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Addressing the threat


It is estimated that approximately 340,000 people died immediately and within the five years following the bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945. From the day of the bombing to today, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (the Movement) has been responding to the needs of victims and has been consistent in its opposition to the use of nuclear weapons.

  • ICRC delegate Fritz Bilfinger's telegram dated 30 August 1945
  • ICRC delegate Fritz Bilfinger's telegram dated 30 August 1945

Visited Hiroshima thirtieth, conditions appalling stop city wiped out, eighty percent all hospitals destroyed or seriously damaged; inspected two emergency hospitals, conditions beyond description full stop effect of bomb mysteriously serious stop many victims, apparently recovering, suddenly suffer fatal relapse due to decomposition of white blood cells and other internal injuries, now dying in great numbers stop estimated still over one hundred thousand wounded in emergency hospitals located surroundings, sadly lacking bandaging materials, medicines stop. Fritz Bilfinger, ICRC, telegram dated 30 August 1945, © ICRC Archives.

PART 2.1

The Red Cross and Red Crescent:
A consistent engagement on behalf of victims

The day after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, several medical teams from the Japanese Red Cross Society arrived in Hiroshima from neighbouring towns. They helped the staff at the Japanese Red Cross hospital, which while badly damaged was still operating, and served in improvised dispensaries set up in tents in different parts of the devastated city. The first foreign Red Cross worker on the ground in Hiroshima was Fritz Bilfinger Fritz Bilfinger, Former ICRC delegate Was an ICRC delegate in Japan in 1945. He was the first foreign Red Cross worker on the ground in Hiroshima. from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). He was able to reach Hiroshima on 29 August and sent the telegram above back to the ICRC office in Tokyo. A few days later, Marcel Junod Marcel Junod, Doctor and Head of the ICRC delegation in Japan Dr. Marcel Junod was a Swiss doctor. In 1945 he was sent to be the head of the ICRC's delegation in Japan. He arrived in Tokyo on 9 August, the same day that the atomic bomb was dropped in Nagasaki. arrived in Hiroshima from ICRC Tokyo and described a city where “there was nothing but silence and desolation”. According to witnesses encountered by Junod, within a few seconds of the blast,

thousands of human beings in the streets and gardens in the town centre, struck by a wave of intense heat, died like flies. Others lay writhing like worms, atrociously burned. All private houses, warehouses, etc., disappeared as if swept away by a supernatural power. Trams were picked up and hurled yards away, as if they were weightless; trains were flung off the rails …. Every living thing was petrified in an attitude of acute pain.

Marcel Junod, doctor and head of the ICRC delegation in Japan

Red Cross radio broadcast after the bombing of Hiroshima (1983)

Marcel Junod, doctor and head of the ICRC delegation in Japan

Red Cross radio broadcast after the bombing of Hiroshima (1983)

Makeshift hospitals were overcrowded with people suffering from severe injuries due to burns and radiation. There was a general lack of equipment and medicines, and also of medical staff, who had been decimated. The few doctors and nurses left were facing totally new types of wounds, for which there was no effective treatment.

Still today, the Japanese Red Cross hospitals continue to treat several thousand victims for cancers and illnesses attributable to the 1945 atomic bombings of those cities. In the period between April 2014 and March 2015, 4,657 officially recognized atomic bomb survivors were treated at the Hiroshima Atomic-Bomb Survivors Hospital, and 7,297 officially recognized atomic bomb survivors were treated by the Japanese Red Cross Nagasaki Genbaku Hospital. The survivors are among the strongest voices calling our attention to the severity and enormous scale of the suffering caused by nuclear weapons.

The ICRC took a clear stance on nuclear weapons soon after such weapons were used for the first time. Less than a month after the first atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, the ICRC sent a message to National Societies stating that nuclear weapons should be abolished. The position of the ICRC was later summarized in the following manner:

Precluding any discrimination between military objectives and civilian objects, causing atrocious suffering to those stricken by its effects, and impeding any possibility of bringing aid to the victims of the cataclysm they cause, nuclear weapons called into question the very foundations of the law of war and of the assistance activities conducted by the Red Cross.

<p>The Hiroshima Prefectural Hall was completely destroyed by the atomic bomb, leaving only the gateposts.</p>
<p>The Hiroshima Prefectural Hall was completely destroyed by the atomic bomb, leaving only the gateposts.</p>

The Hiroshima Prefectural Hall was completely destroyed by the atomic bomb, leaving only the gateposts. © Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.

Seventy years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the international community still finds it difficult to make real progress towards the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, the Movement has a deep responsibility to “rise in defence of humanity” and to provide a voice to draw attention to the unacceptable humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons, highlight the implications of such weapons under international humanitarian law and urge governments to pursue the prohibition and elimination of these weapons as quickly as possible. In line with the ICRC’s consistent position on nuclear weapons, but also in view of the recent initiative to reframe the issue of nuclear weapons in terms of the humanitarian consequences of their use, the Review decided to publish an issue on nuclear weapons.

These six panoramics allow the reader to experience what it looked like on the ground in Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped on 6 August 1945. Each panoramic presents a different part of the city, and readers are encouraged to explore each in turn. The panoramics are compatible with virtual reality headsets, and are available for iOS or Android smartphones. © Photo credits: Atomic Bomb Dome (by Shigeo Hayashi), Ground zero (by US Army), Chugoku Shimbun newspaper headquarters (by H.J. Peterson), Tate-machi - Naka Ward (by US Army), Fukuya department store (by Shigeo Hayashi), The road to the Sacred Torii Gate (by Shigeo Hayashi).

PART 2.2

Still the most serious threat to humanity

Since their first use in 1945, the world has known about the catastrophic effects of nuclear weapons. The danger of nuclear attacks was ever-present for more than four decades during the Cold War. In some countries, preparedness drills were regularly conducted, nuclear shelters were maintained in anticipation of a potential nuclear attack, and anti-nuclear protests took place. Today, the level of awareness is much different. Many people, including most of those born after the end of the Cold War, are unaware of the continued risks that nuclear weapons pose to humanity and the severe humanitarian consequences that would follow should such weapons ever be used.


Duck and Cover staring Bert the Turtle is a 1951 Civil Defense Film
© Civil Defense Film and Federal Civil Defense Administration

While the threat no longer seems as present, paradoxically we now know more than ever before about the effects of even limited nuclear war on the environment and health of human beings, and that, as was highlighted by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in its 1996 its Advisory Opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons (Nuclear Weapons Advisory Opinion), “[t]he destructive power of nuclear weapons cannot be contained in either space or time”.

Although nuclear weapons have not been used in armed conflict since 1945, nuclear testing has had terrible consequences on the lives of populations living nearby and some of the military personnel involved. These include the inhabitants of testing areas, often ethnic minorities or insular populations. Many testing areas have also suffered serious environmental damage.

Nuclear tests continued throughout the 20th century until the conclusion of a Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996. Some States not party to the CTBT still occasionally conduct nuclear tests today.

Despite these facts, nuclear weapons remain a pillar in the security policies of a number of States, and for some, possessing them has become a perverse status symbol. While the total number of nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the nuclear-armed States is less than it was at the height of the Cold War, nuclear weapons States continue to maintain and even modernize their nuclear arsenals. Today, nearly 16,000 nuclear weapons are stored at sites located in fourteen countries, many ready for immediate use. Approximately 1,800 nuclear warheads are kept on high alert status in the United States and Russia, ready to be fired in minutes. The vast majority of these weapons are much more powerful than the ones used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This makes the danger of their intentional or accidental detonation even more frightening.


This infographic shows the estimated number of nuclear weapons in existence worldwide as of early 2016. © Illustration by ICRC

Due to the fact that there has not been a nuclear attack since Nagasaki, the sense of urgency amongst the general public has faded. However, humanity may not be able to avoid accidental or intentional nuclear detonation forever. The fact that such weapons have not been used in more than seventy years is no guarantee that they will not be used again. The longer these weapons exist, and as they are developed by more States and possibly even acquired by non-State actors, the likelihood of another nuclear detonation increases.

Illustration depicting the humanitarian assistance after the atomic bomb

PART 2.3

Not outside the scope of the law

Contrary to some other weapons about which there is a serious concern in humanitarian terms, international humanitarian law (IHL) does not explicitly prohibit the use of nuclear weapons. This does not mean that the law is silent: IHL contains a range of general rules governing the conduct of hostilities that are relevant to assessing the legality of nuclear weapons, such as the rules on distinction and proportionality, the prohibition on indiscriminate attacks, the prohibition on the use of weapons of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering, and the rules protecting the natural environment. At the core of these rules lies the general principle that individual civilians and the wider civilian population enjoy a general protection from the dangers arising from military operations.

It should not be forgotten that, in addition to destroying important military objectives, nuclear weapons were also meant to be used against urban areas and their civilian populations. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the culmination of an escalating series of bombing raids on major urban centres during the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. Although there has been much debate about the legality of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings under the rules applicable at the time, if carried out today such attacks would raise a range of serious issues and concern under current IHL rules.

In 1996, the ICJ issued its Nuclear Weapons Advisory Opinion, deciding that the 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”. Despite this, it did not take a decision on whether such weapons would be compatible with the law in “an extreme circumstance of self- defense in which the very survival of a State would be at stake”, a part of the decision that has been widely criticized. At that time, the Review produced an issue addressing the topic of nuclear weapons, largely through the lens of the Nuclear Weapons Advisory Opinion. Since then, the Review has continued to publish regularly on the subject. Today, given the opportunity to capitalize on the increased focus on the humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons, it seems opportune to revisit the topic more fully in this thematic issue.

Nearly twenty years after the Nuclear Weapons Advisory Opinion, it is clear that nuclear weapons continue to raise serious concerns in humanitarian terms and that their use would raise serious questions about their compatibility with existing IHL rules. As the ICRC stated in 1996 in response to the Advisory Opinion, it is “difficult to envisage how a use of nuclear weapons could be compatible with the rules of international humanitarian law”. In this edition, Louis Maresca Louis Maresca, Senior Legal Adviser at ICRC Louis Maresca is Senior Legal Adviser at the Legal Division of the ICRC. and Eleanor Mitchell Eleanor Mitchell, Trainee at Matrix Chambers Eleanor Mitchell was formerly an intern at the Legal Division of the ICRC and is now a trainee at Matrix Chambers. have concluded that the use of nuclear weapons in a populated area would amount to an indiscriminate attack, and in addition, that any use outside such areas should be presumed to be in violation of international law.