Nuclear Weapons: Averting a global catastrophe

Appeal to States, global leaders and citizens by Mr Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) appeals to all States, global leaders and citizens to act on the increasing risk of the use of nuclear weapons. Whether used in a specific region or among major powers, the use of nuclear weapons would cause a catastrophic and irreparable humanitarian disaster. 

If a nuclear conflict happened today, there is no international plan nor capacity to respond adequately to even a limited use of nuclear weapons. Therefore, the only sound course of action is prevention. We appeal for urgent efforts to ensure that nuclear weapons are never again used.

Avoiding a global nuclear catastrophe requires urgent action by all States :

- States possessing nuclear weapons and their allies must urgently take measures to reduce and eventually eliminate the risk of nuclear weapon use. All other members of the international community have a stake in ensuring they do so.

- States Parties to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) must use the 2020 Review Conference, and its April 2018 Preparatory Committee in Geneva, to change course, away from threats of use and modernization of nuclear arsenals and towards full implementation of commitments they made in 2010 and previously to nuclear arms reductions, risk reduction and other effective nuclear disarmament measures.

- States should take the necessary steps to adhere to the 1968 NPT, the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and other nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation treaties to which they are not yet party and fully implement their provisions.

The ICRC makes this Appeal against the backdrop of a world in which the risk of use of nuclear weapons seems to be increasing. With previous restraints steadily falling away, and threats of use of nuclear weapons entering mainstream politics, we see a shift from a focus on non-use and elimination to making the use of nuclear weapons possible or more likely:

- With military incidents involving nuclear States and their allies occurring with disturbing frequency, the danger of use of nuclear weapons may be greater today than during the cold war.

- The UN Secretary General recently warned the Security Council that "The cold war is back… but with a difference.  The mechanisms and the safeguards to manage the risks of escalation that existed in the past no longer seem to be present".

- States possessing nuclear weapons have plans for adapting nuclear weapons in ways that will make them able to be used in a wider variety of contexts. In parallel, their command and control systems have become more vulnerable to cyber-attacks.

To be clear, the ICRC understands that all States and, in particular those engaged in conflicts in volatile areas of the world, face complex security challenges, including risks to their security and that of their allies. Regional conflicts are now intertwined with global rivalries. A multitude of protracted conflicts continue with no political solutions in sight. Yet the introduction of nuclear weapons and threats of their use only renders such conflicts more dangerous and increases the risk of a global conflagration in which much of humanity will suffer irreparably. Indeed, in some cases, the existence of nuclear weapons and the "security" benefits attributed to them are root causes of the tensions themselves.

We also recognise that in the last two decades, significant steps have been taken to reduce the numbers of nuclear weapons from Cold War levels. Yet reductions alone do not reduce the risk of their use in light of the facts and dangers mentioned above. Concerted steps towards reducing nuclear risks are therefore urgently needed. Nuclear weapon States and those allied to them bear particular responsibility. Such measures are well known and include:

- Unequivocal commitments never to use nuclear weapons first.

- Removal of nuclear weapons from "hair trigger" alert status.

- Pre-notification of military exercises that may involve the launch of missiles or other vehicles associated with nuclear weapons.

- Re-establishment of joint early-warning centers to clarify in real-time unexpected and potentially destabilising events.

- Steps to progressively reduce the role of nuclear weapons in security policies.

This Appeal is rooted in what the ICRC knows through its own experience in Hiroshima and Nagasaki 73 years ago and that of Japanese Red Cross hospitals which, even today, continue to provide treatment for many thousands of survivors of the atomic bombings. From this experience and what has been learned through engagement with environmental experts, the United Nations and other organizations, it is clear that:

- The catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use cannot be limited in time and space, and that more victims will die in the months and years following their use than at the moment of the blast through radiation poisoning, cancers and other diseases.

- There is still today no international capacity or plan for humanitarian assistance to respond adequately to the use of nuclear weapons.

- Even the use of just a hundred nuclear weapons, which represents a fraction of existing arsenals, against urban targets could lead to a cooling of global temperatures, shortening of growing seasons, food shortages in large parts of the world and the deaths of over a billion people.

This Appeal by the ICRC also reflects the urgent concerns of the entire International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, including 191 National Societies and millions of volunteers around the globe. Just last November the Movement expressed its deep alarm at the increasing risk that nuclear weapons may be used and stressed "that any risk of use of nuclear weapons is unacceptable given their catastrophic humanitarian consequences". Together we adopted an ambitious four-year Action Plan to ensure nuclear weapons are never again used and are eliminated.

Three years ago in my statement on nuclear weapons to the Geneva diplomatic corps ahead of the 2015 NPT Review Conference, I concluded: "We know now more than ever before that the risks are too high, the dangers too real. It is time for States, and all those in a position to influence them, to act with urgency and determination to bring the era of nuclear weapons to an end."

Too often, the international community has been unable to prevent foreseeable crises. This time it is imperative that we prevent impending nuclear catastrophe. Seldom has collective action to reduce nuclear weapon risks and move towards their elimination been more urgent.