved - in other words, the appearance, in a denuclearised world, of a radical and no more controllable imbalance of the international system.


(ii) The second is more pragmatic. In the present context, the disappearance of nuclear weapons would mean a return to the conventional arms race. In that respect, the prospect of a world without nuclear weapons is not in itself necessarily moral or disinterested, because those nations that have a powerful arms industry will seek supremacy by increasing their conventional arsenal - or worse, by developing new arms with consequences comparable to those of nuclear weapons, but with a lower threshold of use.


(iii) This brings us to the third element, which raises by far the most serious, and perhaps the most tragic problems. The question is whether the end of nuclear deterrence would fairly soon mean the return of the great wars, which my generation had thought were definitely behind us.


2. All arguments about deterrence work both ways. One cannot prove that nuclear deterrence has prevented a new world war, or a major conflict, nor can one prove that other factors of peace played a more decisive role in maintaining relative stability among the powers.


I consider that, since Hiroshima and doubtless because of Hiroshima, deterrence is not just a matter of technology or military strategy. It contains the most extreme violence, in both meanings of the word. It carries within it the possibility of that extreme violence, and at the same time, the possibility of its restraint, or even its inhibition.


No one can think that a nuclear war or a direct confrontation between the great powers is more likely now than fifty years ago. Conversely, History has always shown us situations where no deterrence can stop the murderous madness of man. To what is after all a quite recent question about the humanitarian consequences of the nuclear weapon, and without prejudice to the legitimate aspiration of preventing any repetition of the horrific consequences of the use of nuclear weapons, one cannot but remember the tragic human toll of conflicts and wars through the centuries, even without nuclear weapons.


3. The international community is constantly faced with new questions and new challenges. But in this modern world, the great wars that characterised the 20th century have disappeared. A world without nuclear weapons remains, in the foreseeable future, both desirable and hopefully achievable. The primary objective, however, must always be world peace and stability.


It is the memory of the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that has without the slightest doubt prevented the atom bomb from being used again; that has held back the hand of the powerful in the worst moments when they were seeking to confront each other; that has acted as a powerful disincentive against a catastrophic escalation of violence between the biggest States. May the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki be for ever honoured: we are still living today under their protection./.

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