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Nuclear weapons: an historic opportunity

20-04-2010 Interview

In recent months, energetic diplomatic efforts have put nuclear weapons and their proliferation at the top of States' agendas, resulting in long-overdue opportunities for progress. On 20 April the ICRC President appealed to States to ensure nuclear weapons are never again used and to negotiate an international agreement to prohibit and eliminate these destructive weapons. As the head of the ICRC's Arms Unit, Peter Herby, explains, the ICRC believes an historic opportunity currently exists to bring the era of nuclear weapons to an end.

Peter Herby, head of the ICRC's Arms Unit 

     What are the ICRC's concerns regarding nuclear weapons?  

They are unimaginably destructive and can cause unspeakable human suffering. The devastation they can wreak makes it extremely difficult to bring immediate aid to the victims. What's more, their effects are impossible to control in space and time and their use would lead to the risk of further escalation and proliferation. For all these reasons, they pose a grave threat to the environme nt, future generations and the survival of humanity.

 As the guardian of international humanitarian law (IHL), what is the ICRC's position on how these weapons are covered by the rules of war?  

In 1996, the ICRC welcomed the fact that the International Court of Justice, in its advisory opinion on nuclear weapons, confirmed that the principles of distinction and proportionality found in IHL are " intransgressible " and apply also to nuclear weapons. In applying those principles to nuclear weapons, the Court concluded that " the use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the principles and rules of international humanitarian law. "

We find it difficult to envisage how any use of nuclear weapons could be compatible with the rules of IHL. Moreover, in view of the unique, destructive characteristics of nuclear weapons, the ICRC calls on States to ensure that these weapons are never used, irrespective of whether they consider them to be lawful or not.

We support measures to prevent their proliferation and efforts to negotiate an international agreement to prohibit their use and eliminate them altogether.


 Why is the ICRC making a statement on nuclear weapons at this particular time?  

After years of neglect the issue of nuclear weapons is high on the international agenda again and there is growing political support for establishing a cr edible process to eliminate this weapon globally. We see this as a tremendous opportunity. The objective of a world free of nuclear weapons was endorsed by the two largest possessors, the US and Russia, a year ago and by a summit of the UN Security Council in September 2009. In addition, the States Parties to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty will meet next month at a critical juncture for the Treaty. At the same time, the number of countries possessing nuclear weapons has significantly increased in recent decades. These and other events have re-invigorated the discussion about nuclear weapons and increasingly, governments and civil society organizations have sought out the ICRC's views on the issue.

In effect, the world is at a crossroads. Decisions made in the coming months and years will determine whether a credible process leading to the elimination of nuclear weapons is pursued or whether nuclear weapons will be obtained by an increasing number of States and possibly non-State actors, thus increasing the likelihood of their use with horrific consequences for civilian populations. The large-scale use of these weapons would also have serious environmental consequences and could make human habitation impossible in large areas of the world.

Historically, the work on nuclear weapons in disarmament frameworks has focused on the security and deterrence roles of these weapons. We feel, however, that it is necessary to ensure that the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and international humanitarian law are prominent in the debate. The attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki occurred nearly 65 years ago but the human tragedy of those events needs to be foremost in our thoughts as decisions are made about the proliferation and potential future use of these weapons.


 Is this the first time the ICRC has spoken out on nuclear weapons?  

No, this isn't the first time. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has voiced its opinion about nuclear weapons ever since they were first used in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Dr Marcel Junod, an ICRC delegate in the Far East at the time, was one of the first foreigners to witness the aftermath and later described the devastating effects of the bombing in " The Hiroshima Disaster " (published in the International Review of the Red Cross, 1982). He described scenes of unimaginable devastation and anguish.

The Movement expressed alarm over the use of nuclear weapons in the wake of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and in September 1945, the ICRC expressed the wish that nuclear weapons be abolished. In 1950, the ICRC called on States Parties to the Geneva Conventions to take all steps to reach an agreement on the prohibition of atomic weapons. Subsequently, the Red Cross and Red Crescent has articulated its views on weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear arms, through resolutions taken at eight different international conferences involving States, dating from 1948 to 2009. In addition, we presented our position on nuclear weapons to the UN General Assembly in October 1996 and more recently in October last year. The current president of the ICRC, Mr Jakob Kellenberger, addressed diplomats and representatives of Permanent Missions in Geneva on the matter on 20 April, 2010.


 Are you calling for a ban on nuclear weapons?  

As a hu manitarian organization, the ICRC insists that nuclear weapons should never be used and is urging all States to seize the unique opportunities now at hand to bring the era of nuclear weapons to an end.

We fully support the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons in the form of a legally binding international treaty. States that are parties to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty have already committed themselves to pursuing negotiations to prohibit and completely eliminate nuclear weapons through a legally binding international treaty. But, in order to be effective, such a treaty will need to prohibit nuclear weapons, as well as incorporate other measures to prevent their proliferation and control access to materials and technology that can be used to produce them.


 What is the ICRC's role in the broader debate on nuclear weapons?  

We believe the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement can make a significant contribution by ensuring that the human costs of nuclear weapons and the fundamental rules of international humanitarian law are prominently featured in the debate on nuclear weapons. This means reminding everyone of the high stakes for humanity, promoting awareness of the opportunities at hand and providing support for steps that clearly move in the direction of eliminating nuclear weapons.