Banning nuclear weapons is our obligation to future generations and a humanitarian imperative

24 April 2017

International Red Cross and Red Crescent Conference on the Prohibition and Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, Nagasaki, Japan. Speech by Christine Beerli, vice president of the ICRC.


In the coming weeks and months, all of us here will have the opportunity – or rather, the responsibility – to shape the course of history.

We are standing at the brink of what may, in the future, be remembered as the decisive turning point in the efforts to end the era of nuclear weapons.

Negotiations by States towards a global treaty banning nuclear weapons already began in New York, in the framework of the United Nations, in late March. This is an unprecedented step by States. It reflects a clear desire among a growing
majority of countries to prohibit nuclear weapons, and to advance their total elimination. These negotiations are gathering momentum and there is a real chance that, later this year, such a treaty at the global level will become a reality.

Yet all of us here have an important role to play if such an outcome is to be achieved.

The Movement's contribution has been crucial in getting us this far: a global voice providing powerful testimony against the horrific effects of nuclear weapons for more than 70 years.

Our legitimacy comes through both practice and policy. Not only did the Japanese Red Cross and the ICRC witness first-hand the nightmarish scenes of death and destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, as we tried to bring relief to the dying and injured, but we continue to see the longterm effects of those atomic bombs to this day. In this sense they are weapons that keep on killing. Five years after their use, fatalities increased by two to three times. Now, 72 years later, Japanese Red Cross hospitals continue to treat many thousands of victims of cancers and other illnesses caused by radiation exposure.

On a policy level, the Movement also has a long history of calling for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, through resolutions adopted at the International Conference and the Council of Delegates. This includes the landmark resolution adopted in 2011, in which the Movement 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. The action plan adopted in November 2013 was an additional and important step, as it helped National Societies to take action on the issue with their governments and the general public.

Today, few States would disagree that the debate around nuclear weapons has moved on from the confines of military doctrine, power politics and legal analysis only. Most would share the Movement's view, namely that the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons – with their uniquely destructive power – raise significant doubts about their compatibility with international humanitarian law , and make their prohibition and elimination a humanitarian imperative. These consequences include the longterm threats to health, to the environment, to future generations, indeed, to the very survival of humanity. With the continued existence of nuclear weapons and today's complex security environment, the risk of the intentional or accidental use of nuclear weapons is an urgent global concern.

Three international conferences in recent years on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons – in Norway, Mexico and Austria – and additional work in the United Nations attest to how seriously States are taking this issue. The historic resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 2016 has paved the way for the treaty negotiations now taking place.

We are now at a critical juncture. There is no room for complacency. It is no surprise that not all States are on board and some have particular reservations about the development of a ban treaty. It is imperative therefore that the Movement – including at the highest levels of leadership – continues to make its voice heard.

The next round of negotiations will take place in New York from 15 June to 7 July. These talks may well be decisive to how a future treaty will look.

We must press for the widest possible participation of States in these negotiations. In line with Resolution 1 of the 2011 Council of Delegates, we need to push for a treaty that recognizes the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons; is based on and is consistent with existing principles and rules of international humanitarian law; and contains a clear and unambiguous prohibition. And beyond that, we will need to urge adherence to an eventual treaty by as many States as possible.

At the same time, we must continue our efforts to help ensure that States associated with nuclear weapons, and which are not participating in these negotiations, meet their existing commitments – to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in their security policies, reduce the risk of their accidental or intentional use and take further steps to reduce their numbers.

It is important to acknowledge that adopting a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons will not make them immediately disappear. But it will reinforce the stigma against their use, support commitments to nuclear risk reduction, and be a disincentive for their proliferation. It will be a concrete step towards fulfilling existing commitments to achieve nuclear disarmament, notably those of Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. As with chemical and biological weapons, a clear and unambiguous prohibition is the cornerstone of their elimination. Ladies and gentlemen, perhaps never before has the Movement had such an important opportunity to help prevent unimaginable suffering on a global
scale. As National Society leaders, you are uniquely placed to positively influence governments, lawmakers and civil society on this issue. Let us see this as more than just an opportunity – rather as an obligation to future generations to preserve our common humanity.

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