Nuclear weapons are finally outlawed; next step is disarmament


By Dr. Eirini Giorgou, Legal Adviser, Arms and Conduct of Hostilities, International Committee of the Red Cross

For more than 75 years, almost half of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)’s existence, we have been advocating for the elimination of nuclear weapons for one simple reason: we do not believe they can be used without inflicting massive death and suffering among civilians, and we find extremely doubtful that they can ever be used in compliance with international humanitarian law.

When the bomb was detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the world witnessed the annihilating and indiscriminate effects of the most inhumane weapon ever invented. The catastrophic humanitarian consequences and mass suffering caused led Dr Marcel Junod, an ICRC doctor visiting Hiroshima after the explosion, to conclude that nuclear weapons must be banned outright. “Only a unified world policy can save the world from destruction,” he wrote. By 1950, an estimated 340,000 people had died from the effects of those two bombs.

Driven by grave concerns over the devastation that a nuclear war would inflict upon humanity, States concluded the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968, requiring them to pursue and finalize negotiations on effective measures leading to nuclear disarmament. In the decades following its entry into force, the NPT’s nuclear disarmament pillar made meagre progress, with risks of a deliberate or accidental nuclear detonation recently growing alarmingly.

Fast forward to 22 January 2021, multilateral diplomacy, ICRC’s decades-long advocacy and the international civil society movement achieved a historic milestone and a victory for humanity. The landmark Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) entered into force as the first globally applicable multilateral agreement to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons.

Set against a backdrop of hard-won history, the TPNW unequivocally prohibits the use, threat of use, development, production, testing and stockpiling of nuclear weapons, and obliges all States Parties to not assist, encourage or induce anyone in any way to engage in any activity prohibited by the Treaty.

The Treaty formalizes into law the strongly held taboo against the use of nuclear weapons, provides a further disincentive for their proliferation, and sets out pathways for their elimination. By doing so, the TPNW serves as a concrete step towards fulfilling long-standing nuclear disarmament obligations, in particular those under Article VI of the NPT, which undoubtedly remains a cornerstone of nuclear disarmament, as underscored also by the TPNW. However, it desperately needs to see real progress if it is to maintain its credibility.

Much work is needed to ensure the TPNW becomes universal and is effectively implemented, and to achieve further progress towards nuclear disarmament.

Importantly, by foreseeing assistance for victims of nuclear testing and use and for remediation of contaminated environments, the TPNW explicitly addresses, and purports to mitigate, the catastrophic humanitarian consequences caused by these weapons.

The entry into force of the TPNW marks a new beginning – not the end – of our efforts. As of today, 86 States have signed, and 54 States have also ratified the Treaty. But the Treaty will not magically eliminate the world’s nuclear arsenal. Much work is needed to ensure the TPNW becomes universal and is effectively implemented, and to achieve further progress towards nuclear disarmament.

Currently, the world’s nine nuclear-armed States have more than 13,000 nuclear bombs, with command-and-control networks vulnerable to human error and cyberattacks. The power of many of those warheads is far greater than those dropped in 1945. Even if the horror of nuclear detonation may feel like distant history to some, the risk today is too high. Treaties to reduce arsenals are being abandoned, new types of nuclear weapons are being produced, and serious threats are being made. That’s an arms race, and it’s frightening.

While all States have equally high stakes and an obligation to pursue nuclear disarmament, States that possess nuclear weapons have a special responsibility to make urgent, long overdue progress towards their elimination. The ICRC urges those states to urgently take nuclear weapons off high alert status and reduce their role in their military doctrines, pending their total elimination. And hopes that they, too, find themselves, sooner or later, in a position to sign and ratify the TPNW.

This Treaty sends a clear signal that any use of nuclear weapons is unacceptable from a moral, humanitarian and now also legal perspective. Such a signal may have an effect beyond the Treaty’s membership. We know that other treaties, while only legally binding upon their parties, have created expectations of behavior that have also influenced the policies of States not yet party. Looking ahead, the Treaty’s meetings of States Parties, the first of which is to be organized within 12 months of its entry into force, provide opportunities that must not be squandered to amplify this signal.

For the ICRC, it is essential that the unbearable human cost of nuclear weapons remains at the center of the “nuclear debate” and of nuclear disarmament measures. A challenging road lies ahead, but the TPNW’s entry into force brings long-awaited hope and shows a clear way forward. We call on all States to play their part in this historic endeavor, and, together with the International Movement of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, we will continue to support them and to raise awareness of the catastrophic humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons until they are eradicated.

About the Author

Dr Eirini Giorgou is a legal adviser on weapons law in the Arms and Conduct of Hostilities Unit of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), based in Geneva, Switzerland. She has several years of experience in multilateral disarmament and arms control diplomacy and negotiations, and was closely involved in the negotiation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). She is a licensed lawyer and holds a PhD in international law.

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