18 August 2017

A Joint India-Pakistan Initiative on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons

By Arka Biswas

Efforts under the international initiative on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons (HINW) led to adoption of Resolution L.41 by the First Committee of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on October 27, 2016 and Resolution 71/258 by the UNGA on December 23, 2016. This Resolution calls for a UN Conference to negotiate a “legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.”[i]These negotiations have begun. The first substantive session was held from March 27 to 31, 2017; the second is scheduled for June 15 to July 7, 2017 at the UN headquarters in New York.[ii] While India and Pakistan attended all three international conferences on the HINW that preceded this negotiation, neither endorsed the UN Resolution nor are they taking part in the parlays.

India abstained from voting on the Resolution by noting that the Conference on Disarmament, an established UN body, should have the mandate to negotiate a comprehensive instrument on nuclear disarmament. New Delhi also observed that the proposed negotiations for a Treaty banning nuclear weapons would not meet the longstanding expectation of the international community for a comprehensive instrument of nuclear disarmament, especially in the absence of endorsement by nuclear-weapon states. Adding that verification would be a key component of a comprehensive instrument of global nuclear disarmament, New Delhi argued that a Treaty banning nuclear weapons would not address such challenges to nuclear disarmament.[iii]

While echoing India’s argument on the need for negotiations within the Conference on Disarmament, Pakistan argued that at each step of the disarmament process, the security of every state should be kept in mind and that each of these steps should not diminish security even at the lowest possible levels of armaments and military forces.[iv] Despite their abstention, India and Pakistan provided significant support to this international initiative, being the only two states possessing nuclear weapons to have participated in the three international conferences on HINW, even though their reasons for having attended these conferences had less to do with concerns over the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons.[v]

India and Pakistan could further demonstrate their responsible stewardship of nuclear weapons by launching a bilateral initiative on HINW wherein their national leaders would commit to undertake a joint assessment of the environmental and humanitarian consequences of detonations of nuclear weapons on the subcontinent. This initiative would reflect their understanding of the horrific consequences of nuclear exchanges and convey their resolve to avoid the same -- not just to their own publics, but to the international community, as well. This Off Ramps essay explores such a bilateral initiative which, if seriously undertaken, could constitute a meaningful step that could reduce nuclear dangers in South Asia as well as strengthen regional stability.

The Proposal

Under the proposed bilateral initiative on the HINW, New Delhi and Islamabad would agree to undertake a joint scientific assessment of the environmental and humanitarian impacts of nuclear exchanges between the two South Asian nuclear powers. The two leaderships would establish a joint committee of scientific experts, environmental analysts and humanitarian, medical and disaster relief personnel that would conduct an independent, technical assessment of the impact of various levels of Indian and Pakistani nuclear detonations. Estimation of the number of detonations and their yield would be notional, and not based on details of actual operational devices that the two sides possess. The review would postulate varied locations for detonations. The assessment would also take into account the availability and numbers of appropriate delivery vehicles that the two countries could use to deliver nuclear warheads, based on unclassified estimates.

Once a detailed review of the environmental and humanitarian impact of nuclear exchanges between India and Pakistan is prepared within an agreed time-frame, the two leaderships would jointly release the findings of the review to their publics and to the international community for study and scrutiny. Under the initiative, the two leaderships would also commit to biennial reviews of the assessment that would take into account the impact of any new, significant and pertinent development in India and Pakistan. The leaders of India and Pakistan would also challenge other nuclear-armed rivals to carry out similar joint scientific assessments of the environmental and humanitarian impacts of nuclear detonations.

Given that a use of nuclear weapons or a nuclear war could have devastating impact on neighboring countries as well, India and Pakistan could consider inviting experts from countries like Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, among others, at these biennial review meetings.


There could well be opposition from within India and Pakistan to the proposed bilateral initiative on HINW. This section anticipates such challenges and contemplates ways through which they might be overcome. Within Pakistan, Rawalpindi might well oppose any initiative diminishing the perceived value of its reliance on nuclear weapons, as well as the threat of nuclear weapons’ use to deter India. Rawalpindi’s concerns could be heightened as military planners in New Delhi contemplate the feasibility of employing the doctrine of Cold Start, wherein the Indian army would conduct low-scale, swift conventional attack across the Line of Control or international boundaries.[vi] Rawalpindi would like to emphasize threatening to use its tactical nuclear weapons first, with the attendant prospect of uncontrolled escalation to prevent Indian advances.[vii]

Rawalpindi might, however, back this initiative in light of indicators that New Delhi is contemplating massive retaliation and even pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons – as well as Cold Start. Two decades since overt nuclearization, the debate in New Delhi is heating up to strengthen deterrence by means of counterforce targeting.[viii] A joint scientific assessment of the environmental and humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use could reinforce voices in India that continue to regard nuclear weapons as political tools and not as instruments of nuclear war-fighting. A joint assessment could remind policymakers in New Delhi of India’s long-standing commitment to nuclear disarmament, thus calling for a minimal role of nuclear weapons in India’s national security. Rawalpindi might also agree to this proposal in order to reduce international criticism of its expansive nuclear weapons-related programs, showcasing its awareness of the disastrous consequences of the same.

The Indian government, on the other hand, might object to any initiative that could be perceived as tagging India’s standing in the global nuclear order to that of Pakistan. New Delhi has continued to cite its exceptional nuclear non-proliferation record and its commitment to nuclear disarmament while working on its integration into the global nuclear order. Since overt nuclearization in 1998, New Delhi has expressed its support for the principles of the NPT, despite being unable to sign the Treaty as a non-nuclear weapon state owing to its national security concerns. With indeed an exemplary track record on nuclear non-proliferation, India is finding a more comfortable place within the global nuclear order. The 2008 waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) allowing India to engage in global nuclear commerce for peaceful purposes without having to implement full-scope safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reflects this transition. Pakistan has received no such waiver. New Delhi seeks increased separation from Pakistan, so why should India take part in such an initiative?

There are four reasons why New Delhi might agree to pursue a joint technical assessment with Pakistan. First, this initiative would demonstrate India’s willingness to encourage Pakistan into becoming a responsible state possessing nuclear weapons, as well as demonstrating its own commitment toward responsible nuclear stewardship. Second, by undertaking this initiative, New Delhi might advance its prospects for joining the NSG. While this may not soften China’s opposition to India’s entry to the NSG, it could certainly influence the position of fence sitters. Third, the proposed bilateral initiative would underline India’s commitment to global nuclear disarmament.

In addition, New Delhi would set an example for other nuclear-weapon states to follow its lead in conducting similar assessments of the environmental and humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. India has for decades been calling for a treaty banning nuclear weapons that leads to a time-bound, global and comprehensive nuclear disarmament. Former Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi’s call for a nuclear weapons free world in 1988 at the UN General Assembly is widely known in India and the world. India could demonstrate the continuity of its commitment to nuclear disarmament by lending support to the process through this bilateral initiative.

Apart from the aforementioned two challenges posed by Rawalpindi and New Delhi, a third challenge could emerge with regard to agreeing on the framework, parameters and scope of the joint assessment. Pitfalls could occur in deciding jointly whether the assessment of the environmental and humanitarian consequences of nuclear exchanges would be scenario-specific, derived from India’s and Pakistan’s nuclear postures, or comprehensive, encompassing the use of varying numbers of nuclear weapons by the two sides. While terms of reference for the proposed joint assessment could require time to come to an agreement, this task should not be unsurmountable.


There are numerous benefits that the proposed bilateral initiative on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons could offer both India and Pakistan. First, it will allow them to exert political pressure on other nuclear-weapon states to undertake similar studies, whether unilaterally, bilaterally or multilaterally. By conducting the proposed joint assessment of the environmental and humanitarian consequences of nuclear exchanges, India and Pakistan would demonstrate responsible nuclear stewardship, and thus enhance their political standing in the global nuclear order. Second, by welcoming participation of scientific experts nominated by their neighboring governments for the biennial reviews of the study, India and Pakistan would clarify their recognition of a joint responsibility to avoid a wider regional catastrophe and to promote regional peace and stability. Third, even as India and Pakistan remain distant from the global initiative on the HINW, the proposed bilateral initiative would lend support to international efforts toward banning nuclear weapons and toward comprehensive nuclear disarmament. Finally, this initiative would promote and encourage voices from civil society within India and Pakistan that question the intensified nuclear competition now underway. Commencement of Joint technical assessments of the environmental and humanitarian consequences on nuclear exchanges could help slow-down the ongoing nuclear arms build-up between the two South Asian nuclear neighbors.

Arka Biswas is an Associate Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation currently pursuing projects on India’s nuclear weapons policy and doctrine, and India's membership to the export control groups. His research areas include nuclear weapons policy, non-proliferation, disarmament and security. He is one of the coordinators of the Asian Forum on Global Governance (AFGG), an annual forum organised by ORF and ZEIT Stiftung. He has been a visiting fellow at the Stimson Center, Washington DC.Arka obtained his Masters in International Relations from University of Bristol. His dissertation was a critique of the Global Zero campaign. Prior to joining ORF, he worked at the Vivekananda International Foundation, focusing on the historic security situation and the geopolitics of the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. He wrote a monograph on the legal history of the Durand Line, titled "Durand Line: History, Legality and Future." His work has appeared in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Foreign Policy, The Diplomat, and The National Interest, among others.

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