Humanitarian Dimension of Nuclear War in South Asia


The government discourse on the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons has long been dominated by traditional approaches to national security.

However, the increased attention being given to the humanitarian dimensions of nuclear war, after the five-year review conference of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2010, led to the need for moving beyond such a narrow ‘national security’ perspective. At the NPT review conference, all the member states fully endorsed the objective of “a world without nuclear weapons” and agreed that failure to act on nuclear disarmament could risk “catastrophic humanitarian consequences.”

As of today, nine countries together possess more than 20,000 nuclear weapons, around 3,000 of which are still kept under hair-trigger alert condition — ready for use within three minutes. In South Asia, though the number of nuclear weapons in stockpiles is not very high, the risk of their use, by design or accident, is rapidly growing. Any such use would immediately kill tens of thousands of people in an instance. It is very likely that both countries would not survive a nuclear war using even a fraction of their arsenal in existence today. The year 2012 witnessed an increased focus on the need to adopt a humanitarian-based discourse in respect of nuclear disarmament. More than 35 NPT signatories gathered to endorse the view that abolishing nuclear weapons is a precondition for the survival of our future generations on this planet. They further agreed to make strong efforts at the state level to stigmatise and ban nuclear weapons before they wipe out all of humanity.

In an unprecedented move, representatives of 130 nations gathered in March 2013, to assess the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of a nuclear war. Although the event was suddenly boycotted by five NPT nuclear-weapon states, terming it a distraction from other disarmament activities, this initiative started a new debate among nuclear experts on the moral dimensions of nuclear war. This is for the first time since the beginning of the nuclear age that humanitarian grounds for abolishing nuclear weapons have become a focal point for more than 130 countries to accelerate the pace of nuclear disarmament. These countries will meet again in 2014 in Mexico to understand the circumstances under which nuclear war might occur. It is expected that five nuclear weapon states will also participate in the next conference to put up a strong fight against nuclear weapons.

In the context of South Asia, the dangers of a nuclear war are very high because India and Pakistan have already fought three full-scale wars in 1948, 1965 and 1971, and a limited war in 1999. There is strong historical evidence to suggest that a terrorist incident or military adventure can trigger a full-blown war between the two nukes-armed countries. Some experts dismiss the danger of a nuclear war as a low-probability event and, therefore, not a concern. However, the fact of the matter is that the governments of both countries are engaged in large and highly expansive programmes to modernise their nuclear forces and ensure a strong, practical missile defence system. The threat of nuclear apocalypse is sufficiently real in South Asia and a computer failure or human error also could lead to the unintended launch of nuclear weapons.

Pakistani governments have reiterated on many occasions that in case of a major offensive from India, they will be left with no option but to use nuclear weapons first. Pakistan hopes that because of this threat the Indian armed forces will abstain from disastrous steps like the ‘Cold Start’ offensive. While Delhi has taken the stance that it will never start a nuclear conflict and is also ready for an agreement on “no first uses” of nuclear weapons, its armed forces have undertaken military exercises deliberately showing capabilities to destroy Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. The Indian nuclear establishment has also been seeking the capability to launch a nuclear attack if they believe Pakistani nuclear missiles are armed and ready for launch. After getting such impressions, Pakistani nuclear experts may also seek to pre-empt a nuclear attack from India by using its weapons even earlier. This scenario suggests that a false alarm or error of judgement can start a nuclear war between the two countries.

On both sides of the border, there are hawkish elements that wield great influence in official circles and do not want to strengthen mutual trust. Unfortunately, the political leaderships in both countries lack the wherewithal to rein in anti-peace lobbies. The tragedy of Indo-Pak relations is that the extremist elements do occupy pivotal positions in policy and decision-making circles. In a recently published book, famous nuclear physicist Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy reveals that in the early 1990s, Pakistan’s Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee General Shamim Alam Khan asked him to calculate roughly the number of casualties in case of a nuclear attack from India. When Dr Hoodbhoy calculated that almost 13 per cent of our population would die, General Alam termed it a “tolerable injury and hence not sufficient reason to hold back from a nuclear war”. This kind of thinking also exists in India. Top Indian politicians have been threatening Pakistan with nuclear annihilation. India’s most influential defence analyst, K S Subrahmanyam, has also openly advocated the use of nuclear weapons.
The tragedy of Indo-Pak relations is that the extremist elements do occupy pivotal positions in policy and decision making circles.
In 2006, Alan Robock, a famous US climatologist, undertook extensive research on the consequences of a potential limited nuclear war between Pakistan and India. Examining the effects of this scenario, he found that even if the two countries used less than one-half of their current arsenal, more than 20 million innocent people would die within the first week from blast effects, burns and radiation exposure. Even a single nuclear explosion over cities like Karachi, Lahore, Mumbai or Delhi would completely destroy all buildings within five kilometres of the area. In addition to eradicating the social infrastructure, nuclear attacks would leave long-lasting and extreme environmental effects. A nuclear war between the two countries would totally change the politics and geography of both countries, and provoke shocking responses from the people.

Abolishing nuclear weapons is a paramount challenge for the people and governments of both India and Pakistan. Many nuclear experts opine that a nuclear war between the two countries would not remain limited to South Asia, and would engulf other nuclear powers. The bottom line argument is that discussions about nuclear weapons should not be focused on narrow perspectives of nuclear security but the indiscriminate devastation they cause. Robert J Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project’s leader, rightly said, “I have become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.”

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