Building momentum to eliminate nuclear weapons

By Richard Lennane, ICRC

Hiroshima 1945: The catastrophic humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons continue to drive action by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to prohibit and eliminate their use.
(Photo: ICRC website/public domain)

Since 1945, when the Japanese Red Cross and the International Committee of the Red Cross witnessed first-hand the appalling humanitarian consequences of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the Movement has been working to achieve the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons. Major breakthroughs included the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) in 2017 and its entry into force in 2021. The treaty comprehensively prohibits nuclear weapons because of the catastrophic humanitarian consequences that would result from their use and, on the basis of international humanitarian law, provides important new pathways for their elimination.

At the same time, the risk that nuclear weapons will be used again – with intent, through miscalculation or by accident – has grown alarmingly. This risk is driven by rising tensions between nuclear-armed states; explicit and implicit threats to use nuclear weapons; the development of new types of nuclear weapons; the expanded role of nuclear weapons in military doctrines; and the increasing vulnerability to cyberattacks of nuclear command and control networks.

Building on its previous resolutions of 2011, 2013 and 2017, the 2022 Council of Delegates adopted the resolution on working towards the elimination of nuclear weapons (CD/22/R7) to take advantage of the unique opportunities provided by the entry into force of the TPNW, and to confront the growing risk of the potential use of nuclear weapons.

The resolution features a detailed action plan, to be implemented from 2022 to 2027. The plan is informed by the Movement’s long-standing efforts to place the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, the rules and principles of international humanitarian law, and the interests of humanity at the centre of the nuclear weapons debate. The action plan aims to: encourage states to become signatories to the TPNW; raise awareness of the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons and lack of an adequate humanitarian response capacity; and promote measures to reduce the risk of nuclear weapons ever being used. It also stresses that it is extremely doubtful that nuclear weapons could ever be used in accordance with the principles and rules of international humanitarian law. A Movement support group of around 40 National Societies[1] is coordinating the implementation of the plan.

To date, implementation has focused on National Societies in states that possess or are associated with nuclear weapons. These states pose particular challenges: their governments either do not support or are opposed to the TPNW, and nuclear deterrence continues to play an important role in their defence doctrines (even though the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, to which they are party, foresees the complete elimination of nuclear weapons). Government, media and public discourse on nuclear weapons in these countries tends to focus on security and military strategy. National Societies are therefore working on innovative ways to bring the humanitarian dimension into the public policy space.

One example is a survey sent by National Societies to their governments seeking details of their humanitarian response plans and capacities in the event of a nuclear detonation on their territory. The responses received from governments to date have varied with respect to the level of detail and the usefulness of the information provided. However, the primary aim of the initiative is to help National Societies establish and maintain a regular dialogue with a range of government agencies (i.e. not just foreign and defence ministries) on the humanitarian impact of any use of nuclear weapons.

National Societies have also been developing thematic approaches for engaging with governments, such as addressing the gender and environmental aspects of the use of nuclear weapons. The Movement support group is currently working on ways to engage with governments and the public on gender and nuclear weapons, for example by working to include nuclear weapons issues in national action plans on Women, Peace and Security and, where relevant, taking nuclear weapons into account when developing a feminist foreign policy.

Beyond states associated with nuclear weapons, implementation of the action plan is focusing on increasing the number of parties to the TPNW and supporting its comprehensive implementation. National Societies in states that supported the adoption of the TPNW but have yet to become parties to the treaty are well placed to encourage and support their governments in moving towards signature or ratification, while continuing to highlight the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and the growing risks to all states associated with their use.

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ICRC nuclear weapons resources

[1] National Societies of Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Côte d’Ivoire, Czechia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Iraq, Italy, Japan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Lithuania, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Panama, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Serbia, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Trinidad and Tobago, Ukraine, United States, United Kingdom.

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