Since the first and only use of nuclear weapons in 1945, the international community has wrestled with the issue of how the law of war applies to such weapons. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has called on States to ensure that nuclear weapons are never again used and to prohibit the use of and completely eliminate nuclear weapons through a legally binding international agreement.
Nuclear weapons have severe consequences in humanitarian terms. These consequences result from the heat, blast and radiation generated by a nuclear explosion and the distances over which these forces may be spread. As was seen from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the detonation of a nuclear weapon in or near a populated area can cause enormous numbers of casualties and extensive damage to civilian infrastructure. It can also destroy medical infrastructure and services making the provision of aid and assistance almost impossible in the immediate aftermath. Many of those who survive the blast will fall victim to radiation sickness in the weeks and months that follow while others face an increased risk of developing certain cancers later in life.
There is no comprehensive or universal ban on nuclear weapons in international law, although in 1996 the International Court of Justice concluded that the use of nuclear weapons would be generally contrary to the principles and rules of international humanitarian law (IHL). The Court also concluded that States were under an obligation to pursue and conclude negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament.
In 2011, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement made an historic appeal on nuclear weapons. In it, the Movement called on States to ensure that nuclear weapons are never again used, regardless of their views on the legality of such weapons, and to urgently pursue and conclude negotiations to prohibit the use of and completely eliminate nuclear weapons through a legally binding international agreement. This appeal was based on the direct experience of the ICRC and the Japanese Red Cross in responding to and treating the survivors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Like many States and organizations the ICRC, and the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement more generally, believe that preventing the use of nuclear weapons – including through the development of a legally binding treaty to prohibit and eliminate such weapons – is the only way forward.
For decades the discourse about nuclear weapons was focussed on their military and security aspects and concerns about their proliferation. Increasingly, however, States are expanding the debate to include their catastrophic humanitarian consequences and IHL implications. In parallel, many States and organizations are increasing or re-emphasizing calls for a treaty to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons.