Nuclear weapons: historic opportunity to ensure they will never be used again Geneva (ICRC)

States have an historic opportunity to bring the era of nuclear weapons to an end once and for all, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said today. Addressing diplomats in Geneva, the ICRC's president, Jakob Kellenberger, appealed to States to ensure that nuclear weapons are never used again.

Mr Kellenberger said recent positive developments such as the endorsement by the United Nations Security Council of the objective of "a world without nuclear weapons" and the recognition by Presidents Obama and Medvedev of their countries' responsibilities in reducing these weapons signalled an unprecedented opportunity to reduce and eventually eliminate the threat posed by these arms. Mr Kellenberger underscored the importance of next month's Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

Mr Kellenberger said the ICRC supported efforts to negotiate an international agreement to eliminate nuclear weapons: "Preventing the use of nuclear weapons requires fulfilment of existing obligations to pursue negotiations aimed at prohibiting and completely eliminating such weapons through a legally binding international treaty," he said. "It also means preventing their proliferation and controlling access to materials and technology that can be used to produce them."

Arguing that the ICRC's stance was based on its understanding of the suffering caused by war, Mr Kellenberger highlighted the testimony of ICRC delegate Marcel Junod, who was the first foreign doctor to bring assistance to victims of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. "The centre of the city was a sort of white patch, flattened and smooth like the palm of a hand. Nothing remained," Mr Junod wrote after his visit on 8 September 1945. Witnesses told him that within 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."

The ICRC president stressed that the death toll in Hiroshima and Nagasaki doubled or tripled over the five years following the blasts, and warned that 65 years later the world remained ill equipped to assist the potential victims of a nuclear strike. "The ICRC has recently completed a thorough analysis of its capacity, and that of other international agencies, to bring aid to the victims of the use of nuclear, radiological, chemical or biological weapons." he said. "Despite the existence of some response capacity in certain countries, at the international level there is little such capacity and no realistic, coordinated plan. Almost certainly, the images seen in Hiroshima and Nagasaki will be those resulting from any future use of nuclear weapons."

Turning to international humanitarian law, Mr Kellenberger said that already in 1950 the ICRC had expressed its alarm to the States party to the Geneva Conventions over the total destruction associated with nuclear weapons, which could "make illusory any attempt to protect non-combatants by legal texts." He said that nuclear weapons are unique in terms of their destructive power, the unspeakable suffering they cause, and the impossibility of containing their destructive power in space and time, and also in terms of the threat they pose to the environment, to future generations, and indeed to the survival of humanity. Mr Kellenberger concluded that "the ICRC finds it difficult to envisage how a use of nuclear weapons could be compatible with the rules of international humanitarian law."