Seventy years ago this week, the dropping of two atomic bombs in Japan brought about mass devastation and unspeakable suffering, killing, it is estimated, more than 50% of civilians living in the city of Hiroshima, and 30% of civilians in Nagasaki. Thousands more died in the following days and weeks, from a combination of severe burns, internal injuries, and radiation sickness. There is no comprehensive list of these victims of the bombings, but the death toll is likely to have been over a quarter of a million people. Over subsequent decades, negative health effects, poor psychological wellbeing and economic and social discrimination have continued to affect survivors of the bombings and their descendants, whose needs the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are still responding to.

Hiroshima postcard

© International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons

The unacceptable humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons have increasingly become the subject of international discussion by states, international organisations and NGOs. A considerable body of evidence has been presented in recent years on the devastating health, economic, environmental and other effects of nuclear weapons. Humanitarian organisations including the ICRC and UN agencies have made clear that an adequate humanitarian response to any nuclear detonation could not be undertaken by any state or international agency. There are currently around 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world and the risks of a detonation, through poor communication, technological failure and human error, are not decreasing. The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had only a fraction of the nuclear yield of modern weapons.

States have expressed increasing concern at these facts about nuclear weapons in international discussions, with conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons providing a new forum for the recognition of these issues. At at the last meeting of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty 159 countries – the vast majority – expressed the urgent need to eliminate nuclear weapons due to their catastrophic humanitarian consequences. This awareness generated by the Humanitarian Initiative  presents a unprecedented opportunity to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

Peace lanterns

Peace lanterns in Hiroshima © International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons

Unlike the other weapons of mass destruction, there is no comprehensive, explicit prohibition on the possession, production, transfer and use of nuclear weapons. In recognition of this anomaly, given these weapons’ catastrophic consequences, more than 110 countries have now pledged to “fill the legal gap with respect to the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons” and to work to stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons.

It is time for negotiations on a treaty banning nuclear weapons to begin in earnest, in order for the international legal regime to reflect the concerns of the majority of the world’s countries. Even if the nuclear-armed states did not initially join, such a treaty would represent a clear normative assertion that nuclear weapons are inherently unacceptable. History shows that legal prohibitions of weapon systems facilitate their elimination. Weapons that have been outlawed increasingly become seen as illegitimate. They lose their political status and, along with it, the money and resources for their production, modernisation, proliferation, and perpetuation.

Seventy years on from the atomic bombings of Japan, as Setsuko Thurlow, a survivor of Hiroshima, said: “the time has come for non-nuclear weapons states and civil society to initiate a nuclear weapons ban, for the sake of humanity.”

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