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Nuclear weapons must be prohibited and eliminated once and for all

13-02-2014 Statement

Second Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, Nayarit, Mexico, 13-14 February 2014, Statement by Christine Beerli, vice-president of the ICRC.

Let me begin by expressing my appreciation to the Government of Mexico for inviting the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to speak at this important event. Mexico is a strong supporter and advocate of non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament. In hosting this conference, Mexico has shown once again that it is playing a leading role in these efforts.

... nuclear weapons must never be used again. The prospect of their catastrophic consequences for humanity can only lead States to the conclusion they must work urgently and with determination to prohibit and eliminate these weapons once and for all."

The debate about nuclear weapons is an important one and to these discussions the ICRC brings first-hand testimony about their devastating impact. Upon arriving in Hiroshima in August 1945, ICRC delegates came face to face with the grim reality of nuclear weapons. The scale of the devastation from a single atomic bomb, both in terms of human casualties and damage to infrastructure, was unimaginable. Many thousands of people were dead or unaccounted for, and the civilian infrastructure had been obliterated as far as the eye could see. Also alarming, particularly for a humanitarian organization like the ICRC, was the near total destruction of the medical facilities and services to which the injured and sick would normally turn for treatment. The ICRC and the Japanese Red Cross did what they could to aid them. But it was clearly not enough to alleviate the suffering of those affected by the blast.

The ICRC learned many things from its work in Hiroshima. We learned that the consequences of nuclear weapons are catastrophic. We learned that many more people will die from radiation sickness in the weeks and months following an explosion than at the time of the detonation. We learned that when nuclear weapons are used, the normal systems and services for helping the victims are, in an instant, wiped out or severely damaged, making the provision of adequate assistance nearly impossible in the aftermath. We also learned that civilian causalities and suffering are likely to continue for years to come, caused by the development of cancers such as thyroid cancer and leukaemia, and that over time the death toll will continue to rise.

The 2013 Oslo Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons was a pivotal event. It was the first time that governments came together to discuss the consequences of nuclear weapons in humanitarian terms. The meeting helped to further the international community’s understanding of the potential consequences on civilians, the environment and indeed the planet as a whole. It showed that, while the capability to develop ever more powerful nuclear weapons has grown since 1945, the capacity of States and organizations to provide adequate assistance in response to a nuclear detonation is severely lacking. The meeting also helped to remind us that, in addition to the suffering that befell the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki nearly 69 years ago, many others continue to suffer the effects of nuclear weapons testing in places such as Kazakhstan and the Pacific Islands.

Over the next two days this conference in Nayarit will deepen our understanding of the humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons, particularly the long-term effects that are not widely discussed. New research and technological tools have made it possible to predict and more fully understand the effects of nuclear weapons on global public health, development, population displacement and the world economy, just to highlight a few of the themes that will be discussed at this meeting. The ICRC welcomes the focus on these issues, as we believe that the debate about nuclear weapons must be shaped by a full grasp of the short, medium and long-term consequences of their use.

For the ICRC and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement more generally, this informed debate about nuclear weapons is long overdue. Already in September 1945 and shortly after its initial visits to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the ICRC appealed to States to ban nuclear weapons. From 1948 on, the Movement, in a series of resolutions, called for the prohibition of weapons of mass destruction in general, and of nuclear weapons in particular. In November 2011, the Movement’s views on nuclear weapons were outlined in an historic resolution in which the Movement recalled its humanitarian concerns about nuclear weapons. The resolution also recalled that the Movement found it difficult to envisage how any use of nuclear weapons could be compatible with the rules of international humanitarian law. It therefore called on all States to ensure that nuclear weapons were never again used, and to pursue negotiations to prohibit and completely eliminate such weapons through a legally binding international agreement in accordance with their existing obligations.

And just three months ago, in November 2013, the Movement took an additional step when it adopted a four-year action plan outlining activities that National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies could undertake in their countries to raise awareness of the Movement’s concerns and views on nuclear weapons. This action plan should help National Societies address the issue with their governments and the general public. A further sign of the Movement’s engagement is the fact that 23 National Societies are represented at this meeting as part of the delegation of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

In 2010, 190 States party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons recognized the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons.” Since that time, there have been growing calls from States and international and civil society organizations to eliminate nuclear weapons. This was most recently reflected in the statement, delivered to the First Committee of the United Nations General Assembly by New Zealand on behalf of 125 countries, recognizing that the new humanitarian focus of the debate about nuclear weapons “is now well established on the global agenda” and highlighting that “all efforts must be exerted to eliminate the threat of these weapons of mass destruction.” The Oslo and Nayarit conferences have a key role to play in clarifying the devastating effects of nuclear weapons and building momentum for this cause.

The ICRC welcomes these developments. It is our hope that the lessons learned from the past and the new insights gained from the Oslo and Nayarit meetings will guide States as they consider how best to advance nuclear disarmament in the 21st century. We all know that nuclear weapons must never be used again. The prospect of their catastrophic consequences for humanity can only lead States to the conclusion they must work urgently and with determination to prohibit and eliminate these weapons once and for all.