The Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons

VIENNA – In 1983, three years before I was born, a chilling television docudrama about the consequences of a nuclear war was broadcast around the world. The Day After, now cited as the highest-rated film in TV history, left then-US President Ronald Reagan “greatly depressed” and caused him to rethink his nuclear strategy. At their summit in Reykjavik in October 1986, he and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev came tantalizingly close to eliminating all nuclear weapons.

My generation has conveniently consigned such fears to history. Indeed, with the Cold War tensions of 1983 far in the past and the international order dramatically changed, many people nowadays ask why these memories should concern us at all. But the premise of that question is both wrong and dangerous.

This week, Austria is providing the world an opportunity to rethink its complacency. On December 8-9, representatives from the governments of more than 150 countries, international organizations, and civil-society groups will meet in Vienna, to consider the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons.

These weapons, which terrified people 30 years ago, still remain in countries’ arsenals and continue to pose a grave risk to human security and safety. Austria’s concern is that as long as nuclear weapons exist, the risk of their use exists, either by accident or design. An overwhelming majority of states share this view.