A Treaty to Ban Nuclear Weapons: A Red Cross Perspective

By Peters, Stuart | Pacific Ecologist, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

A Treaty to Ban Nuclear Weapons: A Red Cross Perspective


Peters, Stuart, Pacific Ecologist


The indiscriminate, large-scale effects on public health and the environment of nuclear weapons are so great that they are considered by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Red Cross Movement and the International Court of Justice to be incompatible with international humanitarian law. STUART PETERS reports on the campaign for a binding treaty to ban nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons are a grave threat to the environment, public health and the survival of humanity. They are the most dangerous weapons on earth, with unrivalled capacity to bring destruction and suffering to the human population. Both the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have suggested that any use of a nuclear weapon would be incompatible with fundamental principles of international humanitarian law. (1) The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement are now calling on the international community to end the spectre of nuclear war.

In November 2011, the Council of Delegates of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement adopted a milestone resolution appealing to states to pursue with urgency and determination negotiations to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons through a binding international agreement. The Council, comprising representatives of 187 National Societies and the ICRC and International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies emphasised the incalculable human suffering associated with the use of nuclear weapons and their incompatibility with international law. To support the resolution, New Zealand Red Cross has launched a campaign to 'make nuclear weapons the target' and increase public awareness of the dangers of nuclear weapons. We are asking the New Zealand Government take a leadership role to help facilitate a binding international treaty to prohibit the use of such weapons.

If awareness about nuclear weapons has receded in the public consciousness over the past two decades, in fact the threat they pose is as great now as at any point since the end of the Second World War. Despite the obvious dangers of nuclear proliferation, there are an estimated 19,000 nuclear warheads in the world in 2012, of which approximately 4,400 are active. (2) Modern nuclear weapons are many times more powerful than those used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While the 'Fat Man' bomb used in Nagasaki had the equivalent explosive yield of about 20-22 kilotonnes of TNT, a typical U.S. thermonuclear weapon today would explode with a yield of 300 kilotonnes of TNT. (3) The B83, currently the most powerful nuclear bomb in the United States' current arsenal, (4) has the explosive yield of around 50-60 'Fat Man' bombs.

This increased threat is compounded by an increase in nuclear arms in growing numbers of states and the growing role of non-state actors. As well as the five states designated by the Non-Proliferation Treaty, (the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China), it is highly likely that several states not party to the NPT have acquired nuclear capability. Both India and Israel are thought to have long-range nuclear missile capability, (5) and the nuclear status of their regional rivals Pakistan and Iran is unclear. The deterrent effect of mutually assured destruction becomes much more difficult to manage as the number of nuclear states grows, and the chance of a nuclear device falling into the hands of a non-state actor becomes more likely.

In 1996 the ICJ reported that 'the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law,' but declined to decide whether there are hypothetical situations in which their use would be legal. (6) This position was supported by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in 2011, when the Council of Delegates '[found] it difficult to envisage how any use of nuclear weapons could be compatible with the rules of international humanitarian law, in particular the rules of distinction, precaution and proportionality. …

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