IHEU statement on nuclear armament

  • Date / 1983
  • Ratifying Body / Board of Directors
  • Status / Pending-review
  1. The advancement of a just and peaceful society is one of the main objectives of the International Humanist & Ethical Union. The IHEU stimulates a continuous exchange of ideas among its members to learn to recognise the demands of peace and justice and to find ways to actualise these. During the past years one of the major topics of discussion has been the problem of nuclear armament. This statement of the IHEU aims at striking the balance of this discussion.
  2. As an ethical organisation, the IHEU wants to base its point of view concerning nuclear armament on humanist and moral considerations. Humanism tries to understand life and the world relying exclusively on human capacities, without an appeal to supernatural revelation. Humanism considers the ability to judge critically, without delegating responsibility to something or someone outside him, as essential to man. In this, man is characterised by an inclination to examine the tenability of whatever presents itself and a disposition to act in accordance with standards of reason and ethics. Humanism assumes that man is able to and should shape his own life, given the conditions of his existence, and that he will – in solidarity with his fellow-men – work for the realisation of a society in which freedom, equality and tolerance are of prime importance. Humanism emphasises the development of each human being. It forbids man to consider his fellow-man as a means that may serve his own aims in life.
  3. Such a view of man does not allow an ethical recognition of violence as such. Violence as such, after all, clashes with ideas concerning the fundamental equality of man, fellowship and reason, turning another human being into a means to achieve a certain aim.
  4. Humanists observe that violence in its various manifestations poisons the relationship between nations and individuals. Physical, economical, cultural and military suppression of people are all common practice. Some humanists therefore renounce violence under all circumstances. According to others, under certain circumstances a controlled use of violence may be ethically justified and required to protect human values such as life, fellowship, freedom or justice. These humanists will initially attempt to annihilate the circumstances that constitute a menace to the values mentioned above by means of non-violent communication with those who created the situation.
  5. However, when it is a matter of actual violent treatment or of a direct and instant menace to life, fellowship, freedom or justice, many agree that a controlled use of violence can be acknowledged as the lesser of two evils, used as a means to avoid the bigger.
  6. The IHEU considers the realisation of an effective and just national and international legal and economical order important, partly because it may help to reduce the use of violence.
  7. With the controlled use of violence, people have to be aware of the specific dynamics of violence. Violence provokes violence, thus perpetuating itself and causing more and more human suffering. Violence thrives well in an atmosphere of inequality and an unjust social structure. If it is not restricted, violence will in its turn perpetuate inequality and injustice.
  8. The use of violence always has to be examined critically. Whenever other means can be used to remedy evil, violence should not be used. Each time the evil one seeks to remedy, should be balanced carefully against the means by which one seeks to remedy it.
  9. On the basis of the fundamental equality of man and striving for a society based on fellowship, justice and tolerance, humanist will time and again examine the existing social relations and structures critically. If violence is used or threatened to be used, they will also judge critically of the relationship between the aims in view and the used means.
  10. Not only should the use of violence be check carefully against ethical standard, but also the means applied in the use of violence should be examined as to their capability. The continuous weighing of good and evil does not only apply to the aim in view of which violence is used, but also to the means by which one hopes to achieve these aims. The question which arms are acceptable and which they are not, has occupied mankind since ages. The unimaginable destruction and the immeasurable suffering that the force of arms has brought to the world during the past decades, has made these questions more and more urgent. Human intelligence, applied to the design of increasingly terrifying arms, has not only developed so-called “conventional weapons” of an unimaginable destructive and lethal power, but in addition nuclear and chemical weapons have gained a firm position in armament while reasonable doubts have to be expressed about the implementation of the treaty to ban biological weapons.
    With the development as outlined above, mankind has made its own extinction feasible. In the following nuclear arms in particular will be discussed. Of all weapons of mass destruction these are by far the most integrated in the military confrontation between major power-blocs. Whatever will be put forward concerning these weapons, will be equally applicable to chemical and biological weapons.
  11. When nuclear arms used, they will have a disastrous effect. When used on a mass-scale, they will be able to annihilate life on earth completely or largely, a fatal and irrevocable interference with the life possibilities of man, plants, and animals. Even when nuclear arms are not used on a mass-scale, they destroy and deform people. Not only is their destructive effect inhuman, but also and mainly the nature of the diseases caused by radiation, the symptoms of which can still emerge after years, with inexpressible suffering as a result, not only for ourselves, but also for future generations.
    The effect of biological and chemical weapons can on this level be compared to that of individual nuclear weapons. Tactical mini-weapons with nuclear charge which can extend their destructive power to a limited area only, as well as neutron bombs also have this effect as a result of their radiation.
    Moreover, their use may easily lead to the use of annihilating strategic weapons.
    The exercise of violence by means of nuclear arms can therefore no longer be considered as the lesser of two evils, used as a means to avoid the bigger. Considering this, the use of nuclear arms is ethically unacceptable.
  12. The possession of nuclear arms is usually defended on the basis of their supposedly war-deterrent function. A completely pacifist view will also consider the possession of such weapons as ethically objectionable. For us the question arises whether the possession of nuclear arms can, in view of the realisation or preservation of human or social values, indeed be considered as the lesser of two evils, used to avoid the bigger, the loss of these values.
  13. A process of mutual influence exists between the possession of nuclear arms and the present relationships between nations, which are characterised by fear and enmity and seriously obstructing possibilities for further development of mankind. Not only do this fear and enmity lead to the improvement and multiplication of nuclear arm, but the possession of these weapons also legitimises and reinforces feelings of fear and enmity.
  14. Not only does the possession of nuclear arms have a disastrous influence on the relationship between nations, the presence of such weapons also marks the society in which they exist. The people in such a society are brought up with the idea that all-destructive violence is an adequate means to realise priorities. A justification of such violence can in this case be found in the conviction that one’s own priorities are superior to those of others. Humanism wants to break through this ways of thinking in terms of groups and delusions of superiority, and to strive for a reasonable understanding among nations based on equality and solidarity.
  15. Up till now a direct confrontation between NATO and the Warsaw Pact has not yet taken place. However, it is not impossible that mutual feelings of hatred have led to war in other parts of the world in which these two blocs of nations did not take an official part, but in which they nevertheless played an important role.
  16. In addition it should be observed that the fact that up till now there has been no direct confrontation between NATO and the Warsaw Pact is no guarantee that such a confrontation can be avoided in the future.
  17. Attention should be drawn here to new developments in the field of nuclear armament. The large supply of destructive potency on both sides may initially have led to a war-deterring equilibrium, in which nuclear arms could not be used, because each destruction would provoke a new one. However, the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons has been lowered by the development of tactical atomic weapons, smaller nuclear weapons, which have to be used in the battlefield. The use of these smaller weapons will be considered sooner than the use of strategic nuclear weapons. This will provoke nuclear reactions from the other party, which may easily escalate to a total destruction.
  18. Distinguishing morally between the use of nuclear arms and the possession of them is made even more difficult by the fact that it is pointless to use these arms as a threat if this threat is not based on the actual willingness to use them.
  19. The possibility of making this distinction is moreover undermined by the following considerations;  The possession of nuclear arms perpetuates the progressive process of perfecting arms, which lead to the development of other new techniques and military strategies to enable effective usage of these weapons.
  20. The increase in the number of nuclear nations, the differentiation in arms as a result of new technological developments and the ensuing military plans add to the risk that, more particularly as a result of misunderstanding or coincidence, a conflict with a disastrous outcome will arise.
  21. The division of the world into mutually hostile power-blocs, threatening each other with nuclear arms, not only inhibits the development of nations and individuals belonging to these blocs, but it also restricts in particular the development of poor countries, thus perpetuating a situation in which many perish because of malnutrition. The attitude towards these countries is not so much determined by solidarity, but more so by the relationship between the major power-blocs, which remains full of prejudice, distrust, fear and enmity, exactly because of the possession of all-destructive nuclear weapons.
  22. It is via these developmental countries that the major power-blocs fight their battle. They use these countries as a means in power politics. Moreover, the costs of the nuclear arms race are so high that the power-blocs have to resort to their capital, capital goods and natural resources, thus keeping them out of reach of the developmental countries. In this way the possession of nuclear arms also restricts the possibilities of development of poor countries, which is in conflict with the demands of solidarity and fellowship.
  23. On the basis of the above stated, we hold the opinion that not only the use, but also the possession of nuclear arms is ethically unacceptable.
  24. With the statement that the possession as well as the use of nuclear arms should not be accepted by mankind, the IHEU has laid down the ethical starting-point in the discussion on nuclear arms. The IHEU does not want to and is indeed unable to acquiesce in the resignation with which the development, production and stationing of nuclear weapons has been accepted by many in the past few decades. In this sense the presence of nuclear arms should never by considered as unalterable fact. The IHEU hopes that its members will propagate the view formulated above in society, since it is certain that the campaign
  25. The ethical judgement of nuclear arms as such provides a basis on which one should try to stop a further advance and spreading of nuclear weapons and to make a start with the reduction of these weapons.
    The IHEU does not want to create illusions about the size and difficulty of the campaign against nuclear arms. In the past decades tens of thousands of nuclear weapons have been stationed in the world. The super powers consider their nuclear weapons arsenals as the major guarantee for their security. Negotiations about the reduction of strategic weapons seem to have stranded. Negotiations about the reduction of middle-range missiles have been put-off for the time being. Important programmes for the improvement and extension of their nuclear forces have been announced by various countries or have already been launched. Many countries make enormous efforts to obtain nuclear weapons. Seen against this background the suggestion that the fight against nuclear weapons can be fought and won quickly and easily could only lead to disillusion and discouragement. In the long run more will be lost than won by this. The campaign against nuclear arms goes against present developments. It asks for long-lasting and determined exertions, in which difficult ethical and practical choices will have to be made.
  26. Two central problems need to be discussed here. In the first place it has to be stated that nuclear weapons have become a part, if not the foundation, of our way of thinking about world security. The invalidity of this foundation has been demonstrated above.
    Instead of a security system based on mutual threats of total destruction, a different security system ought to be developed. The advancement of ideas for this other security system is one of the most difficult, but at the same time most urgent task of politics.
    Without convincing alternatives that promise more security, the nuclear arms race will continue.
    Discussion of our security system and a search for new ways will ask for sacrifices and involve risks. In the light of the increasing menace caused by nuclear arms, however, the striving for a new security system is an imperative demand.
  27. In the second place the question should be asked which demands should and can be made to national and international politics in the campaign against nuclear armament. The problem of nuclear armament is a world-wide problem which cannot be dealt with by means of national solutions only. The IHEU expects all its member organisations to urge national politicians to do all that is in their power to take position against nuclear arms and the ensuing ways of thinking about security in international negotiations. Moreover, the IHEU itself, as an international organisation, should do the same on an international level. It would be unrealistic to suppose that at all times the same political choices will be made by all parties in these negotiations.
    It is certainly a fair demand that a policy should be developed which remains free from acquiescence, resignation, and submissiveness and which attempts with all political means available to break through the present way of thinking about security.
  28. The IHEU does not want to leave the campaign against nuclear arms to politics alone. The IHEU will, whenever possible in co-operation with other organisations, search ways in which the contents of this statement can be implemented.


Board of Directors 1983

Suggested academic reference

'IHEU statement on nuclear armament', Humanists International, Board of Directors, 1983

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