Towards a nuclear weapons free world
Statement by ICRC President Jacob
Kellenberger to the Geneva Diplomatic Corps
In recent weeks and months, the issues of nuclear disarmament and
nuclear nonproliferation have assumed a new urgency on the world stage.
Energetic diplomatic efforts are heralding long overdue progress on
nuclear weapons issues in the postCold War era.
Dreaming of a world without destruction
The International committee of the Red Cross firmly believes that the
debate about nuclear weapons must be conducted not only on the basis of
military doctrines and power politics.
The existence of nuclear weapons poses some of the most profound
questions about the point at which the rights of States must yield to
the interests of humanity, the capacity of our species to master the
technology it creates, the reach of international humanitarian law, and
the extent of human suffering we are willing to inflict, or to permit,
“Nuclear weapons are unique in their destructive power, in the
unspeakable human suffering they cause, in the impossibility of
controlling their effects in space and time, in the risks of escalation
they create, and in the threat they pose to the environment, to future
generations, and indeed to the survival of humanity.”
The currency of this debate must ultimately be about human beings,
about the fundamental rules of international humanitarian law, and about
the collective future of humanity.
A legitimate voice
The ICRC has a legitimate voice in this debate. In its 150-year
history, the organization has witnessed immeasurable human suffering
caused by war and understands the potential of international
humanitarian law to limit such suffering.
The lCRC also brings to the debate its own direct testimony to the
consequences of the use of nuclear weapons and their potential to render
impossible the mission of humanitarian assistance that this organization
exists to fulfil. Dr Marcel Junod, an IClRC delegate, was the first
foreign doctor in Hiroshima to assess the effects of the atomic bombing
and to assist its victims. His testimony in an article entitled “The
Hiroshima disaster”, stored in the ICRC’s archives and first published
in 1982, told of the human reality of this weapon.
“We (...) witnessed a sight totally unlike anything we had ever seen
before. The centre of the city was a sort of white patch, flattened and
smooth like the palm of a hand. Nothing remained. The slightest trace of
houses seemed to have disappeared. The white patch was about two
kilometres in diameter. Around its edge was a red belt, making the area
where houses had burned, extending quite a long way further (...)
covering almost all the rest of the city.”
According to witnesses encountered by Junod, in a few seconds after
the blast “thousands of human beings in the streets and gardens in the
town centre, struck by a wave of intense heat, died like flies. Others
lay writhing like worms, atrociously burned. All private houses,
warehouses, etc., disappeared as if swept away by a supernatural power.
Trams were picked up and hurled yards away, as if they were weightless:
trains were flung off the rails (...). Every living thing was petrified
in an attitude of acute pain”.
As Junod recounts, destruction of this magnitude does not spare
medical infrastructure or doctors and their materials. Of 300 doctors in
Hiroshima 270 were reported dead, of 1,780 nurses 1,654 were dead, of
140 pharmacists 112 were dead. Miraculously, the Japanese Red Cross
hospital that Junod visited was built of stone and remained largely
intact. However, it could no longer function as its laboratory equipment
was unusable, a third of its staff had been killed and there was no
possibility of blood transfusion as the donors were either dead or had
disappeared. Of a thousand patients who had taken refuge there on the
first day, 600 rapidly died.
Suffering and destruction
The suffering caused by the use of nuclear weapons is increased
exponentially by devastation of the emergency and medical assistance
infrastructure. The specific characteristics of nuclear weapons, that
is, the effects on human beings of the radiation they generate, also
cause suffering and death for years after the initial explosion. For
survivors, the immediate future may include life-threatening dehydration
and diarrhoea from injuries to the gastrointestinal tract, and
life-threatening infections and severe bleeding caused by bone marrow
suppression. If they survive these threats, they face an increased risk
of developing certain cancers and of passing on genetic damage to future
generations. Thus over time many more lives are lost. In Hiroshima and
Nagasaki, fatalities increased two to three-fold over the following five
Children, the victims of warfare
Although nuclear weapons’ potential for destructive force increased
by a factor of many thousands during the Cold War, the ability of States
and international agencies to assist potential victims did not.
The ICRC has recently completed a thorough analysis of its capacity,
and that of other international agencies, to bring aid to the victims of
the use of nuclear, radiological, chemical or biological weapons.
despite the existence of some response capacity in certain countries, at
the international level there is little such capacity and no realistic,
coordinated plan. Almost certainly, the images seen if Hiroshima and
Nagasaki will be those resulting from any future use of nuclear weapons.
We now know that the destructive capacity of the nuclear weapons used
in Hiroshima and Nagasaki pales in comparison to those in current
arsenals. According to many scenarios of nuclear weapon use, the human
and societal destruction would be much worse. We also know the use of a
fraction of the weapons head in current arsenals would affect the
environment for many years and render agriculture impossible in vast
areas. The implications for human life are indeed sobering.
Call for a ban
The International Committee of the Red Cross has long been
preoccupied by nuclear weapons, by the immense threat they pose to
civilians and by their implications for international humanitarian law.
Already on September 5 1945 the ICRC publicly expressed the wish that
nuclear weapons be banned. From 1948 on, the entire International Red
Cross and Red Crescent Movement, through its International conferences,
called for the prohibition of weapons of mass destruction in general,
and of nuclear weapons in particular. In a communication to States party
to the Geneva Conventions in 1950, the ICRC stated that before the
“(W)ar still presupposed certain restrictive rules; above all (...)
it presuppose(d) discrimination between combatants and non-combatants.
With atomic bombs and non-directed missiles, discrimination became
impossible. Such arms will not spare hospitals, prisoner of war camps
Their inevitable consequence is extermination, pure and simple
effects, immediate and lasting, prevent access to the wounded and their
treatment. In these conditions, the mere assumption that atomic weapons
may be used, for whatever reason, is enough to make illusory any attempt
to protect non-combatants by legal texts. Law, written or unwritten, is
powerless when confronted with the total destruction the use of this arm
implies”. On this basis the International Committee called on States to
take “all steps to reach an agreement on the prohibition of atomic
In 1996 the ICRC welcomed the fact that the international court of
justice, in its Advisory Opinion on nuclear weapons, confirmed that the
principles of distinction and proportionality found in international
humanitarian law are “intransgressible” and apply also to nuclear
In applying those principles to nuclear weapons the Court concluded
that “the use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the
principles and rules of international humanitarian law”. It was unable
to decide whether, even in the extreme circumstance of a threat to the
very survival of the State, the use of nuclear weapons would be
Some have cited specific, narrowly defined scenarios to support the
view that nuclear weapons could be used legally in some circumstances.
However, the Court found that”...The destructive power of nuclear
weapons cannot be contained in either space or time (...).
The radiation released by a nuclear explosion would affect health,
agriculture, natural resources and demography over a very wide area.
Further, the use of nuclear weapons would be a serious danger to future
In the light of this finding, the ICRC finds it difficult to envisage
how any use of nuclear weapons could be compatible with the rules of
international humanitarian law.
The position of the ICRC, as a humanitarian organization, goes-and
must go-beyond a purely legal analysis. Nuclear weapons are unique in
their destructive power, in the unspeakable human suffering they cause,
in the impossibibity of controlling their effects in space and time, in
the risks of escalation they create, and in the threat they pose to the
environment, to future generations, and indeed to the survival of
humanity. The ICRC therefore appeals today to all states to snsure that
such weapons are never used again, regardless of their views on the
legality of such use.
The international community now has at hand a unique opportunity to
reduce and eliminate the threat of nuclear weapons for this and
succeeding generations. The UN Security Council, meeting at summit level
in September 2009, endorsed the objective of “a world without nuclear
Four months earlier the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva
unanimously agreed upon a program of work and negotiations on nuclear
weapons issues, including nuclear disarmament. Some of the most renowned
political and military leaders of recent decades have concluded that
nuclear weapons undermine national and international security and
support their elimination.
Presidents Obama and Medvedev have recognized their countries’
special responsibility for the reduction of nuclear weapons. The Review
Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, to
be held in New York next month, provides a historic opportunity for both
nuclear and non-nuclear weapon States to agree on concrete plans for the
fulfilment of all the treaty’s obligations, including those concerning
In the view of the ICRC, preventing the use of nuclear weapons
requires fulfilment of existing obligations to pursue negotiations aimed
at prohibiting and completely eliminating such weapons through a legally
binding international treaty. It also means preventing their
proliferation and controlling access to materials and technology that
can be used to produce them.
The opening sentences of Marcel, Junod’s testimony began. “The
physical impact of the bomb was beyond belief, beyond all apprehension,
beyond imagination. Its moral impact was appalling”. We must never allow
ourselves to become morally indifferent to the terrifying effects of a
weapon that defies our common humanity, calls into question the most
fundamental principles of international humanitarian law, and can
threaten the continued existence of the human species.
The ICRC today appeals to all States, and to all in a position to
influence them, to seize with determination and urgency the unique
opportunities now at hand to bring the era of nuclear weapons to an end.