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Reframing the issue: The humanitarian track


Until recently, the discourse about nuclear weapons has primarily focused on deterrence, self-defence and the role of nuclear weapons in military doctrine more generally. Etymologically, the word “deterrence” is related to “terror”, the fear inspired in a potential adversary by the threat of nuclear retaliation to an attack.

According to this theory, one State’s possession of nuclear weapons will deter others from using similar weapons out of the fear of reprisals. As a witness to the devastation of 1945, the role of the Movement is not to assess the political motivations behind the possession of certain weapons but to bring to the fore their humanitarian consequences and their implications under IHL principles and rules. In recent years, two notable ICRC initiatives have contributed to a renewed debate on nuclear weapons through the lens of their human cost.

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).

First, assessments undertaken by the ICRC in 2007 and 2009 showed clearly that there is a lack of capacity at the national and international levels to effectively assist the victims of a nuclear detonation.


WARNING: SOME OF THESE IMAGES COULD BE DISTRESSING. Seventy years after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Red Cross hospitals are still treating thousands of survivors and identifying new links between radiation exposure and fatal illnesses. Many of today’s nuclear bombs are ten times more powerful than the ones dropped 70 years ago and the destruction and human suffering they could cause is unimaginable. The commemoration of the dropping of the bombs comes just months after the Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons failed to agree a move forward towards their elimination.
© ICRC Archives (AV340A)

“The evident lack of an international capacity to help such victims underscores the inescapable fact that to prevent the use of nuclear, radiological, biological and chemical weapons is an absolute imperative”, concluded Dominique Loye Dominique Loye, Deputy Head of the International Law and Policy department of the ICRC Dominique Loye is currently the Deputy Head of the International Law and Policy department of the ICRC. AT the time of writing he was Deputy Head and Technical Adviser of the Arms Unit, Legal Division. and Robin Coupland Robin Coupland, Senior Legal Adviser at ICRC Dr Robin Coupland was formerly an ICRC field surgeon and worked for a number of years as the ICRC's Medical Adviser on policy matters relating to the impact of weapons and violence on people's health. He was a key actor in the development of the ICRC's systematic response capacity in relation to CBRN events. . Second, ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger Jakob Kellenberger, Former President of the ICRC Jakob Kellenberger is a former Swiss diplomat and former president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). asserted in a seminal statement in 2010 that the organization

firmly believes that the debate about nuclear weapons must be conducted not only on the basis of military doctrines and power politics. … The currency of this debate must ultimately be about human beings, about the fundamental rules of international humanitarian law, and about the collective future of humanity.

Within the Movement, this was followed by a resolution reiterating its historic positions regarding nuclear weapons and encouraging States to work towards their elimination, together with a four-year action plan to that end.

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These developments, coupled with the final declaration of the 2010 Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (Non- Proliferation Treaty, NPT), where NPT States Parties for the first time expressed their “deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons”, led to the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons becoming the principal theme of the nuclear weapons debate.


Determined to reframe the international debate on nuclear weapons, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons. At the 2011 Council of Delegates, 186 national societies and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) adopted a resolution, as Peter Herby, Head of ICRC's Arms Unit explains.

Three conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, in Oslo (2013), Nayarit (2014) and Vienna (2015), followed; these were the first multilateral meetings exclusively dedicated to the humanitarian aspects of the issue. The messages from these meetings went on to influence the discussions and positions of many States at the 2015 NPT Review Conference and the subsequent meetings of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly.

The process culminated in a “Humanitarian Pledge” calling on States and other stakeholders to work to stigmatize, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons, adopted by the UN General Assembly as Resolution 70/48. Some 139 States voted in favour of the resolution. In a 2015 speech to the diplomatic community in Geneva, ICRC President Peter Maurer Peter Maurer, President of the ICRC Peter Maurer has been President of the ICRC since 1 July 2012. In this position, his priorities include strengthening humanitarian diplomacy, engaging States and other actors for the respect of international humanitarian law, and improving the humanitarian response through innovation and new partnerships. drew attention to the sometimes overlooked element of the risk of accidental or unintentional nuclear detonation, further emphasizing the need to eliminate these weapons.