Atomic weapons and non-directed missiles: ICRC statement, 1950

05-04-1950 Article, International Review of the Red Cross, - Supplement, Vol. III, No. 4

International Committee of the Red Cross to the High Contracting Parties, Signatory to the Geneva Conventions for the Protection of the Victims of War

Geneva, April 5, 1950.

On August 6, 1945, when the first atomic bomb exploded, the world saw in it at first only a means of ending the War. Soon the destructive capacity of this arm became known, and increasing alarm came with the realisation. Since then, the civilised world has been hoping to see a reaffirmation of the rules of law and their extension to ensure protection against such means of destruction. Not only has this hope been belied, but there is already talk of arms still more destructive. Scientists have it that entire cities can be instantly wiped out and all life annihilated for years over wide areas. Mankind lives in constant fear.

It is the province of Governments to draw up the laws of war. The International Committee of the Red Cross is well aware of this fact, and it realises that the establishment of such laws involves political and military problems which are by their very nature outside its scope. Nevertheless, on the morrow of the formal signature of the four Geneva Conventions for the protection of the victims of war, the Committee feels that its duty is to let Governments know of its anxiety.

The protection of the human person against mass destruction is intimately bound up with the principle which gave rise to the Red Cross : the individual who takes no part in the fighting, or who is put hors de combat must be respected and protected.

The Internati onal Committee has not waited until now to take up the question. On September 5, 1945, scarcely a month after the release of the first bomb, it drew the attention of National Red Cross Societies to the grave problem posed by the atomic arm. This step was in itself a logical sequence in the attitude the Committee had taken to the development of modern warfare. From 1918 onwards, it had begun to collect documentation on the protection of civilians against aerial warfare and might be considered in this respect as a pioneer of civilian air-raid precautions. The Committee at the same time endeavoured to secure from the Powers an undertaking to refrain from the bombardment of non-military objectives. A series of proposals was laid before one of the first Assemblies of the League of Nations, with the object of eliminating certain methods of warfare introduced during the first World War. Supported by the conclusions reached by experts and backed by the documentation it had brought together, the Committee later addressed, to the Disarmament Conference an appeal for the absolute prohibition of aerial bombardment.

During the second World War, the Committee repeatedly called upon belligerents to restrict bombardment to military objectives only, and to spare the civil population. The most important of these appeals, dated March 12 , 1940, recommended, that Governments should conclude agreements which would confirm the immunity generally accorded to civilians, and prohibit all attacks against them. Similarly, the International Committee on several occasions advocated the creation of safety zones and localities. All these efforts proved fruitless.

The War once over, the International Committee did not relax its efforts. The Preliminary Conference of National Red Cross Societies, which met at Geneva in 1946, adopte d a Resolution recommending, inter alia, the prohibition'of the use. of atomic energy for war purposes. Armed with this text, the International Committee presented a report to the XVIIth International Red Cross Conference (Stockholm, 1948) recalling the above facts, and proposed the confirmation of the 1946 Resolution, after extending it to cover all non-directed weapons. The Conference voted the following Resolution :


The XVIIth International Red Cross Conference,


considering that, during the Second World War, the belligerents respected the prohibition of recourse to asphyxiating, poison and similar gases and to bacteriological warfare, as laid down in the Geneva Protocol of June 17, 1925,

noting that the use of non-directed weapons which cannot be aimed with precision or which devastate large areas indiscriminately, would involve the destruction of persons and the annihilation of the human values which it is the mission of the Red Cross to defend, and that use of these methods would imperil the very future of civilisation.

earnestly requests the Powers solemnly to undertake to prohibit absolutely all recourse to such weapons and to the use of atomic energy or any similar force for purposes of warfare.


Almost at the same moment, the International Congress of Military Medicine and Pharmacy, also meeting at Stockholm, adopted a similar Resolution.

Today, in recalling to Governments the Resolution of the XVIIth Red Cross Conference, the International Committee feels obliged to underline the extreme gravity of the situation. Up to the Second World War it was still to some extent possible to keep pace with the destructive power of armaments. The civilian population, nominally sheltered by International Law against attack during war, still enjoyed a certain degree of protection, but because of the power of the arms used, were increasingly struck down side by side with combatants. Within the radius affected by the atomic bomb, protection is no longer feasible. The use of this arm is less a development of the methods of warfare than the institution of an entirely new conception of war, first exemplified by mass bombardments and later by the employment of rocket bombs. However condemned - and rightly so - by successive treaties, war still presupposed certain restrictive rules ; above all did it presuppose discrimination between combatants and non-combatants. With atomic bombs and non-directed missiles, discrimination become impossible. Such arms will not spare hospitals, prisoner of war camps and civilians. Their inevitable consequence is extermination, pure and simple. Furthermore, the suffering caused by the atomic bomb is out of proportion to strategic necessity ; many of its victims die as a result of burns after weeks of agony, or are stricken for life with painful infirmities. Finally, its 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. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which watches particularly over the Conventions that protect the victims of war, must declare that the foundations on which its mission is based will disappear, if deliberate attack on persons whose right to protection is unchallenged is once countenanced.

The International Committee of the Red Cross hereby requests the Governments signatory to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, to take, as a logical complement to the said, Conventions - and to the Geneva Protocol of 1925 - all steps to reach an agreement on the prohibition of atomic weapons, and in a general way, of all non-directed missiles. The International Committee, once again, must keep itself apart from all political and military considerations. But if, in a strictly humanitarian capacity, it can aid in solving the problem, it is prepared, in accordance with the principles of the Red Cross, to devote itself to this task.

 For the International Committee of the Red Cross  


Leopold Boissier


 Chairman of the Legal Commission  

Paul Ruegger


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