“Nuclear Involvement Under International Law — Humanitarian Implications of the Use of Nuclear Weapons”

The following remarks were presented by Henry Lowendorf to the International Conference for a Nuclear Weapons and Weapons of Mass Destruction-Free Zone in the Middle East, held in Haifa, Israel on Dec. 5-6, 2013. Dr. Lowendorf is a member of the Executive Committee of the US Peace Council.

Thank you to Issam Makhoul and the organizing committee for the warm reception in Haifa, the opportunity to participate, and most of all for unfolding this important, indeed historical, conference at such a critical and volatile time. Great changes are taking place in the region of the Middle East with its huge supplies of fossil fuels and tremendous geopolitical importance. What is opening before us is like a novel: we know the actors, we know the plot and we await the outcome. But unlike a novel, we too are actors.

This conference comes on the heels of the most powerful outpouring of popular anti-war sentiment in the US since the 1970’s. When President Obama threatened to bomb Syria over that government’s alleged use of chemical weapons, hundreds of thousands of North Americans called their representatives in Congress and shouted a deafening “NO!” This spontaneous action grew in people who had over the course of 12 years witnessed three unsuccessful wars and had been badly burned by an economy that is devastating them and, after 5 years, has not come close to recovering. Obama was forced to back down and choose plan B, negotiation.

After 33 years where the US refused to negotiate differences with Iran, preferring to bully and attack, the administration realized popular opposition to yet one more, even bigger war, meant it had to choose plan B, negotiations.

The uprisings in so many Arab nations, with all their successes and setbacks, are unlikely to subside. The ground is shaking under our feet. Our task here is to encourage our neighbors not to run for shelter, but rather to add our shoulders to the shake.

War and endless war

To a large extent International Humanitarian Law is aimed at protecting civilians and their property in times of war. I am far from an expert on this topic. What I propose to do here is step outside the restricted universe that specifies armed conflict because in my lifetime war itself has been and even now is being redefined. I focus my attention on the actions of the state that for nearly a century is the greatest military and economic power the world has ever known, my own country, the United States of America.

Nuclear weapons can’t be used

Nuclear weapons were first used on the civilian populations of Japan after the war was already won. We must ask ourselves whether nuclear weapons have any practical value at all. Threatening their use did not stop the Koreans or the Vietnamese from seeking to rule their own countries. A number of major cold warriors—former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Schultz among others—have proposed banning nukes. The US is way ahead in development, testing and use of conventional weapons, they reason. For the US to maintain overwhelming conventional superiority is sufficient and preferable. Nuclear weapons dropped in the Middle East or in India or Pakistan would have disastrous consequences for the neighboring countries, including the perpetrator. Ten or twenty nuclear detonations over cities would rapidly reverse climate overheating and instead give us nuclear winter with genocidal and ecocidal effects. If we agree that nuclear war is politically impractical because it destroys all sides, there is little left to discussing the humanitarian consequences. But here I have to chew a little on my own words. The recent Oslo conference on the humanitarian consequences provided an opportunity for non-nuclear weapons states and NGO’s to move forward the discussion on abolition of nuclear weapons because the US and other major nuclear weapons states boycotted it and therefore gave away their opportunity to block progress. That outcome and the threat by the overwhelming majority of states to bypass the nuclear weapons states makes next February’s conference in Mexico even more desirable.

War by any other definition

The US Constitution gives our Congress the sole authority to declare war. It is well known that since the end of WWII, Congress has almost entirely handed this authority to the President. Each US administration has found many ways to walk around the US Constitution. The war on Korean soil of the 1950’s was called a “police action.” No declaration of war needed. Although the US was already waging war on the Vietnamese in 1968, it used false charges that North Vietnam attacked US vessels in the Tonkin Gulf to get a willing Congress to justify and escalate that war.

More recent aggression against Afghanistan was justified because President George W. Bush charged that the terrorist action of 11 September was orchestrated there. No matter that no Afghans were involved and Afghanistan had not threatened or attacked the US. Aggression against Iraq in 2003 was based on the lie that it had WMD. The 2011 aggression on Libya was justified by arguing it was intervention for humanitarian purposes, otherwise known as “Humanitarian Imperialism.” The ongoing threats of explosive war and the existing warlike economic sanctions against Iran are based on the assertion not that Iran has WMD—because US and Israeli intelligence services and the UN say it doesn’t—but because it may soon have that capability. We should not ignore the devastating US-manufactured economic sanctions on Cuba, now over 60 years old, punctuated initially with an unsuccessful invasion, and reaching far beyond the territory of the US, despite being opposed by nearly every country on the planet in United Nation votes every year.

The ugly humanitarian consequences of these wars on the societies violated, on the aggressor’s own youth, their families and society, lasting long after the overt expressions of war have ended, are well documented.


The UN Charter outlaws threats because the point for one country to intimidate another is for the first to get the second nation and its people to bow without the aggressor having to lift a finger. How cheaply, how efficiently, how easily can the aggressor eliminate its adversaries?

For instance, we now have a new form of aggression: Drone warfare. The people of Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia have been targets. Our brothers and sisters living in these countries are considered guilty until proved innocent, but once they are dead, proof of innocence is meaningless. Any bodily remains are determined by definition of the US administration to be those of terrorists. As was done in Vietnam, all the dead including infants, the elderly, the infirm were simply and efficiently designated Vietcong: the enemy. President Obama has stated that he approves each drone hit. He has become police, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. No war declaration is used. No need to ask Congress. No input from the body politic. The arguments for the use of drones include fewer unintended casualties, little to no risk of casualties to the launching country—at least in the short run—and relatively low cost. People in the regions attacked by drones report being terrorized by sudden death from the sky. Who wouldn’t? Will they be cowed or will they fight back knowing what country is raining death on their loved ones?

Drone technology lowers the bar not only for other nations to engage their use but for the level of the importance of the target. Currently we are told that drones are used against alleged terrorists. But we now know that the US has launched drone missiles against other politically relevant targets. This is the exercise of lethal force against noncombatants where no armed conflict and no immediate or even violent threat exists. With all their technical sophistication, drones are still violent means to achieve political ends.


We have some experience with the humanitarian consequences of nuclear war. No sane person would want to repeat that. We have much more experience with the humanitarian consequences of conventional war. I cannot see how a sane person would want to continue that. Despite the trillions of US dollars spent on building and using last century’s killing machines, the most current ones are becoming much more sophisticated and elegant. Push a button in Syracuse or Las Vegas and a house or car blows up 10,000 miles away.

In 1945, the world thought nuclear weapons were the ultimate weapon. We now know that they led down a road that is a dead end. Some think that drones are the ultimate weapon. We are not so easily persuaded.

The humanitarian consequences of poverty bring untold misery and death. The financial elites have so far convinced billions of people that their austerity, their impoverishment, is the solution to the consequences of the crimes of the financial elites. They use no killing machines to do so, not even drones. If the powerful can get what they want with disinformation, miseducation and propaganda and without armed conflict, will they not prefer those methods?

The documents exist that give us tools to resist poverty and war. In particular the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Human Right to Peace. We must engage and empower the millions in the US who rose up to challenge President Obama’s threats of war on Syria and Iran. And we must support and join the millions in streets around the globe who are rising up to challenge austerity. And we must connect the two. That is our challenge.




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