Credit: UNIDIR - Photo: 2014

UN Report Faults Humanitarian Vigilance In Response To Nuke Detonations

By Jamshed Baruah | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

BERLIN (IDN) – About 22,000 nuclear weapons continue to threaten humankind’s survival nearly 70 years after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and more than 2,000 nuclear tests have been conducted to date, according to the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA). But the world is far from prepared to effectively respond to nuclear weapons detonations, “even at basic levels of preparedness, let alone a large-scale nuclear war”.

This perturbing view has been expressed in a study by the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) undertaken in cooperation with OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) and UNDP (UN Development Programme) ahead of the first International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons on September 26.

The study says: “Anecdotal evidence, based on our interviews with United Nations humanitarian personnel in various agencies, indicates that nuclear detonations in populated areas, would come as a surprise to many of them – some assume plans exist for ‘lower end’ nuclear weapon detonation events, with the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) assumed to play a leadership role in providing expertise, equipment, and operational capacity.”

The study, ‘An Illusion of Safety: Challenges of Nuclear Weapon Detonations for United Nations Humanitarian Coordination and Response’, by UNIDIR experts John Borrie and Tim Caughley examines the finding of the first international conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, held in Oslo, Norway, in March 2013, which said: “It is unlikely that any state or international body could address the immediate humanitarian emergency caused by a nuclear weapon detonation in an adequate manner and provide sufficient assistance to those affected. Moreover, it might not be possible to establish such capacities, even if it were attempted.”

Portraying a nuclear weapon detonation scenario, Borrie and Caughley say: “The instantaneous effects of such a detonation event – the blast, thermal radiation, and prompt radiation from the explosion of one or more nuclear weapons – will have created many casualties and destroyed a great deal of critical infrastructure. It will have generated fear and disruption, which may lead many people to alter their normal patterns of behaviour and make disruption worse (for instance, fleeing their homes to go to already overwhelmed hospitals because they fear radiation contamination). In an important sense, any response is by definition inadequate because the immediate harm has already been done.”

According to the study, most experts seem to agree that the immediate needs of the victims in a nuclear weapon detonation event will fall on local and national authorities to the extent they still function. “In a highly populated area the humanitarian need will be vast, including from large numbers of seriously burned and injured people (many of them dying). Much of the expert literature in this area assumes that help will take days or longer to arrive – let alone international assistance.”

Challenges to the humanitarian system

The report points out that although there have been international exercises in the recent past based on scenarios such as radiological “dirty bombs” or chemical weapons use, there have been no equivalent exercises in order to understand the challenges to the humanitarian system of assisting the victims of nuclear weapon detonations events in highly populated areas.

Besides, there is no focal point within the humanitarian system for a systematic planning for response to nuclear weapon detonation-specific phenomena. Furthermore, specialized standing responsibilities such as radiation monitoring and radiation decontamination at the field level in support of humanitarian operations in the event of nuclear weapon detonations do not appear to have explicitly been allocated, either to international agencies or humanitarian partners.

A key finding of the study is that some specialized agencies view their mandated responsibilities as applying in civil radiological emergencies but not in cases of nuclear weapon use, or to certain kinds of nuclear weapon detonation scenarios (e.g. terrorism) but not others (e.g. state use, nuclear weapon accidents).

The authors of the report further point out that standing arrangements for coordination between the UN humanitarian system and relevant national authorities in the specific case of a nuclear weapon detonation event do not appear to exist, although the formation of bodies such as the Operational Preparedness Group on CBRN (Chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear) defence are encouraging developments.

“While we have no doubt the humanitarian system would swing into action as swiftly as it could, developing these arrangements in the heat of the crisis is not ideal, and would take time – with ample chance of confusion or misinterpretation that would be likely to impede the most timely and effective response,” warns the study.

Yet another conclusion of the study is that threat or fear of further nuclear weapon detonation events could vastly complicate decision-making about the nature and scale of humanitarian coordination and response, let alone its delivery.

“In the hours, days, or even weeks following a nuclear weapon detonation event, its origin, or the identity of those responsible for it, may not be known. Such uncertainty could create further nuclear crises of its own.

“Moreover, in terms of risk assessment, humanitarian actors (including relevant United Nations agencies) may feel it is too hazardous to deliver humanitarian relief to the affected. For their part, the state (or states) affected might be unwilling to accept relief until the environment is sufficiently ‘secure’. States in a position to offer assistance coordinated by the humanitarian system might be unwilling to do so if they fear further nuclear weapon detonation events are plausible. This could exacerbate suffering for those directly affected or displaced,” notes the study.

Though prevention is the best response to nuclear weapon detonation events, authors of the report feel that some advance thought and planning within the UN system “could plausibly reduce the overall level of human suffering arising from some nuclear weapon detonation events significantly, even if there is not much it could do in the immediate aftermath”.

Organizing a capacity for a response, however inadequate it may prove to be, is not simply a matter of responsible anticipation, organizational cohesion, and readiness to meet public expectations. It would also help save lives in reducing the time necessary for devising decision-making channels, coordinating the mobilization of resources, and resolving health issues relating to positioning personnel to conduct relief activities.

In essence, concludes the report, what is needed are systematic decision-making processes determined in advance and setting out clearly the premises on which mobilization will be “triggered”, based on assessments of the hazards arising, levels of contamination, and other risks to be weighed in deploying relief personnel.

According to Valerie Amos, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator and Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, and Helen Clark, UNDP Administrator, “this study reminds us all that until we achieve a world free of nuclear weapons, they will continue to pose the risk of catastrophic consequences for humanity – whatever the United Nations and its humanitarian partners endeavour to do to pick up the pieces.” IDN-InDepthNews – August 23, 2014]

2014 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters


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