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The Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons

18 February 2013

People and objects crashing into one another; collapse of telecommunications, transport networks and water supplies; environmental catastrophe; massive starvation and long-term health consequences affecting children: this is not an apocalyptic scenario taken from a science fiction film of James Cameron, but a real scenario if any of the current stockpiles of nuclear weapons would be used.

The latest book by WILPF’s disarmament programme, Reaching Critical Will (RCW), published on 12th February, examines the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and highlights the urgent need for more concrete commitment to ban and eliminate them.  

The book, Unspeakable Suffering – The humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, comes at a time when the nuclear threat is growing. On the same day of the book publication, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea tested a nuclear weapon. The test was condemned by WILPF.

On the occasion of the book release, we did an interview with the Programme Manager of RCW and editor of the book, Beatrice Fihn.

Hi Beatrice, thank you for taking time to do this interview. Could we talk more about the latest book of RCW? What was the idea behind it?

Beatrice Fihn“Thank you for interviewing me. Well, we got the original idea to the book during the 2012 Preparatory Committee of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). During it, more and more countries highlighted in their statements the catastrophic humanitarian consequences that nuclear weapons would cause if ever used.

It became clear to us that more evidence-based information regarding the impact of nuclear weapons would be helpful for these statements. So, we decided to gather existing information and develop a new research by civil society experts in a book.

Unspeakable Suffering deals with many different topics. Some of them are the impact on health, on environment and agriculture, and on economy and development that a nuclear disaster would have.

The book also deals with law and order and includes a few case studies. The case studies make it real. This has actually happened, it’s not a hypothetical ‘worst case scenario’. People are still suffering from the long-term consequences in Hiroshima, Nagasaki and around test sites.”

Who should read the book?

“The book is relevant for civil society actors, academics and governments that are interested in nuclear weapons or humanitarian issues. It approaches weapons negotiations with a humanitarian lens, which I believe many actors in this area could use as inspiration.

There’s an important upcoming event in March: a conference in Oslo on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. Everybody who attends the meeting in Oslo or is interested in it should for sure read the book. It reframes the nuclear debate and it challenges the rhetoric of the nuclear weapon possessors.”

Why is it that we should ‘approach nuclear weapons negotiations with a humanitarian lens’?

“In the work around the book, I found it important to focus on looking at the use of these weapons through the perspective of protecting people from harm and unnecessary suffering, as it extends beyond international humanitarian law to include also moral and political imperatives.

I think that placing an emphasis on the actual consequences and not only on the effect intended or claimed by users of the weapon is essential. That leads to the conclusion that such weapons are unacceptable and no longer legitimate to use or threat to use.

The humanitarian approach to weapons is nothing new, civil society has always focused on the concrete impact of other weapons.  But unfortunately, nuclear weapons have been left alone to strategist and military analysts.

In the book, I wanted to take away the ‘mythical’ power of nuclear weapons. We need to look at them for what they really are: inhumane, unacceptable and appalling weapons of terror.

Nuclear weapons should be banned, as chemical and biological weapons, landmines and cluster munitions are. No state should be proud to possess them or aspire to acquire them, because they are unworthy of a democratic and respected country. It’s really outrageous that they are still not banned.

What is the current situation of nuclear weapons?

Nuclear explosion“Five countries (United States, United Kingdom, Russia, France and China) are allowed to maintain them temporarily under the Non Proliferation Treaty, while the rest of the world has committed not to develop them. Four states are not parties to this treaty. Pakistan, India and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea have tested nuclear weapons. Israel has never confirmed or denied possession, but it is generally accepted it has a small stockpile of nuclear weapons.

The major nuclear weapon possessors are slowly reducing the huge arsenals from the Cold War, but the pace is too slow. And reductions so far haven’t really had any impact on their ability to unleash a humanitarian catastrophe anywhere in the world, at any time.

Every reduction has been accompanied with statements that ensure that the capability remains and that existing arsenals are continuing to be modernised. In addition, nuclear-weapon states maintain huge stockpiles of fissile material that can be used to develop new nuclear weapons.”

What is WILPF doing?

“WILPF has been active on nuclear disarmament since the creation of these weapons. Its staff and members often attend meetings related to nuclear weapons at the UN and RCW is without doubt a key civil society actor in this field.

Through RCW, WILPF produces reports, advocacy material and campaigns for nuclear disarmament. It’s one of the areas where our work really has an impact. I’m very proud of our work and I think it’s one of WILPF’s core strengths as an organisation.

WILPF has been part of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) since its launch in 2007. Both the Director of RCW in New York, Ray Acheson, and I represent our organisation in its international steering group.”

What else can be done? How can we engage?

“The role of civil society to change the current status quo on nuclear weapons is extremely important. The solution is simple. There’s only one thing that needs to be done: we need to ban nuclear weapons, just like we banned biological and chemical weapons, landmines and cluster munitions.

It sounds like a naïve dream, but similar things have been done before. We have seen other processes move extremely fast, despite many saying it would be impossible at the start.

We must believe that we can change the world. We must believe we can stop nuclear weapons from ever being used again and get rid of them forever.

Book coverBook details

Unspeakable Suffering – The humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons.

Ray Acheson, John Burroughs, Lloyd J. Dumas, Ira Helfand, Barbara R. Johnston, Patricia Lewis, Magnus Løvold, Teresa D. Nelson, M.V. Ramana, Felicity Ruby, Tilman Ruff and Masao Tomonaga. Edited by Beatrice Fihn.

Published by Reaching Critical Will on February 2013.

PDF format (hard copies will be available soon).


Take Action!

Through ICAN, WILPF is preparing for an important conference in Oslo on 4-5th March, where the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons will be discussed.

You can check out ICAN’s website for more information on what you can do to ensure that your country participates in this conference.


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Melissa Torres


Prior to being elected Vice-President, Melissa Torres was the WILPF US International Board Member from 2015 to 2018. Melissa joined WILPF in 2011 when she was selected as a Delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women as part of the WILPF US’ Practicum in Advocacy Programme at the United Nations, which she later led. She holds a PhD in Social Work and is a professor and Global Health Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine and research lead at BCM Anti-Human Trafficking Program. Of Mexican descent and a native of the US/Mexico border, Melissa is mostly concerned with the protection of displaced Latinxs in the Americas. Her work includes training, research, and service provision with the American Red Cross, the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Centre, and refugee resettlement programs in the U.S. Some of her goals as Vice-President are to highlight intersectionality and increase diversity by fostering inclusive spaces for mentorship and leadership. She also contributes to WILPF’s emerging work on the topic of displacement and migration.

Jamila Afghani


Jamila Afghani is the President of WILPF Afghanistan which she started in 2015. She is also an active member and founder of several organisations including the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organisation (NECDO). Elected in 2018 as South Asia Regional Representative to WILPF’s International Board, WILPF benefits from Jamila’s work experience in education, migration, gender, including gender-based violence and democratic governance in post-conflict and transitional countries.

Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo


Sylvie Jacqueline NDONGMO is a human rights and peace leader with over 27 years experience including ten within WILPF. She has a multi-disciplinary background with a track record of multiple socio-economic development projects implemented to improve policies, practices and peace-oriented actions. Sylvie is the founder of WILPF Cameroon and was the Section’s president until 2022. She co-coordinated the African Working Group before her election as Africa Representative to WILPF’s International Board in 2018. A teacher by profession and an African Union Trainer in peace support operations, Sylvie has extensive experience advocating for the political and social rights of women in Africa and worldwide.

WILPF Afghanistan

In response to the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and its targeted attacks on civil society members, WILPF Afghanistan issued several statements calling on the international community to stand in solidarity with Afghan people and ensure that their rights be upheld, including access to aid. The Section also published 100 Untold Stories of War and Peace, a compilation of true stories that highlight the effects of war and militarisation on the region. 

IPB Congress Barcelona

WILPF Germany (+Young WILPF network), WILPF Spain and MENA Regional Representative

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WILPF uses feminist analysis to argue that militarisation is a counter-productive and ill-conceived response to establishing security in the world. The more society becomes militarised, the more violence and injustice are likely to grow locally and worldwide.

Sixteen states are believed to have supplied weapons to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2020 with the US supplying 74 % of weapons, followed by Russia. Much of this equipment was left behind by the US military and is being used to inflate Taliban’s arsenal. WILPF is calling for better oversight on arms movement, for compensating affected Afghan people and for an end to all militarised systems.

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Mobilising men and boys around feminist peace has been one way of deconstructing and redefining masculinities. WILPF shares a feminist analysis on the links between militarism, masculinities, peace and security. We explore opportunities for strengthening activists’ action to build equal partnerships among women and men for gender equality.

WILPF has been working on challenging the prevailing notion of masculinity based on men’s physical and social superiority to, and dominance of, women in Afghanistan. It recognizes that these notions are not representative of all Afghan men, contrary to the publicly prevailing notion.

Feminist peace​

In WILPF’s view, any process towards establishing peace that has not been partly designed by women remains deficient. Beyond bringing perspectives that encapsulate the views of half of the society and unlike the men only designed processes, women’s true and meaningful participation allows the situation to improve.

In Afghanistan, WILPF has been demanding that women occupy the front seats at the negotiating tables. The experience of the past 20 has shown that women’s presence produces more sustainable solutions when they are empowered and enabled to play a role.

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