International conference in French Parliament: humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons

PNND holds international nuclear disarmament conference in the French Senate. Parliamentarians, government officials, diplomats, policy analysts and civil society discuss the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons.

Semator Richard Tueiava speaking in the French Senate Semator Richard Tueiava speaking in the French Senate
On January 15, 1964, as French nuclear weapons became operational, General de Gaulle signed a decree authorizing policy for their use. No public or democratic discussion of such nuclear weapons doctrine was conducted by French parliamentarians and policy-makers then or in subsequent years.

Fifty years later, on January 20, 2014, this taboo subject was brought to the attention of French parliamentarians at an international conference in the French Senate (Palais du Luxembourg), organised by Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (PNND) and Observatoire des Armements, and hosted by PNND leaders Senators Richard Tuheiava and Leila Aichi.

The event was not just a success, but a real victory for nuclear abolition.

Nearly 200 people – including parliamentarians, government officials, diplomats, policy analysts and civil society representatives - participated in the day-long conference, and engaged in discussion on core issues of nuclear weapons, humanitarian impact, environmental consequences and the role of parliament to advance nuclear disarmament.

The first panel on the medical, humanitarian, environmental and economic consequences of nuclear weapons, included speakers from Kazakhstan, Polynesia, China and Algeria describing the impact that nuclear weapons testing has had on their people.

French nuclear test in Polynesia French nuclear test in Polynesia
The panel also included a presentation by M. Antoine PEIGNEY, Director of the International Relations of the French Red Cross, as part of the follow-up to resolutions adopted in 2011 and 2013 by the Council of Delegates of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies on the incompatibility of nuclear weapons use with international humanitarian law (IHL), and the imperative thus to achieve nuclear disarmament. (See International Red Cross Movement calls for nuclear abolition: adopts 4-year action plan). M Pigney explained, however, that those countries like France that rely on nuclear weapons for deterrence, believe that IHL does not contradict such security policies as the nuclear weapons are possessed not to use but to prevent aggression and the use of nuclear weapons by others.

The second panel discussed how the humanitarian framework for nuclear disarmament was helping to build traction for multilateral nuclear disarmament – a process which has been blocked for many years. Government representatives from Norway and Mexico explained the background to the international conferences hosted in Oslo (March 2013) and Mexico (February 2014) on this issue, and the high level of government support for a joint governmental statement on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. Civil society advocates from PNND, the World Future Council, Article 36 and the campaigns to ban landmines and cluster munitions noted the importance of the humanitarian framework to engage civil society. Public can understand, relate to and campaign against nuclear weapons based on the impacts of their use much more easily than having to debunk all the esoteric security rationales for nuclear deterrence. 

The French government has until now, resisted getting into the humanitarian debate, as it is one that makes it much more difficult to justify nuclear weapons. Thus, the participation of French Ambassador Jean-Hugues Simon Michel was very important. It was the first time, France gave an official and complete speech on the humanitarian framework. It did not signal any turn-around in French policy, which as Ambassador Michel explained, supports a slow ‘step by step’ approach to nuclear disarmament. However, the French recognition of the validity of the humanitarian debate is a positive shift and opens the door to a deeper engagement with the French government on how to move more quickly away from the reliance on nuclear weapons.

Bruno Barrillot, Senator Leila Aichi, Jean-Marie Collin, Senator Richard Ariihau Tuheiava and Patrice Bouveret Bruno Barrillot, Senator Leila Aichi, Jean-Marie Collin, Senator Richard Ariihau Tuheiava and Patrice Bouveret

The third panel, which discussed the role and power of European and French parliamentarians in nuclear disarmament, included parliamentarians from Belgium, UK and France. Positive examples were given of parliamentary questions and debates now being undertaken in their respective parliaments, and the impact that these are having on the governments. The parliamentarians noted that fiscal problems in Europe are making it easier than in the past to raise the issue of the financial costs of nuclear weapons. There is also a greater opportunity to discuss the utility of nuclear deterrence for security in the more interconnected security issues of the 21st century, which require cooperative multilateral security approaches much more than militaristic and national defense based security approaches.

One year ago PNND France organized an initial event entitled “Nuclear deterrence open the debate” in the National Assembly. Now, one year on, the discussion has grown to engage more parliamentarians cross-party, in addition to government officials and key think-tanks. And the debate is moving in the right direction – from one of the government just defending nuclear weapons no-questions-asked, to one of considering the value and implications of nuclear weapons, and the possibilities for nuclear disarmament.

A big thank you to Jean-Marie Collin PNND director for France and Patrice Bouveret Director of the Observatoire des Armements, for organising the event.