What is a chemical weapon? When is chlorine a chemical weapon?

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

 

A recurring question in the context of the investigation by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) into the use of chlorine in the attack against Douma on 7 April is whether chlorine is actually a chemical weapon (CW).

The simple answer is ‘yes’ if the chemical element is released as method of warfare, an act of terrorism, or any other deliberate act intended to harm or kill a person or animal.

There are two elements in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) to bear in mind, namely the definition of a CW and the three Schedules (or lists with chemicals), which are annexed to the convention.

Definition of a chemical weapon under the CWC

Most toxic chemical are potentially dual-use. Moreover, the CWC wishes to cover not only yesterday’s and today’s toxic chemicals but also the ones that may be developed in the future. To this end, the CWC uses the so-called General Purpose Criterion (GPC): not the toxic chemical as such is prohibited; however, the purposes to which it may be applied are.

In this context it is useful to know that the treaty’s default condition is prohibition. In other words, all usage of toxic chemicals is prohibited unless for purposes that are not-prohibited (note the negative formulation). The CWC considers only four non-prohibited purposes.

Thus Article II, 1 states:

1. “Chemical Weapons” means the following, together or separately:

(a) Toxic chemicals and their precursors, except where intended for purposes not prohibited under this Convention, as long as the types and quantities are consistent with such purposes; […]

Here one can see that any toxic chemical is defined as a CW, except where intended for purposes not prohibited …, in which case the toxic chemical is by definition not a CW and therefore does not fall under the CWC.

Article II, 2 defines ‘toxic chemical’ as

‘Any chemical which through its chemical action on life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals. This includes all such chemicals, regardless of their origin or of their method of production, and regardless of whether they are produced in facilities, in munitions or elsewhere’.

In other words, this definition clearly bears on chlorine.

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Safeguards Provisions in the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

I’m very pleased to host a guest post by Dr. Eirini Giorgou. I think she does a really excellent job in the piece of explaining the safeguards provisions in the TPNW, and the debates that led to their adoption,  and then responding to a number of criticisms that have been leveled against how these provisions were crafted.  I think this is really exemplary legal work.  I also don’t find anything in it with which I disagree.  So I highly recommend it to readers.

Dr. Giorgou is a legal adviser on weapons law in the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), with experience in multilateral disarmament diplomacy. She was previously Disarmament adviser in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Ireland. In that capacity she participated in the negotiations on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, including by facilitating negotiations on the Treaty’s Safeguards provisions. Dr Giorgou is a licensed lawyer and holds a PhD in International Law from the University of Geneva, Switzerland.

The views expressed herein are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position and views of the ICRC or of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Ireland

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Safeguards Provisions in the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

By: Eirini Giorgou

Since its adoption by 122 states on 7 July 2017, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) has frequently been made the target of criticism as regards its Safeguards provisions. The following provides an analysis of these clauses as contained in the Treaty’s Articles 3 and 4, outlines the main arguments that have been leveled against the Treaty in this regard, and responds to these.

What does (and what doesn’t) the TPNW have to say on Safeguards – and why.

 To Safeguard or not?

It did not take long for negotiators to agree that Safeguards provisions were necessary and could not be omitted without sending a dangerous political message: that the new Treaty undermined the existing Safeguards regime and that, by creating a loophole, it encouraged states to withdraw from the NPT and from their existing Safeguards obligations. Once the decision to include such provisions was made, negotiating parties were faced with two major difficulties: agreeing on how strict a Safeguards standard they should adopt; and ensuring that this standard would neither undermine the existing IAEA Safeguards regime, nor create an unwanted legal status quo by subordinating the new Treaty to other instruments or international organizations.

Throughout the negotiations, the issue of Safeguards was closely linked to that of the ratification of or accession to the Treaty of states having possessed (at any time after the date set for its adoption, namely 7 July 2017) nuclear weapons. Very soon there was consensus around the fact that the Safeguards standard to be imposed by the TPNW, whatever that was, should be different – and higher – for this category of states, compared to those that had never possessed nuclear weapons, or had eliminated them prior to the cut-off date.

It was therefore agreed that a distinction be drawn clearly between those states who did not possess nuclear weapons after 7 July 2017 and those who did, and that the respective Safeguards rules and obligations be contained in different articles. Hence Article 3 only applies to the first category of states, while Safeguards provisions applicable to the second category are contained in Article 4.

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Novichok between opinion and fact – Part 1: Deconstruction of the Russian denial

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

Since the assassination attempt on Sergei and Yulia Skripal with a nerve agent now just over one month ago, so much has been written about ‘Novichok’; so much has been opined about what ‘Novichok’ is meant to be (if it exists at all); and so much smoke has been spewed about what the identification of ‘Novichok’ suggests about culprits. This blog posting is the first of several to look into a specific aspect of the discussions concerning Novichok in the hope of clarifying where certain positions come from and what factual knowledge exists about this group of nerve agents.

Facts have been scarce. In fact, as a member of the public with long-time interest in chemical and biological weapons, I know very little about what took place in Salisbury on 4 March. I still have to see the first statement from British authorities—government officials, police, scientists at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) at Porton Down—in what form the Novichok agent was delivered. Was it a liquid? A solid in powdered form? A binary concoction? Delivered in a gel or ointment? Anything else?

‘Novichok’ as we know the family of nerve agents today was researched, developed, produced and field-tested in sizeable quantities in the Soviet Union and at least during the early years of Russia as an independent state. Little else beyond this basic information given by some of the chemists involved in the armament programme is available. Those researchers are not always in agreement with each other, especially as regards the skill levels required to synthesise the agent.

Meanwhile, government officials from both the United Kingdom and the Russian federation have launched a war of hyperbole. London overstated the nature and quality of evidence from forensic chemistry; Moscow, amid a broad smoke-and-mirrors campaign, used the exaggerations to poke holes in the British narrative. Just like with allegations of chemical weapon (CW) use in Syria, Russia has released a barrage of denials concerning the assassination attempt in the UK through disaffirmation of any involvement, construction of spurious logic and citation of any ‘expert’ willing to entertain conspiracy theories. It furthermore rejects any outcome unfavourable to its world view and questions procedures and methodologies applied by investigative bodies. Moscow, however, never supplies any physical evidence in support of its claims.

Yet, over the din there are two steadfast Russian positions: (1) Russia is not responsible for the Soviet Union’s actions, and (2) CW declarations concern only ‘produced’ toxic chemicals for use in warfare. In the specific context of the CWC, it places the three Schedules central to the prohibitory regime.

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ARMS CONTROL LAW PODCAST # 2 : The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

Jack Beard and I recently sat down for a discussion about the recently adopted Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), and recorded it as a podcast.  I think the discussion was good, as Jack can fairly be described as a bit of a skeptic about the TPNW, and I can fairly be described as essentially a proponent of the TPNW.  We of course agree on a lot of things, but we were able to tease out some differences too. I hope those of you out in listening land find it interesting. Comments are open.

Listen to the podcast here.


Geopolitical manoeuvring behind Skripal

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

On 4 April the Executive Council (EC) of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) will meet in a special session. Russia called the extraordinary meeting. It has been a month now since former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia had been exposed to a nerve agent in Salisbury. The United Kingdom (UK) government identified it as a member of the ‘Novichok’ family, once researched and developed by the Soviet Union. Russia is believed to have continued the programme at least during the first years after the breakup of the USSR. It has never come clear on the nature of the programme or identified the agents’ characteristics. As no other country has ever been associated with the Novichok family of agents, London’s finger-pointing at Moscow was not difficult.

War of loud words

Since the assassination attempt a war of loud words has erupted. The UK has continued with its investigation and called in the OPCW’s expertise with a view of validating its analyses of the nerve agent. By the latest indications, the results from the OPCW-certified laboratories will not be available before the middle of this month.

Meanwhile, London also launched a diplomatic offensive to isolate Russia internationally (for an overview, see the dedicated UK government web page), which so far has ended with tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomatic staff. The rhetoric strayed off course. The assassination attempt got linked to similar incidents over the past years and decades, Russia’s actions in its near-abroad and Syria, its cyber campaigns against the institutions of Western democracy, and the country’s more assertive stance against Western interests, particularly those of the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). And, of course, the post-penultimate British schoolboy’s meme had to be called forth for domestic consumption: a mention of Nazi Germany.

Battle royale for the internet’s heart and minds

The British government’s (quite necessary) quietness about the investigation, the dearth of factual information beyond some generalities, and the distraction-causing verbal digressions into unrelated issue areas presented Russia with an open playing field. It was an opportunity it could not, and did not ignore.

Beyond the stacks of concealing black smoke and initial ridicule spouted by the government-sponsored international media and its diplomatic representatives to the UK, OPCW and EU, Moscow stayed much more focussed on the Skripal case. It was testing messages fast, discarding the ones failing to gain immediate traction and pursuing those that got picked up. Together, they addressed several issues simultaneously to drown out or cast doubt over any possible counterargument. That Russian officials or media contradicted themselves or seemingly confessed to total ignorance about past chemical warfare programmes did not matter. Speed was of the essence to avoid a coherent ripostes.

So, they challenged the notion that Russia was the sole originator of Novichok agents; they denied that there had ever been a Novichok programme; they suggested that the agent came form the British chemical defence laboratories at Porton Down or from similar facilities in other European countries; they questioned the OPCW’s legitimacy in the investigation while embracing the procedures foreseen in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) to discuss the matter; etc. They upbraided the UK government for not releasing details about the nerve agent while the investigation is going on. And then Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov proffered motive for the British using a Novichok agent against the Skripal family: covering up difficulties over Brexit.

However ludicrous some of the arguments, Moscow ultimately turned the tables on London. Russia now portrays itself as the victim of the attack because the UK was unable to guarantee the safety and security of its citizens, in addition to which it now refuses Russian consular access to Yulia. And exploiting both British silence on the heart of the matter and the waiting period for the OPCW test results, it called for an special session of the OPCW EC after having publicly released two sets of questions (1st set; 2nd set), some of which it could use to initiate the clarification process under CWC Article IX, 2. Quite a few of these questions Moscow has field-tested via its global megaphone. (A subset of questions Russia addressed to the French government too.)

Will Britain’s hand be forced?

How will the EC meeting tomorrow pan out? Difficult to say, but if the debates over Syria’s chemical weapon (CW) use offer any guidance, then the following broad lines may re-establish themselves: the Western countries will decry the violation of the CWC and seek justice; Russia will play out a geopolitical strategy based on nominal pledges of cooperation to influence the votes of members of the Non-Aligned Movement who are wary of being caught up in a new hegemonic struggle between Moscow and Washington.

Russia has definitely laid the groundwork for triggering Article IX, 2. But will it trigger it tomorrow? This is far from certain. Moscow’s core aim may be to place some of the key questions it has already publicised into the formal record, thereby forcing the UK to respond. Any reluctance or avoidance by London would feed a certain narrative, at least until the OPCW submits its own laboratory findings to the UK. That narrative will anticipate those findings; at a minimum it will place the British government under great pressure to release the analyses to other OPCW members, including Russia. That pressure might also compel the British government to follow OPCW procedures rather than pursuing the case through other diplomatic means, in which case Moscow’s gambit may already be anticipating crucial votes further down that path. (For an overview of the Article IX process, see my earlier blog posting Novichok and the Chemical Weapons Convention.)

Remains one question in all this: Where is Washington? в кармане?


Novichok and the Chemical Weapons Convention

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

Assassinations with nerve agents are rare. Very rare. The reason is simple: other means to eliminate a person are simpler and much more effective. The marginal benefit from using even some of the most toxic substances ever made by man is negligible. What is more, the attempt fails often, as Aum Shinrikyo experienced when trying to take out some of the cult’s enemies with VX before the 1995 sarin attack in the Tokyo underground. Last year’s murder of Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North-Korean leader Kim Jong-un, also involved VX according to Malaysian authorities. However, the real perpetrator behind the two women who rubbed the substance in his face was quickly identified.

The surprise that the assassination attempt on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, UK on 4 March involved one of the Novichoks was not little. First, this family of nerve agents is relatively unknown. Outside specialised disarmament and HazMat communities few people would have been aware of its existence. Over 100 chemical structures are believed to belong to it, all related yet different. The group of chemical structures does not figure in the Annex on Chemicals of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).  Second, the substance was produced in any sizeable quantities in only one single country, the Soviet Union. Third, the required precursor chemicals and the pathways to synthesise the final agents are completely obscure to most of the public.

The UK government has formally accused Russia of the assassination attempt and expelled 23 Russian diplomatic personnel. Moscow vehemently denies the accusal and has retaliated by demanding that a similar number of diplomats leave the country. It furthermore denies ever having developed and produced Novichoks. The incident follows an already bitter stand-off between the West and Russia over Syria’s proven chemical weapon (CW) use that blocks effective UN Security Council action and splits the Executive Council (EC) of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). As the government of Prime Minister Theresa May has formally declared its intention to have the OPCW independently verify its analyses and share it with its international partners, the question is whether and how the international organisation can contribute to resolving the matter.

Ensuring compliance under the CWC

Beyond the CWC’s routine verification process involving declarations, assessments and inspections, Article IX ‘Consultations, Cooperation and Fact-Finding’ foresees procedures to resolve uncertainties about compliance or breaches of the convention. These procedures are consultations, clarification, challenge inspection and investigation of alleged use.

Consultation concerning anomalies

The CWC does not detail what consultations should entail, but views and encourages them together with information exchanges as one of the early (or low-key) diplomatic exchanges among states parties to resolve doubts or ambiguities about compliance.

According to a statement issued by the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, on 12 March Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson summoned the Russian Ambassador to seek an explanation from the Russian Government. The statement strongly suggests that the step was undertaken under the consultative process foreseen under Article IX. It added that Russia provided no meaningful response.

Summary of the consultation procedure (Slide by JP Zanders)

Clarification of compliance concerns

If in doubt or concerned about compliance, a state party may seek clarification. A state party will address the initial request for clarification to another state party, who must reply within 10 days. Although not stipulated in the convention, a degree of expectation exists that the latter would supply supplementary information (i.e. beyond what is available from, for instance, annual declarations or routine inspections) to address the concern.

In case the reply does not resolve the concern, the requesting state party may call for assistance from the EC, which must use its authority to lend weight to the request, including through forwarding the request within 24 hours. The state party to whom the clarification request is addressed has once again a maximum of 10 days to respond. If the replies still do not satisfy, the requesting state party my next request the EC to obtain further information, in which case it may (not ‘must’) decide to set up a group of experts to examine all available information and reports and submit a factual report. Although the group of experts can draw on previous inspection reports, it is in no position to launch its own inspection procedure.

After either of the two previous steps, the requesting state party may call for a special session of the EC, which then has the decision authority to ‘recommend any measure it deems appropriate to resolve the situation’. Although not stated explicitly in Article IX, those measures would presumably include obtention of further information or persuasion of the targeted state party to resolve the presumed violation in accordance with the CWC. If the requesting state party remains unsatisfied with the response, it may call for a special session of the Conference of States Parties (CSP) 60 days after the submission of the request for clarification to the EC. The CSP is to consider and may take any measure, which, as in the case of the EC, remains unspecified in the convention.

It is important to note that the launch of a clarification procedure does not require the outcome of routine inspections, but inspection reports may trigger additional requests for information. It should also be noted that the procedures described above do not affect the requesting state party’s right to call for a challenge inspection, nor are they affected by the conduct of a challenge inspection.

Summary of the clarification process (Slide by JP Zanders)

Challenge of non-compliance

Challenge inspections are the third tool outlined in CWC Article IX. It consists of a short-notice inspection at any site (irrespective of whether it has been declared or not) in a state party. Once the OPCW has authorised the challenge inspection the targeted state party has no right of refusal, but it can invoke the technique of managed access through which OPCW inspectors may be denied access to certain parts of the site. Managed access cannot be implemented in such a way that inspector access to the site as such is denied. However, irrespective of the outcome of the managed access negotiations between representatives of the challenged stated party and the OPCW inspectors, the latter retain full right to interview any staff member of the site (and thus possibly obtain relevant information about the areas to which they have been denied access).

Although a challenge inspection can be requested at any stage of consultation of clarification processes, the CWC encourages states parties to view the tool as an instrument of last resort.

Summary of the challenge inspection process (Slide by JP Zanders)

Investigation of alleged use

Part XI of the Verification Annex details the process of investigating the alleged use of CW or the alleged use of riot control agents as a method of warfare. In case the alleged use involves a state not party to the CWC, then the Director-General of the OPCW will closely cooperate with the UN Secretary General.

The procedure is applied (and has been further developed) with respect to the many allegations of chemical warfare in Syria. It is less relevant to the Novichok case.

Pathways to resolving the Novichok matter

How the investigation of the Skripal assassination attempt plays out will largely depend on the next key decisions by the UK government. The OPCW experts travel to the UK under Article VIII, 38(e), which qualifies their activity as a ‘Technical Assistance Visit’ to help with the evaluation of an unscheduled chemical (the Novichock agent) is not listed in any of the three schedules in the Annex on Chemicals).  They will likely visit the sites of investigation and collect their own samples (if for no other reason than to validate any laboratory samples they may receive), take all materials and documents related to the forensic investigation back to the Netherlands where the sample will be divided up and sent to two or more designated OPCW laboratories. (The list for 2017 can be consulted here.)

After having received the report, the UK government may opt to pursue the case using its own diplomatic means, possibly together with its allies, or it may decide to invoke one of the procedures outlined above, the most likely one being the clarification process. Given the current level of political rhetoric and the earlier summons of the Russian Ambassador, consultations will have little utility left. To call for a challenge inspection the UK will need to have extraordinarily precise information about the production or storage location (which might be difficult if, for example, forensic analysis points to recent, small-scale synthesis of Novichok or to a chemical structure different from those associated with the Soviet programme).

At present the outcome of any one of the procedures is difficult to foresee. Neither the clarification process nor challenge inspection option have been invoked previously. Moreover, even though the CWC may at first sight seem to suggest a hierarchy among the different procedures in terms of increasing stringency or steps in an escalatory process, each one can be pursued independently. They may also be invoked in succession, or they can run in parallel. One procedure is not necessarily a prerequisite to another one.

Central to the understanding of the procedures is that the OPCW, as an independent international organisation dedicated to overseeing the implementation of the CWC, provides a forum for consultation and cooperation among states parties, also in matters concerning compliance or conflict resolution.


Humanization of Arms Control: Paving the Way for a World free of Nuclear Weapons (Routledge, 2017) – A short book presentation

The following is a guest post by my friend Daniel Rietiker, who is a Lecturer at the University of Lausanne.  It provides an review of his newly published book.

I think the issue of international human rights law and its application to the possession and potential use of nuclear weapons is worth discussing, so I welcome Daniel’s new book. I personally have some reservations about the scope of the application of human rights law to these subjects. And I’ll maybe post a comment or two in that vein, and encourage others to comment as well. But first, I welcome Daniel’s guest post. DJ

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Humanization of Arms Control: Paving the Way for a World free of Nuclear Weapons (Routledge, 2017) – A short book presentation

BY: Daniel Rietiker

  1. Introductory remarks

The new book takes a new approach to arms control, by placing the victim of the relevant weapons at the centre of attention. It consists of two main parts. The first one is devoted to conventions dealing with weapons others than nuclear weapons (CWC, Ottawa Convention on anti-personnel mines and Oslo Convention on cluster munitions, and ATT). It is divided into three parts, namely the preparatory history of the relevant treaties, in particular the role played by civil society, the contribution of the relevant treaties to the protection of the human being and the implementation and verification of the treaties by human rights actors and institutions. The first part concludes that, within those treaties, the human-based approach is well established.

The question remains whether the same can be said for the field of nuclear weapons – question dealt with in the second part of the book. This part follows a similar structure to the first one. One of the main purposes of this part is to demonstrate the illegality of nuclear weapons under humanitarian and human rights law.

In this short presentation, I will concentrate on only one aspect of the book, namely the relevance of human rights to nuclear weapons, in particular to their actual use. I devoted quite a substantive part of my book to this aspect since I always had the impression that human rights law, contrary to humanitarian law, had been neglected in the doctrine of international law in respect of nuclear weapons, in spite of its advantages, which I will mention further below.

Moreover, the book distinguishes between the rights of direct victims of use of nuclear weapons attack, on the one hand, and those who are not directly exposed to such an attack, but suffer from the consequences of ionizing radiation, often years and decades later. Those consequences concern basically all nuclear activities, including the production of nuclear energy (and waste management), uranium mining and the scenario of nuclear accidents, as well as testing of nuclear weapons. In my book, I illustrate the example of a regional nuclear war, for instance between India and Pakistan, and I analyze its global human rights impact in terms of health, environment, climate and development.

In the present summary, however, I will for practical reasons limit my considerations to the direct victims of an attached launched by nuclear weapons.

The relevance of human rights to nuclear weapons has very recently been acknowledged officially, namely through the adoption of the new Treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons, in New York on 7th July 2017. Indeed, on several paragraphs, this treaty refers explicitly to human rights; first of all, in its preamble, where it states that:

“The States Parties to this Treaty (…) Reaffirming the need for all States at all times to comply with applicable  international law, including international humanitarian law and international human rights law” (§ 8 of the preamble).

Moreover, its Article 6 deals with “victim assistance and environmental remediation” and, apart from explicit references to human rights law, there are many other uses of language, such as “victims” of nuclear weapons, including “hibakusha”, that are closely linked to human rights violations.

In brief, the new treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons confirms the close link between human rights law and nuclear weapons and related activities, in particular testing of nuclear weapons.

  1. The added value of human rights law in the nuclear age

What is the relevance of human rights law and what makes it worth being analyzed in the nuclear field? I only mention three of many more aspects that I have discussed in my book.

First of all, human rights law is applicable in all circumstances, contrary, inter alia, to international humanitarian law that only applies in times of armed conflict. It is true that all major human rights instruments contain clauses allowing to derogate from certain rights in times of emergency. Those derogations clauses have only rarely been used (recently by Turkey and France applying Article 15 of the ECHR), contain significant substantive and formal conditions that have to be met and, moreover, do not apply to particularly important rights, in particular the right not to be subject to torture, inhuman or degrading treatment.

Second, the particular nature of certain human rights has to be stressed. Certain fundamental rules of human rights law have to date attained customary law status and, therefore, apply also to States that have not ratified the relevant treaties. Moreover, the normative supremacy of certain norms of international law has to be stressed too. They belong to the peremptory norms of international law or norms of jus cogens in the sense of Articles 53 and 64 of the VCLT. For instance, if we take the example of the prohibition of genocide, one of the undisputed norms of jus cogens, it means that a genocide could not justify a counter-genocide. Also the prohibition of torture, inhuman and degrading treatment falls under this definition, which is of relevance for nuclear weapons, as will be shown below.

Third, there is also recognition, in international human rights law, of certain groups of victims that are particularly vulnerable, for instance indigenous peoples, children and women. Certain instruments, treaties as well as non binding declarations, have been adopted specifically for their protection, such as the or the UN Declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples (2007),  the UN Convention on the rights of the child, or the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Interestingly, the TPNW also refers to such groups, namely in paragraphs 4 and 7 of the preambular.

  1. Most relevant human rights for victims of direct attacks by nuclear weapons
  2. The right to life

The most obvious human right when talking about the use of nuclear weapons is the right to life. The ICJ, in its 1996 Advisory Opinion on the Legality of Use and Threat of Nuclear Weapons, confirmed the applicability of the right to life (Article 6 ICCPR) in time of armed conflict and, moreover, observed that the test of what is an “arbitrary deprivation of life” has to be determined in light of international law governing armed conflict, in particular humanitarian law (ICJ Reports 1996, § 25).

It is interesting that, contrary to the ICCPR (Article 4 and 6), within the ECHR, the right to life can be derogated from, in particular for “deaths resulting from lawful acts of war.” (Article 15 § 2). From my point of view, such a derogation would not be relevant in the case of use of nuclear weapons since its effects are so devastating, disproportionate and indiscriminate that the damage and harm caused to civil populations would be unacceptable and illegal under international humanitarian law. Therefore, the acts of war would not be “lawful”.

The ECtHR had to deal with cases introduced by relatives of civilians who died during combat operations against rebel groups. In order to ensure that the use of force was no more than “absolutely necessary”, the test under Article 2 ECHR, the Court examined whether the planning of the operation was such as to “avoid” or at least “minimise deaths”. In a case against Russia concerning air operations against rebels during the Second Chechen War, the ECtHR concluded that there had been a violation of the right to life, in particular for having exceeded what was necessary in the concrete situation:

“180. … the Court may be prepared to accept that the Russian authorities had no choice other than to carry out aerial strikes in order to be able to take over Urus-Martan, and that their actions were in pursuit of the aim set out in paragraph 2 (a) of Article 2 of the Convention, as alleged by the Government. It is, however, not convinced, having regard to the materials at its disposal, that the necessary degree of care was exercised in preparing the operation of 19 October 1999 in such a way as to avoid or minimise, to the greatest extent possible, the risk of a loss of life, both for the persons at whom the measures were directed and for civilians” (Khamzayev and Others v. Russia, no. 1503/02).

In this case, the Russian operation resulted in 6 deaths, 16 injuries, and 13 houses destroyed, caused by the use of high-explosive fragmentation bombs of caliber 250-270 kg. These weapons were considered “indiscriminate weapons” by the Court, which concluded that the use of such bombs in inhabited areas was “manifestly disproportionate” to the aim of dislodging the extremists (§ 189).

In light of this jurisprudence, the large number of deaths likely to be caused by a nuclear explosion would not meet the high standards of the ECHR and the ICCPR regarding the right to life. In light of the uncontrollable effects of a nuclear weapons use and the numerous victims, it seems impossible to administer the proof that sufficient precaution had been taken to “avoid or minimize” incidental loss of life.

Moreover, the presence of radiation after an attack would also hamper the ability to search for, rescue, and care for wounded, which could amount to further violations of the right to life. Indeed, recent studies have shown that one of the aspects that make nuclear weapons so special and fatal is the fact that no adequate rescue and medical response is possible due to the complete destruction of infrastructure, the death of medical personnel, and the long-lasting radioactivity rendering access to the are very difficult. In my book, I have mentioned several cases decided by the ECtHR that may illustrate the positive duties after a life-threatening incident in the aftermath of a nuclear explosion.

Finally, one ongoing aspect on the right to life is noteworthy: The UN Human Rights Committee (HRC), the body implementing the ICCPR, after having already issued two so-called General Comments (GC) on the right to life referring explicitly to the danger of nuclear weapons, has started its considerations of a new GC no. 36 on the right to life some year ago. For the time being, a second draft has been adopted for further consideration. Contrary to the first draft, this draft contains quite a useful paragraph on nuclear weapons (without references):

“13. The [threat] or use of weapons of mass destruction, in particular nuclear weapons, which are indiscriminate in effect and can destroy human life on a catastrophic scale, is incompatible with respect for the right to life and may amount to a crime under international law. States parties must take all necessary measures to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, including measures to prevent their acquisition by non-state actors, to refrain from developing, producing, testing, stockpiling and using them, and to destroy existing stockpiles, all in accordance with their international obligations. They must also respect their international obligations to pursue in good faith negotiations in order to achieve the aim of nuclear disarmament under strict and effective international control  [and to afford adequate reparation to victims whose right to life has been adversely affected by the testing or use of weapons of mass destruction]. ”

  1. Other “civil” rights affected by the use of nuclear weapons

In order to fall within the ambit of Article 3 ECHR, ill-treatment must attain a certain minimum level of severity (so-called “threshold-theory”). Once this level is reached, the ECtHR usually determines which of the three categories of treatments is involved (torture, inhuman or degrading treatment).

In my book, I argue that the use of nuclear weapons could amount at least to “degrading treatment”, since it deprives the victims of their basic dignity. The standard formula developed and applied by the Court for this level is treatment “such as to arouse in the victims feelings of fear, anguish and inferiority capable of humiliating and debasing them” (see for instance Kudla v. Poland [Grand Chamber], 26 Occtober 2000, § 92).

For the reasons indicated in my book, I also suggest that the use of nuclear weapons could amount to “inhuman” treatment, and maybe even to “torture”.

It is also noteworthy that, in the case of Selçuk  and Sker v. Turkey, the ECtHR held that there was “inhuman” treatment when, as a part of a security operation, the security forces destroyed the elderly applicants’ home and property in a contemptuous manner and in their presence, without regard to their safety or welfare, depriving them of their livelihood and shelter and causing them great distress (in particular § 77). It is obvious that the destruction of one’s home by a nuclear blast is very likely to have a similar effect and could amount, on its own, to a breach of Article 3 ECHR.

Essentially for the same reason, namely destruction of homes and property, a nuclear attack would affect the victims’ right to respect for private life and home (in Europe, Article 8 ECHR) as well as the right to property (Article 1 of Protocol 1 to the ECHR). These rights are less protected than the values under Article 2 or Article 3, since they can be restricted and derogated from under Article 15 ECHR.

I have to stress that the rights chosen for the sake of this summary is only a selection. In my book, I draw the conclusion that, in the end of the day, the use of a nuclear weapon would certainly constitute the total denial of all basic human rights.

  1. Economic, social and cultural rights, considered with special regard to vulnerable groups of people

The rights of victims of use of nuclear weapons have also to be assessed in light of economic, social and cultural rights, which are likely to be breached by such an attack. In the book, the relevance of the following rights, in the context of nuclear weapons, is assessed: the right to development and the right not to be discriminated against, the rights to the highest standard of health and to a healthy environment, as well as the right to an adequate standard of living, in particular the rights to food and to water.

Concrete examples are, in particular, the cases decided by the ECtHR in environmental matters, including the right to water, a more recent human right that, for the reasons indicated in my book, are very relevant in the nuclear field.

The particular vulnerability of certain groups of people deserves special attention in the context of economic, social and cultural rights. The victimization of women and children also raises the topic of rights of future generations, in light of the fact, for instance, that after Chernobyl, many children were born with congenital deformations and considering that the latency period for many types of cancers is 25-30 years. As mentioned in the introductory part, the particular vulnerability of women, children and indigenous peoples is explicitly recognized in the TPNW.

  1. Concluding remarks

In light what precedes, it can be summarized that human rights are applicable in armed conflict and impose significant limits to the use of nuclear weapons, together with international humanitarian law. Moreover, human rights law has important advantages compared to humanitarian law, for instance the fact that certain rights cannot derived from under any circumstances. It is also worth repeating that a human rights approach to nuclear weapons has to be done in the broad sense, including the relevant civil rights as well as economic, social and cultural rights.

I am glad that the TPNW was adopted so quickly last summer, since it constitutes a kind of “blessing” of the suggestions and ideas that I made in my book. It is obvious, for me, that human rights have penetrated into the nuclear weapons field at latest in July 2017. The opposite seems, by the way, also to be more and more the case, recalling the example of the HRC, a human rights body, adopting a new GC on the right to live where it explicitly refers to the danger and risk of nuclear weapons.