The World of International Organizations

Millenials fear nuclear attack in ICRC poll

The U.K.'s York Cold War Bunker, built in 1961 to withstand a nuclear war (Arête News/Mike McBey)

GENEVA (Arête News) — More than half of all people reaching adulthood in the early 21st century believe it is more likely than not that a nuclear attack will occur in the coming decade, the International Committee of the Red Cross said on Thursday.

The ICRC’s survey of 16,288 adults between the ages of 20 to 35 found a grim view of global affairs. Among them, 54 percent of respondents said they believe it is likely a nuclear attack will happen somewhere in the world over the next 10 years and 47 percent said they believe it is likely they will experience a third world war.

The risks of nuclear war remain real. The two nations with the most nuclear weapons, the United States and Russia, let the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty expire last year as U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin traded blame.

The INF Treaty that Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed three decades ago led to the destruction of almost 2,700 U.S. and Soviet nuclear and conventional ballistic missiles and their launchers. It banned all U.S. and Soviet land-based ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, bringing huge relief to Europe where cities could be hit within minutes.

But the two sides allowed the INF Treaty, a key plank of Cold War-era arms control, to lapse without any attempt to convene expert-level negotiations to resolve the compliance issues Trump cited in his decision. Putin offered to immediately renew another major accord, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, between his country and the United States, without any preconditions or more discussions, and well ahead of its expiration in Feb. 2021.

Trump has yet to take up Putin on his offer. New START took effect in Feb. 2011, replacing the START treaty from 2004 to 2009. With an extensive verification program, both sides met the 2018 deadline to reduce their strategic nuclear forces to no more than 1,550 warheads on 700 deployed missiles or bombers.

The collapse of the INF Treaty and worries about New START expiring have sparked fears of a new global arms race amid rising geopolitical tensions. Experts warn the world is now a more dangerous place, and the job of advocating for nuclear arms control is far more difficult.

The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, or NPT, recognizes Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — all five permanent, veto-wielding members of the 15-nation U.N. Security Council — as possessing nuclear weapons. Four other nations, India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan, also have them.

With its decision to drop two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to force the end of World War II, the United States remains the only nation that ever used nuclear weapons at wartime. Global concerns about their potential use now generally revolve around U.S.-Russia tensions, security concerns and ambitions of China and Russia, Israel’s position in the Middle East, North Korea’s nuclear testing and a bitter rivalry between India and Pakistan.

An overwhelming 84 percent of respondents to the ICRC poll said they believe the use of nuclear weapons is never acceptable — and 74 percent also believe that wars are avoidable. Nearly the same amount, 75 percent, said they think limits must be imposed on how wars are fought.

“Millennials appear to see cataclysmic war as a real likelihood in their lifetime,” the ICRC’s president, Swiss diplomat Peter Maurer, said of the report.

“This millennial foreboding may reflect an increase in polarization and dehumanizing rhetoric,” he said. “If millennials are right about a third world war, the suffering of countries and regions will be immense. It’s a reminder of how critical it is that the laws of war that protect humanity are followed now and in the future.”

A reflection of proximity to war

As the Geneva-based guardian of the four Geneva Conventions, ICRC’s purpose is to oversee the global limits imposed on how wars are fought. The four international treaties, however, have not managed to limit some of the past seven decades’ worst brutalities.

The treaties adopted on August 12, 1949 in the aftermath of World War II are rules for war and military occupation that balance military and humanitarian needs. They lay out basic principles everyone in armed conflict is legally obliged to follow to try to ensure a measure of humanity.

In August, international observers marked the 70th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions by examining their relevance and limits — and ways to boost enforcement of their bedrock international humanitarian laws.

The ICRC survey explored millennials’ views on conflict, future warfare and values underpinning international humanitarian laws, such as the use of torture against enemy combatants. It covers both war-ravaged and mainly peaceful regions of the world.

Market research firm Ipsos conducted the survey from June 1 to Oct. 7, 2019 in Afghanistan, Colombia, France, Indonesia, Israel, Malaysia, Mexico, Nigeria, the Palestinian territories, Russia, South Africa, Syria, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Ukraine, and the United States.

The results showed a creeping sense that brutality is sometimes permissible. As many as 37 percent of respondents said they believe torture is acceptable under some circumstances, despite being told the United Nations Convention Against Torture forbids it. Fifteen percent said they believe military commanders should pursue victory at any cost, regardless of civilian casualties.

But around some of the world’s worst conflict zones, the results were more uniform. Among respondents in Syria, 98 percent said it is never acceptable to use nuclear weapons and 96 percent said it is never acceptable to use chemical weapons or biological weapons. Some 85 percent said they believe captured enemy fighters should be allowed to contact relatives.

“When you see your friends and family suffer the horrors of warfare, you want absolutely nothing to do with the weapons of war,” Maurer said. “The survey responses from millennials in Syria, Ukraine and Afghanistan confirm for us an obvious fact: the experience of war makes you hate war.”

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