The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons
On 7 July 2017, 122 States made history by agreeing to prohibit nuclear weapons through a new international treaty, thus paving the way for the elimination of the most horrific and dangerous weapons on earth.
The adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was underpinned by powerful evidence that any use of these weapons would have catastrophic humanitarian consequences. The unspeakable suffering caused —the almost unimaginable scale of death and destruction, combined with the longer-term effects on human health, the environment, the climate, food production and development—drove States to the conclusion that these weapons are unacceptable and must be clearly prohibited.
The importance of the testimonies and active participation of the survivors of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – hibakusha – in this process, cannot be overstated. Indeed, without the long-standing efforts of the hibakusha to raise awareness of the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons, it is difficult to see how the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons could have come into being.
The President of the ICRC, Peter Maurer, has called the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons a beacon of hope. By completely and comprehensively prohibiting nuclear weapons, he said the Treaty offers “hope that humanity will one day be freed of the dark shadow of nuclear warfare, and the massive suffering which we all know would result from such an event”.
We have, in large part, the hibakusha to thank for this hope. We all have a responsibility to act, with urgency and determination, to realize the goal of this Treaty, namely a world free of nuclear weapons.
The role of the ICRC and the wider Movement
The ICRC and the wider Movement of the Red Cross and Red Crescent have a special stake in the success of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
The Japanese Red Cross Society and the ICRC witnessed first-hand the horrific consequences of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, as they tried to bring relief to the dying and injured in impossible conditions. They saw how these weapons wiped out the cities, instantly killing thousands of people. They saw too that the use of nuclear weapons cannot be limited in time and space, and that many more victims died in the months and years following the attacks due to radiation poisoning, cancers and other diseases.
Moreover, the destructive capacity of the nuclear weapons used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki pales in comparison to those available today. We now know that use of no more than a fraction of the weapons in current nuclear arsenals would likely release millions of tons of black carbon into the atmosphere, causing a “nuclear autumn” where global temperatures drop, agricultural production reduces drastically and billions of people are at risk of starvation.
We also know that any use of nuclear weapons would make it extremely difficult for us to do what we, as a humanitarian movement, are supposed to do, namely to bring relief and reduce suffering. No humanitarian organization would be capable of adequately responding to the enormous suffering and needs that any use of nuclear weapons would cause. Who, then, will assist the victims of a nuclear weapons detonation, and how?
Our inability to answer this uncomfortable question made it clear to us that there is only one responsible course of action: prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons.
The courage to imagine the unimaginable
The stories and the evidence of the overwhelming suffering caused by nuclear weapons are terrifying. I remember when I first read about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in a text book at my old school in Norway – a cold place far removed from the horrors caused by nuclear explosions. I wanted to turn the page as quickly as possible and never think about it again.
I am saying this because I know that it takes tremendous courage to listen to the stories of the suffering caused by nuclear weapons. The accounts of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – the accounts of those who witnessed the explosion – the flash, the fireball, the intense heat, the firestorms, the blast and destruction, and the radiation – are harrowing. To listen carefully and try to imagine how it must have been to experience these events is absolutely frightening.
The nightmarish knowledge that neither we nor our planet are likely to survive all-out nuclear war is something to which we might wish to close our eyes and ears. Yet there is no denying this reality.
And to know that we cannot expect much relief and assistance—that help is not coming—if a nuclear weapon were to explode again, is a deeply unsettling fact that is difficult to accept.
It takes courage to confront the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. It takes courage exactly because these consequences are so petrifying. It took me years to muster the courage to look at these facts with open eyes. Yet that was exactly what was needed for me to realize that we cannot ever allow nuclear weapons to be used again; and indeed, for me to realize that that I, alongside everyone else, have a responsibility to do what I can to rid the world of nuclear weapons.
The courage to ban nuclear weapons
When I first became actively involved in nuclear disarmament, as a young man fresh out of university, it was difficult for me to accept that there were still tens of thousands of nuclear weapons in the world—many of them on so-called “high alert” status, ready to be launched in a matter of minutes.
In light of what we know about the consequences of nuclear weapons, I simply could not understand why these weapons were not clearly banned. Other weapons with unacceptable humanitarian consequences were already prohibited. Asphyxiating or poisonous gases were banned as early as 1925. Biological weapons, blinding lasers and chemical weapons were banned. So too were anti-personnel mines and cluster munitions. So why not nuclear weapons?
When we, as young people, asked this question of people who were much more knowledgeable about nuclear weapons than we were – the adults – many said that it was not possible, not realistic, to ban nuclear weapons, because the countries that have nuclear weapons would never agree to such a ban. Strangely, we heard this even from some of those that agreed that nuclear weapons are unacceptable and had worked for nuclear disarmament for many years. A ban on nuclear weapons, we were told, again and again, was not realistic.
Yet, two years ago, exactly what we were told was unrealistic and could not happen, became reality, when 122 states negotiated and adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. And although some people continue to argue that this Treaty is misguided or will not lead to a world without nuclear weapons—these are often the same people that argued, some years ago, that a nuclear ban treaty was a fantasy.
If history teaches us anything, it is this: what may seem unrealistic today can become reality tomorrow. And this shift, from unrealistic to realistic, is a result of people’s – most often young people’s -unwillingness to accept that the world cannot change. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is a result of young people’s refusal to accept the status quo and their courage to bring to life what others lacked the ability or willingness to even imagine. The Treaty’s success as a building block towards a world without nuclear weapons depends on the continued active involvement of younger generations.
Just as it takes courage to listen to the stories of the suffering caused by nuclear weapons, it takes tremendous resolve to stand up to those who argue that the world cannot change. It is fully understandable if young people today feel as I did when I was a schoolboy reading about nuclear weapons – a frightened urge to turn the page and think of other things. The youth of today did nothing to cause the problem of nuclear weapons – it has been inherited from previous generations. So why should they be asked to solve it?
Young people are right. Nuclear weapons are not a problem of their making. I wish I could have concluded that the adults know how to deal with this problem, but the scary truth is that they don’t. A solution to the nuclear weapons problem requires the imagination, the ambition and the courage of the youth of today. If younger generations do nothing, not only will the threat that nuclear weapons pose to humanity and future generations persist, it may be realized – with catastrophic humanitarian consequences.
On the other hand, if young people manage to muster the courage to speak out and act with hope and determination, there is a growing movement of people, civil society organizations and other organizations out there to support them—including the ICRC and the wider International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons shows that the impossible is possible. It’s time now to work together to ensure that the words of the Treaty become a tangible reality; to bring the era of nuclear weapons to an end.
- The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons one year on: Reflections from Hiroshima, Helen Durham, 20 September 2018
- The prohibition of nuclear weapons: Assisting victims and remediating the environment, Elizabeth Minor, 10 October 2017
- Majority of governments vote for negotiations to prohibit nuclear weapons, Ellen Policinski, 29 August 2016
- Nuclear weapons: Rising in defence of humanity, Ellen Policinski & Vincent Bernard, 27 July 2016
- Nuclear weapons: 20 years since the ICJ advisory opinion and still difficult to reconcile with international humanitarian law, Louis G. Maresca, 8 July 2016
DISCLAIMER: Posts and discussion on the Humanitarian Law & Policy blog may not be interpreted as positioning the ICRC in any way, nor does the blog’s content amount to formal policy or doctrine, unless specifically indicated.