NPT countries agreed at the 2010 Review Conference on “the need for all states at all times to comply with applicable international law, including humanitarian law.” A coalition of governments and civil society groups has now mobilized to draw attention to the humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons. Thirty-four countries and the Holy See have agreed to press the nuclear-weapon states to outlaw nuclear weapons for humanitarian reasons. Do all nuclear-armed states accept that humanitarian law is applicable to their policies of nuclear deterrence and possible use? How could the use of nuclear weapons be consistent with humanitarian law? Conversely, if using nuclear weapons were the only way for a state to defeat a survival-threatening aggression, how could considerations of humanitarian law be reconciled with the right to self-defense? More broadly, if the perceived security imperatives of nuclear deterrence cannot be reconciled with sparing innocent life, what are the implications for international politics and the future of the nonproliferation regime? Does the legal debate actually matter or is this really about delegitimizing nuclear weapons?

Nina Tannenwald, Elbridge A. Colby, Benno Laggner, and Li Bin discuss the humanitarian dimensions of nuclear war, deterrence and disarmament. Share your comments and questions below.