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The International Committee of the Red Cross and nuclear weapons: From Hiroshima to the dawn of the 21st century

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 April 2010

Abstract

Nuclear weapons raise fundamental questions which go to the very heart of international humanitarian law and of Red Cross assistance activities. Sixty years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the author describes the attempts of the International Committee of the Red Cross to deal with these weapons.

Type
Means of Warfare
Copyright
Copyright © International Committee of the Red Cross 2005

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References

1 In accordance with the practice of more than a century, in this article the expression “International Red Cross,” or simply “Red Cross,” is used to designate the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, especially when those expressions relate to periods when they were the only ones used.

2 Cf. Bugnion, François, Remembering Hiroshima, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 306, May-June 1995, pp. 307313.Google Scholar

3 There are major divergences as regards the number of victims of the disaster. The report of the US Commission on the effects of strategic bombing gives the figures of 80,000 killed and as many injured (The United States Strategic Bombing Survey: The Effects of Atomic Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Chairman's Office, 30 June 1946, United States Government Printing Office, Washington, 1946, p. 3). A survey carried out by the Hiroshima City Council up to 10 August 1946 arrived at the following figures for a civilian population of 320,081 on the day of the explosion: 118,661 killed, 30,524 seriously injured, 48,606 slightly injured, and 3,677 missing (Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Physical, Medical and Social Effects of the Atomic Bombings, The Committee for the Compilation of Material Damage caused by the Atomic Bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, translated by Eisei Ishikawa and David L. Swain, Basic Book Publishers, New York, 1981, p. 113). See also: Yokoro, Kenjiro and Kamada, Nanao, “The public health effects of the use of nuclear weapons,” in War and Public Health, Levy, Barry S. and Sidel, Victor W., eds, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1997, pp. 6583.Google Scholar On 30 October 1961, the Soviets exploded a 50-megaton bomb, the equivalent of 50 million tonnes of TNT, at Novaia Zemlya. This bomb, the biggest ever tested, was 2,500 times more powerful than the one which destroyed Hiroshima.

4 According to information kindly supplied to the author of this article by the Japanese Red Cross on 5 June 1995.

5 Fritz Bilfinger, telegram of 30 August 1945, copy, ICRC Archives, file No. G. 8/76.

6 Junod, Marcel, Warrior Without Weapons, ICRC, Geneva, 1982, pp. 286300Google Scholar (first edition in English, Jonathan Cape, London, 1951); Marcel Junod, The Hiroshima Disaster, extract from the International Review of the Red Cross, Nos 230 and 231, September-October 1982, pp. 265–280 and November-December 1982, pp. 329–344.

7 For the action taken by delegates Fritz Bilfinger and Marcel Junod, see Marcel Junod, Warrior Without Weapons, op. cit. (note 6), pp. 272–285 and 301–307; Marcel Junod, The Hiroshima Disaster, op. cit. (note 6), Bugnion, François, “Remembering Hiroshima,” International Review of the Red Cross, No. 306, May-June 1995, pp. 307313.Google Scholar

8 “The end of hostilities and the future tasks of the Red Cross,” Circular Letter No. 370 to the Central Committees of the Red Cross Societies, 5 September 1945, Report of the International Committee of the Red Cross on its Activities during the Second World War, ICRC, Geneva, May 1948, Vol. I, pp. 688690.Google Scholar

9 The 17th International Conference of the Red Cross, meeting in Stockholm in August 1948, unanimously endorsed the International Committee's stand on atomic weapons. See Resolution XXIV, Seventeenth International Red Cross Conference, Stockholm, 1948, Report, Swedish Red Cross, Stockholm, 1948, pp. 78 and 94.

10 Final Record of the Diplomatic Conférence of Geneva of 1949, Federal Political Department, Bern, 1949, Vol. II-A, pp. 761–762 and 802–805; Vol. II-B, pp. 495–508; Vol. III, pp. 180–181 (hereinafter Final Record 1949); Pradelle, Paul de La, La Conférence diplomatique et les Nouvelles Conventions de Genéve du 12 août 1949, Les éditions Internationales, Paris, 1951, pp. 3542 and 67–69Google Scholar; René-Jean Wilhelm, “Les Conventions de Genève et la guerre aérienne”, (The Geneva Conventions and War from the Air), Revue internationale de la Croix-Rouge, English Supplement, Vol. VII, No. 3, March 1954, pp. 5556.Google Scholar

11 Final Record 1949, Vol. II-A, p. 762; Vol. Ill, p. 181; La Pradelle, op. cit. (note 10), p. 36. The head of the Soviet delegation, General Slavin, presented the Soviet proposal and stressed that the basic flaw in the draft Convention for the protection of civilian persons lay in the fact that it did not contain a sufficient guarantee of the protection of the civilian population against the effects of modern warfare (Final Record 1949, Vol. II-A, pp. 761–762; La Pradelle, ibid., p. 37).

12 Final Record 1949, Vol. II-A, pp. 804–805, Vol. II-B, pp. 495–508; La Pradelle, op. cit. (note 10), p. 39.

13 Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, of 12 August 1949, Final Record 1949, Vol. I, pp. 297–341

14 “Arme atomique et armes aveugles” (Atomic weapons and non-directed missiles), Revue Internationale de la Croix-Rouge, English supplement, Vol. III, No. 4, April 1950, pp. 7073.Google Scholar

15 Resolution XXIV of the 17th Conference (Stockholm, 1948); Resolution XVIII of the 18th Conference (Toronto, 1952); Resolution XVIII of the 19th Conference (New Delhi, 1957); Resolution XXVIII of the 20th Conference (Vienna, 1965); Resolution XIV of the 21st Conference (Istanbul, 1969); Resolution XIV of the 22nd Conference (Teheran, 1973); Resolution XII of the 23rd Conference (Bucharest 1977); Resolution XIII of the 24th Conference (Manila, 1981).

16 Revue internationale de la Croix-Rouge, English Supplement, Vol. VII, No. 4, April 1954, pp. 108110.Google Scholar

17 Draft Rules for the Limitation of the Dangers Incurred by the Civilian Population in Time of War, second ed, ICRC, Geneva, April 1958Google Scholar (first edition: September 1956).

18 ibid., pp. 12 and 99–111; Schindler, Dietrich and Toman, Jirí, eds, The Laws of Armed Conflicts: A Collection of Conventions, Resolutions and Other Documents, fourth edition, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Leiden & Boston, 2004, p. 342.Google Scholar

19 Nuclear weapons operate by atomic fission, that is, a process which disintegrates the atomic nucleus of a heavy metal such as uranium or plutonium. Thermonuclear weapons operate by atomic fusion, that is, the combination of two light atoms, deuterium and tritium, which are both isotopes of hydrogen. In both cases a chain reaction takes place, resulting in the release of vast amounts of energy.

20 Resolution XIII, XlXth International Conference of the Red Cross, New Delhi, October-November 1957, Proceedings, pp. 153–154; XlXth International Conference of the Red Cross, New Delhi, October- November 1957, Final Record concerning the Draft Rules for the Limitation of the Dangers Incurred by the Civilian Population in Time of War, ICRC, Geneva, April 1958, cyclostyled

21 XXth International Conference of the Red Cross, Vienna, October 1965, The legal protection of civilian populations against the dangers of indiscriminate warfare, Report submitted by the International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC, Geneva, March 1965Google Scholar (Report reproduced in the International Review of the Red Cross, No. 59, February 1966, pp. 7989).Google Scholar

22 Resolution XXVIII, XXth International Conference of the Red Cross, Vienna, 2–9 October 1965, Report, Austrian Red Cross, Vienna, 1965, pp. 108109Google Scholar. The United Nations General Assembly was to adopt these principles - apart from the fourth - as its own in Resolution 2444 (XXIII), passed unanimously on 19 December 1968: see Resolutions Adopted by the General Assembly during its Twenty-Third Session, 24 September - 21 December 1968, Official Records of the General Assembly, Twenty-third Session, Supplement No. 18, Document A/7218, pp. 50–51.

23 Article 51 para. 2 Additional Protocol I. An identical provision appears in Article 13 para. 2 Additional Protocol II, which applies to non-international armed conflicts.

24 See Commentary on the Additional Protocols of 8 June 1977 to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, Sandoz, Yves, Swinarski, Christophe and Zimmermann, Bruno, eds, ICRC and Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Geneva, 1987, pp. 592593.Google Scholar

25 “…[W]hile, at the Diplomatic Conference of 1974–1977, there was no substantive debate on the nuclear issue and no specific solution concerning this question was put forward, Additional Protocol I in no way replaced the general customary rules applicable to all means and methods of combat including nuclear weapons. In particular the Court recalls that all States are bound by those rules in Additional Protocol I which, when adopted, were merely the expression of the pre-existing customary law, such as the Martens Clause, reaffirmed in the first article of Additional Protocol I. The fact that certain types of weapons were not specifically dealt with by the 1974–1977 Conference does not permit the drawing of any legal conclusions relating to the substantive issues which the use of such weapons would raise.” ICJ, Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, Advisory Opinion of 8 July 1996, ICJ Reports 1996, p. 259.

26 International Court of Justice, op. cit. (note 25), p. 228.

27 Ibid., pp. 226–267.

28 Ibid., pp. 256–60, paras 74–87.

29 Ibid., pp. 256–257, paras 75–78; Declaration to the Effect of Prohibiting the Use of Certain Projectiles in Wartime, signed at St Petersburg, 29 November-11 December 1868, Handbook of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, thirteenth edition, International Committee of the Red Cross and International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Geneva, 1994, pp. 297298Google Scholar; The Laws of Armed Conflicts, op. cit. (note 18), pp. 91–93.

30 International Court of Justice, op. cit. (note 25), p. 257, para. 79.

31 Ibid., p. 261, para. 90.

32 “…[M]ethods and means of warfare, which would preclude any distinction between civilian and military targets, or which would result in unnecessary suffering to combatants, are prohibited. In view of the unique characteristics of nuclear weapons, to which the Court has referred above, the use of such weapons in fact seems scarcely reconcilable with respect for such requirements.” Ibid., p. 262, para. 95.

33 “Accordingly, in view of the present state of international law viewed as a whole […] and of the elements of fact at its disposal, the Court is led to observe that it cannot reach a definitive conclusion as to the legality or illegality of the use of nuclear weapons by a State in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in which its very survival would be at stake.” Ibid., p. 263, para. 97.

34 Ibid., pp. 263–265, paras 98–103.

35 ICRC statement to the United Nations General Assembly on the Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice on the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons,” International Review of the Red Cross, No. 316, January-February 1997, pp. 118119.Google Scholar

36 (Internal) Document A 1218rev2, adopted by the ICRC Assembly on 27 June 2002; “Use of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons: Current international law and policy statements,” Information note to Presidents / Secretary Generals of National Societies, 4 March 2003, ICRC Archives, file 141.2-011.

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