"Mankind is faced with a problem of supreme gravity..."; ICRC appeal, 1945

05-09-1945 Statement

Full text of the statement issued by the ICRC on 5 September 1945, in the light of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki which brought the war to an end.

There can be no doubt that war, an anachronism in a civilized world, has taken on a character so devastating and so widespread ... that the thoughts and labours of all should be turned to the paramount task of making impossible the resort to arms. The Red Cross, nevertheless, is compelled, in time of war, to pursue its traditional efforts in the field of international law, that is to rise in defence of humanity and of the demands that it makes.

At a moment when peace seems, at last, to have returned, it may appear ill-timed to take up such a task, but that should not deflect the Red Cross from this fundamental duty. As the destructive forces of war increase, so much the more imperative does it become to protest against this overthrow of human values and to turn the light of man’s conscience, frail though it be, to pierce the darkness.

It is indeed questionable whether the latest developments of the technique of warfare leave any possibility for international law to cover a firm and sound order of society. Already the First World War, and still more the long disaster of the past six years, demonstrate that the conditions which prompted the framing of international law in its model form in the Geneva and Hague Conventions, have undergone far-reaching change. It is clear that developments in aviation and the increasingly destructive effects of bombing have made practically inapplicable the distinctions hitherto drawn, whereby certain classes of people had by right a special protection (for instance, the civil population in contrast to the armed forces).
"The question arises whether they would, perhaps, keep [this new weapon] in lasting and unfailing reserve as a supreme safeguard against war..." 
The inevitable development of weapons, and so of warfare as a whole, has a greater significance by reason of the exploitation of the discoveries in nuclear physics, which permit the producing of arms of a potency hitherto unknown. It would be useless to attempt a forecast for this new weapon, or even to express an opinion on the prospect that the Powers would relinquish it altogether.

The question arises whether they would, perhaps, keep it in lasting and unfailing reserve as a supreme safeguard against war and as a means of preserving a just order. This hope is not, perhaps, entirely vain as, during this six-year struggle, there has been no recourse to the chemical or bacteriological means of warfare as outlawed by the Powers in 1925. It is as well to remember this fact at a time when there have been so many infringements of law and so many reprisals have been taken.

In former times war was, essentially, an armed contest between combatant forces. Today, it supposes the total mobilization of all living forces of the nations against the enemy country and it involves the whole population. Warfare has now altered fundamentally owing to recent discoveries and to technical application of them. Mankind is thus faced with a problem of supreme gravity which calls for decisions on the moral plane.

The Geneva Convention gives guarantees to the wounded and sick of the armed forces – just as to their adversaries – that their lives will be protected and that they will have the right to proper care; the Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war watches over the physical and moral si tuation of those in captivity. The terms of these instruments declare the absolute inviolability of an enemy who is no longer fit for combat and give recognition to the dignity of the human personality. Protection of the civil population must rest on these same principles…

From totalitarian war have sprung new techniques. Must it then follow that the individual person will no longer enjoy the protection of the law and that he will thus be considered as a mere pawn in the mass struggle? That would mean the collapse of the principles that are the foundation of international law, which affords physical and moral protection to the human person. Even in time of war, a system of law which is purely expedient, based on self-interest and which serves only the exigence of the moment, could never offer an enduring security.

Unless respect for the significance and dignity of man is sustained, war will inevitably lead to boundless destruction, since the human mind which harnesses the forces of the universe seems, by the mechanisms it contrives, to hasten the onrush of destruction.

The Red Cross ideal, however, endures. It embodies the conception of the significance and dignity of man. It then far transcends the law of nations and the laws of war. It is upon that ideal, using the word in its most profound sense, that human society depends for its survival.