The Legacy of Hiroshima: a world without nuclear weapons

Published: 12 November 2010

Address by Mr Tadateru Konoé, President of the IFRC, at the 2010 World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished panellists and guests. I am honoured to be in your company at this summit. First, I will express my sincere appreciation to the city of Hiroshima for offering to host this event, and to the summit organizers for selecting such a historic location. Hiroshima has played a unique but indispensable role in humanity. We all look forward to learning more from its experience.

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement was founded by Henry Dunant, who was the co-recipient of the first ever Nobel Peace Prize, and our Movement has received the award on two other occasions since. I very much welcome this opportunity to discuss the legacy of Hiroshima, and the issue of nuclear weapons, as part of our efforts to build a lasting culture of peace.

Why nuclear? And why now? I would like to suggest that at first, two decades after the end of the Cold War, the justification for the possession of nuclear arms has grown precarious. Secondly, with the growing number of nuclear powers or potential nuclear powers, the possibility of uncontrolled proliferation is rising. Thirdly, there is an increased sense that the time is right to discuss the nuclear issue from a humanitarian perspective.

This is felt not only by me, but by many other prominent players such as the State Parties who took part in the recent NPT Review Conference in May, and UN Secretary General Mr. Ban Ki-Moon, who attended the annual Peace Memorial Ceremony in Hiroshima on 6 August. All of these are the sources of encouragement for a ‘world without nuclear weapons’.

It is mainly for this third reason that the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has been emphatically and persistently vocal about nuclear arms recently.

However, the Movement’s involvement in the nuclear debate dates back to the moment when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. On August 6, 1945, at 8.15 in the morning, there was a flash of light over Hiroshima. An instant later, the city was in ruins and tens of thousands of people were dead. Of 300 doctors working in the city, 270 were killed. Of 1,780 nurses, 1,654 lost their lives. Hospitals and health centres were incinerated.

But in the midst of this appalling devastation, one hospital still stood. The Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital, which miraculously escaped destruction despite its nearness to ground zero, immediately filled with casualties. There was nowhere near enough equipment or medicine, and nearly all of the doctors and nurses had been killed. But there was dedication, and there was help. One month later, Dr. Marcel Junod of the International Committee of the Red Cross heard of the devastation and became the first non-Japanese doctor to see what had happened to Hiroshima. His reports remain a chilling account of the threat to humanity.

He described his arrival in Hiroshima as follows: “At twelve o'clock, we flew over Hiroshima. We … witnessed a sight totally unlike anything we had ever seen before. The centre of the city was a sort of white patch, flattened and smooth like the palm of a hand. Nothing remained. The slightest trace of houses seemed to have disappeared. The white patch was about 2 kilometres in diameter. Around its edge was a red belt, marking the area where houses had burned, extending quite a long way further, difficult to judge from the airplane, covering almost all the rest of the city. It was an awesome sight.”

Based on Dr Junod’s experiences, and those of other Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers and staff who have witnessed the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and tests, our Movement has adopted a number of resolutions supporting a ban on nuclear weapons, including at the quadrennial International Conference of the Red Cross Red Crescent, which is attended by representatives of all governments signatory to the Geneva Conventions.

It goes without saying that the nuclear problem is an extremely political issue. However, the same was true of anti-personnel mines and cluster munitions, which have now been prohibited by international law. The will of humanitarian workers in conflict and post-conflict zones, bearing witness to the devastation visited on the victims, was supported by many NGOs and ordinary citizens, until huge numbers of humanitarians protested and lobbied and coaxed the governments into action.

The path to nuclear abolition may be even longer than these roads already traveled. But how can we close our eyes to weapons whose use is contrary to the principles and rules of International Humanitarian Law, which prohibits indiscriminate attacks that will cause excessive loss of life, injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects? How can we remain silent in the face of this grievous threat, not only to humanity, but to the rich diversity of all life? We must confront this issue and demand that nations make a stand for humanitarianism. In 2009, the Red Cross Red Crescent adopted a resolution that calls upon States to continue their efforts towards the elimination of nuclear weapons with determination and urgency, and we are discussing how to move this resolution forward in the run-up to our International Conference next year.

A nuclear weapon attacks civilians at least three times - the first when it explodes, the second through the life-long physical and psychological trauma it inflicts, and the third being the victim’s eventual death from radiation exposure. Even those people who are not directly affected but live nearby can experience a lifetime of anxiety, or feel guilty that they survived when so many others died.

The first fundamental principle of the Red Cross Red Crescent is humanity – to alleviate suffering, to protect life and health and to ensure respect for the human bring. Nuclear weapons are a weapon against humanity.

The children of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who were aged ten years old or less at the time of the blasts and were more susceptible to the effects of radiation, are today a living example of the barbarity of nuclear warfare. Each survivor feels that the nuclear weapons that destroyed their cities have lived on in their human bodies and minds for the past 65 years. They have been robbed of their futures and their ability to live healthy, dignified, secure lives.

I spoke earlier of how our interest and engagement in the nuclear issue dates back to August 1945. However, International Humanitarian Law and the Red Cross Red Crescent have been intrinsically linked since the earliest days of the Movement, which led to the creation of the first Geneva Convention in 1864. And our efforts to create a peaceful world, through the promotion of humanitarian values, a culture of volunteerism and programmes addressing the underlying causes of vulnerability and conflict, are stronger than ever today.

The Red Cross hospital in Hiroshima exists to this day under the name of the Hiroshima Red Cross Atomic Bomb Hospital, and there is also a Red Cross Atomic Bomb Hospital in Nagasaki. Both specialize in treatment of nuclear-related diseases alongside their general medical services. They share their knowledge and experience with peer institutions that care for people affected by the nuclear accident in Chernobyl, Ukraine, and nuclear tests in Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan.

While recognizing the inalienable right of states to develop, produce and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, I was painfully reminded on a recent visit to Ukraine of the humanitarian consequences resulting from an accident at a nuclear installation. The radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl accident is said to be 400 times that of the bomb used for Hiroshima. There are a large number of nuclear plants in the world, and the response to any such consequences of future nuclear accidents will fall both to states and to the broader humanitarian community. In addition to ensuring that another Hiroshima and Nagasaki never happens again, we must prevent accidents such as Chernobyl – but we also must prepare for the possibility of such an accident including sharing common experiences - as such disasters do not respect national borders.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let us honour those who died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and those who still live with the terrible consequences of nuclear weapons or nuclear accidents worldwide, by moving together to ensure that no community, city or country ever has to endure such horrors again. Let us act today so that we may see tomorrow, and let us do so in the name of humanity.

Thank you very much.