On 6 and 9 August 1945, the United States dropped nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Civilians were killed and injured in the tens of thousands, first from the blast and fragmentation, and more killed subsequently from radiation. The final civilian toll from these attacks has been estimated at 135,000.
Despite protests against nuclear weapons following their use in Japan and following their subsequent testing around the world, there are still an estimated 17,000 nuclear weapons in stockpiles today.
The humanitarian consequences of any nuclear weapon detonation would be catastrophic. So much so that international relief agencies have said that they would not be able to adequately respond if a nuclear weapon were to detonate.
There have been some positive developments over the past few decades in the area of nuclear disarmament: the number of nuclear warheads stockpiled by states has been reduced; Nuclear Weapon Free Zones outlawing nuclear weapons in the Southern hemisphere have been established; there is a ban on nuclear testing, and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, negotiated to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons and work towards nuclear disarmament, has reached near universal membership.
But the pace of nuclear disarmament has been remarkably slow while the nuclear-armed states continue to invest billions in renewing their arsenals and perpetuate security constructs that rely on risky and unsustainable relationships of deterrence. As long as states continue to wield nuclear weapons the potential for one of them to be detonated exists, unleashing the most devastating consequences imaginable.
Nuclear weapons remain the only weapon of mass destruction not yet subjection to an international prohibition. That this anomaly has been allowed to persist is a failure of the international community.
There is promise however. The past few years have seen a strengthening of the international movement to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons. The Red Cross and Red Crescent movement have dedicated their significant influence to promote a new legally binding instrument on nuclear weapons. The development of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) has gathered support amongst existing and new campaigners for negotiations to start on an international treaty to ban nuclear weapons. Similarly, the humanitarian initiative, a new diplomatic endeavour to highlight the unacceptable humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons has revitalised international discussions on nuclear weapons. Taken together, these developments are providing a platform for governments in non-nuclear-armed states, together with civil society, the Red Cross and UN agencies to exercise resolute normative leadership in banning nuclear weapons.
The simple question that political leaders must ask themselves is this: “Do you think nuclear weapons should be illegal or not?” The negotiation of an international treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons, even without the nuclear-armed states, would change the landscape on nuclear weapons dramatically, it would provide a strong and clear international standard, it would help mobilise a global movement against nuclear weapons and would provide space for political leaders with courage and vision to promote disarmament and the total elimination of nuclear weapons.
At a meeting in Nayarit, Mexico in February this year, the second meeting of this new humanitarian initiative, Mexico’s Vice Minister of Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights, Juan Manuel Gómez Robledo, speaking as chair of the conference, stated that “the broad-based and comprehensive discussions on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons should lead to the commitment of States and civil society to reach new international standards and norms, through a legally binding instrument”. Robledo added that, “it is time to take action. The 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks is the appropriate milestone to achieve our goal”.
A number of influential states have already begun to consider the prospects for an international legally binding instrument on nuclear weapons. In April, the Irish delegation submitted a working paper to the Non-Proliferation Treaty on the implementation of the Article VI of that treaty, which commits states to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to nuclear disarmament. The paper sets out possible options for legally binding instruments to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons, one of which is the kind of ban treaty that ICAN is promoting as the next step for the nuclear disarmament movement. So the appetite is there for discussions not only on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, but also on the mechanisms by which we can achieve their prohibition and elimination.
In this regard, as we look beyond the third international conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, to be hosted by Austria on 8-9 December this year, expectations are growing that, by the time we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima this time next year, a diplomatic process will be underway to outlaw nuclear weapons once and for all.