Working towards the elimination of nuclear weapons
26-11-2011 No CD/11/4.1
Background document prepared by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Council of Delegates of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, 26 November 2011.
Background: Developments in the nuclear disarmament debate
The international context and governmental discourse on nuclear weapons has changed dramatically over the last few years. A summit of the United Nations Security Council (September 2009) and the Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT, May 2010) endorsed the objective of a world without nuclear weapons. The United States and Russia have now both ratified the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which will substantially reduce the number of nuclear warheads they deploy. The five nuclear weapon States that are the permanent members of the UN Security Council have affirmed their “continuing responsibility to take concrete and credible steps towards irreversible [nuclear] disarmament”. NATO and non-NATO States have made commitments to reduce the role played by nuclear weapons in their security policies.
In addition, due in part to an appeal to States by the ICRC President in April 2010, greater attention is now being paid to the human costs of nuclear weapons and the implications of their use in terms of international humanitarian law. At the Review Conference of the NPT in May 2010, States Parties for the first time explicitly expressed their “deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons” and reaffirmed “the need for all States at all times to comply with applicable international law, including international humanitarian law.” These and other events have re-invigorated the discussion about nuclear weapons from a humanitarian perspective, this in contrast with the dialogue among States that had, for decades, focused primarily on the geopolitical, security and deterrence roles of these weapons.
In light of the new nuclear disarmament debate currently unfolding, the views of the ICRC and National Societies are being increasingly solicited by governments and civil society organizations. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has worked on a variety of weapons issues over the past 20 years. Governments and much of civil society, including non-governmental organizations, also expect the Movement to have a credible viewpoint on nuclear weapons which is based on humanitarian considerations and international humanitarian law itself.
“Working towards the elimination of nuclear weapons”
The draft resolution “Working towards the elimination of nuclear weapons” has been prepared to help position the Movement in the changing context of the nuclear disarmament discussion. The resolution is intended to:
- ensure that States, parliamentarians, organizations, civil societies and other entities correctly understand the Movement’s position and concerns regarding nuclear weapons
- help further re-frame the international debate on these weapons in terms of their human costs and international humanitarian law implications, and
- support the efforts made on nuclear weapons by National Societies that are willing to work on this issue on a national basis.
A copy of the draft resolution with annotations is annexed at the end of this document. The annotations highlight the fact that many of the resolution’s elements derive from and build on the positions and statements made by the International Court of Justice, States party to the NPT, States that possess nuclear weapons and the ICRC.
The current version of the draft resolution is the result of extensive consultations between the ICRC, National Societies and the International Federation. The ingredients for a possible resolution were first presented to 21 National Societies invited to a consultation on nuclear weapons in Oslo (12 to 14 May 2011). The meeting was organized by the Australian, Japanese and Norwegian Red Cross Societies. Following these discussions, the ICRC prepared a draft resolution, which was sent to all National Societies for their comments on 7 June 2011. After considering the comments received by 30 June, the ICRC finalized the current draft resolution for consideration by the Council of Delegates. Throughout this process, National Societies were invited to consider becoming co-sponsors of the resolution.
Previous Movement action on nuclear weapons (1945-2010)
The draft resolution “Working towards the elimination of nuclear weapons” is only the latest step in the Movement’s work regarding nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. The ICRC’s concern about nuclear weapons began almost immediately after they were used in Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. Dr Marcel Junod, an ICRC delegate in the Far East at the time, was one of the first foreign doctors to arrive in the city, witnessing first-hand the devastating effects of the atomic bombing and bringing aid to the survivors.
The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement voiced its concern about nuclear weapons in the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. In September 1945, the ICRC sent a message to all National Societies expressing the wish that nuclear weapons be abolished. Subsequently, the entire Movement articulated its views through resolutions adopted at its International Conferences calling for weapons of mass destruction to be prohibited, in particular nuclear weapons. Resolution XXIV of the 17th International Conference (1948), referring to so-called “non-directed weapons” (i.e. atomic weapons), called on States “to undertake to prohibit absolutely all recourse to such weapons and to the use of atomic energy or any similar force for purposes of warfare.” It was followed by Resolution XVIII of the 18th Conference (1952). This text on atomic weapons urged “governments to agree, within the framework of general disarmament, to a plan for the international control of atomic energy which would ensure the prohibition of atomic weapons and the use of atomic energy solely for peaceful purposes.”
More recently, the Movement expressed concern about nuclear weapons at the 2009 Council of Delegates. Resolution 7 (“Preventing humanitarian consequences arising from the development, use and proliferation of certain types of weapons”) stated that the Council was “gravely concerned by the continuing threat posed by the potential proliferation or use of nuclear weapons and welcomes States’ increased focus on nuclear disarmament on the international agenda”. More specifically, the resolution “calls upon States to continue their efforts towards the elimination of nuclear weapons with determination and urgency.”
The Movement will also recall that, on 20 April 2010, ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger made a statement on nuclear weapons to the Geneva diplomatic corps. This was the first time that an ICRC president had spoken directly to States solely on this matter. President Kellenberger recalled nuclear weapons’ horrific and long-term consequences for health and stressed the fact that even today there is little capacity, and no realistic or coordinated international planning, to assist the victims of nuclear, chemical, biological or radiological weapons. He highlighted the opportunities for progress currently at hand and reminded States of the International Court of Justice’s opinion that using nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to international humanitarian law. Speaking for the ICRC as a humanitarian organization, Kellenberger appealed to all States to ensure that such weapons were never used again, regardless of those States’ views on the legality of such use. The president of the Federation, Tadateru Konoé, also addressed the issue of nuclear weapons in a speech to the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates in Hiroshima (November 2010) and urged action to ensure that no community, city or country ever again endured the horrors of such weapons.
These statements have inspired a number of National Societies to raise the issue of nuclear weapons at the national and/or regional level. The Australian Red Cross is planning a national public campaign to emphasize the human costs of nuclear weapons, their incompatibility with IHL and the need to make their use illegal. The Red Cross Societies of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden have agreed to increase their efforts regarding nuclear weapons. In 2010 they sent a collective appeal to Nordic governments calling on them to pursue negotiations aimed at eliminating the weapons through a legally binding treaty.
Dr Marcel Junod’s account of Hiroshima opened with these words: “The physical impact of the bomb was beyond belief, beyond all apprehension, beyond imagination. Its moral impact was appalling.” Nuclear weapons are at odds with the concept of our common humanity, pose grave problems in terms of the most fundamental principles of international humanitarian law, and can threaten the continued existence of the human species. The principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement make it impossible to remain indifferent to these terrifying effects. Humanity currently stands at a crossroads. The Movement can play a key role in ensuring that the right choice is made.