November 24, 2016

Make Nuclear Weapons the Target

On 6 August 2011, Australian Red Cross launched its ―Make Nuclear Weapons the Target‖ campaign to raise awareness of the unacceptable humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and the urgent imperative of clarification on the prohibition of their use. However, this is not the first time the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (Movement) has called for a world without nuclear weapons. With its mandate for humanitarian activities enshrined in international humanitarian law (IHL), which aims to alleviate human suffering during times of armed conflict, the Movement, in particular the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), has often voiced its grave concerns about these weapons of mass destruction. In the shocking aftermath of the 1945 Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, Dr Marcel Junod, a health delegate for the ICRC, was the first non-Japanese doctor to deliver assistance. Dr Junod described the scenes:

“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 two kilometres in diameter. Around its edge was a red belt, marking the area where houses had burned, extending quite a long way further … covering almost all the rest of the city.”1Available at ima-junod-120905.htm

From their first and to date only use in the context of armed conflict in Japan in 1945, it was clear that nuclear weapons raised serious questions about States‘ responsibilities under IHL. In particular, key IHL principles which require parties to conflict to distinguish military targets from civilians, and which prohibit the use of weapons which cause superfluous injury and unnecessary suffering, are challenged by the inherently destructive nature of nuclear weapons.

In a public statement on 5 April 1950, the ICRC called on States to take ―all steps to reach an agreement on the prohibition of atomic weapons‖ noting ―[s]uch arms will not spare hospitals, prisoner of war camps and civilians. Their inevitable consequence is extermination, pure and simple…. [Their] effects, immediate and lasting, prevent access to the wounded and their treatment.2Available at .htm

In 1954 the ICRC convened a Conference of Experts to examine the legal question of the protection of the civilian population against the use of weapons of mass destruction, resulting in draft rules for the limitation of the dangers incurred by the civilian population in times of war. At the 20th International Conference of the Red Cross in 1965, a resolution was adopted which called on the ICRC to continue in its efforts to ensure parties to conflict uphold the basic IHL principle of sparing the civilian population as much as possible, and declared that the general principles of the law of war apply to nuclear weapons. The creation of the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions in 1977 reaffirmed and strengthened the IHL principles of distinction and prohibition of superfluous suffering. It would be impossible to imagine circumstances in which nuclear weapons would abide by these principles.

Whilst the legal analysis is critical to this debate, the humanitarian imperative of the ICRC and indeed the Movement, demands a broader remit. To quote ICRC Vice President Christine Beerli in an address to the 19th World Congress of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War in August 2010: “the debate about nuclear weapons must be conducted not only on the basis of military doctrines and power politics but also on the basis of public health and human security. The existence of nuclear weapons poses some of the most profound questions about the point at which the rights of States must yield to the interests of humanity, the capacity of our species to master the technology it creates, the reach of international humanitarian law, and the extent of human suffering that people are willing to inflict, or to permit, in warfare.”3Available at _presentations/Plen1_Beerli_Eliminating_Nuclear%20Weap ons_a%20Humanitarian%20Imperative.pdf

Such sentiment echoes and reinforces that expressed by ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger a few months earlier in April 2010, when he appealed to all States to ―bring the era of nuclear weapons to an end.‖ Kellenberger stated that ―the currency of this debate must ultimately be about human beings, about the fundamental rules of international humanitarian law, and about the collective future of humanity.4Available at nuclear-weapons-statement-200410.htm

Recent years have seen a growing interest among the global community in the vision of a nuclear weapon free world. The Model Nuclear Weapons Convention submitted to the United Nations General Assembly in 2007, the Five Point Proposal on Nuclear Disarmament put forward by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, the first-ever Security Council Summit on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament in September 2009, and the joint reaffirmation by the United States, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom in May 2010 of their ‗responsibility to take concrete and credible steps towards irreversible [nuclear] disarmament‘ are encouraging signs.

Inspired by the Movement‘s initiatives articulated by both the President of the ICRC and the President of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, as well as the increasing significance of the issue within the international community, Australian Red Cross has taken a leading role within the Movement towards the goal of a nuclear free world. In May 2011 Australian Red Cross, together with Japanese Red Cross and Norwegian Red Cross, co-hosted a meeting in Oslo of around thirty Red Cross and Red Crescent societies from every corner of the globe. The meeting brought together many prominent academics and practitioners in the fields of nuclear medicine and nuclear arms. Discussion focused on the human and societal costs of nuclear weapons, the international legal political context of nuclear weapons and the potential role of Red Cross national societies in this space. Development of a Movement position on nuclear weapons was also discussed, as was the inclusion of a proposed resolution on this topic on the agenda of the Council of Delegates, which is to meet in November this year.

In 2011, Australian Red Cross is raising public awareness about the horrific humanitarian and environmental consequences of using nuclear weapons and the real dangers inherent in their continued existence through an innovative and engaging public national campaign. By highlighting the uniquely destructive threats to humanity that these arms pose, Australian Red Cross is saying ―Make Nuclear Weapons the Target,‖ and calls for the prohibition of their use once and for all. The voice of this campaign will be carried by Australian Red Cross‘ volunteers and staff nationwide across various media. Several online forums such as a nuclear referendum5Available at and an online vigil will seek to harness as much participation as possible. Australian Red Cross is also hosting many public events in all States and Territories, where experts in, and survivors of, nuclear weapons share their concerns about these weapons of mass destruction.

Despite its overwhelming humanitarian appeal, convincing States to prohibit nuclear weapons will not be without its challenges. In no way, however, should this dissuade us in our efforts. In an era where the number of nuclear powers is growing, it is time for the international community to ensure that nuclear weapons are made a thing of the past rather than a threat to our future.



  • PETER GIUGNI is International Humanitarian Law Officer with the Australian Red Cross. In this capacity he has visited several wartorn countries like India and Afghanistan. Giugni did a Bachelor of Arts at Sydney University, majoring in Hindi/Urdu and Asian Studies. He’s currently completing a masters in Human Rights Law at the University of New South Wales

References   [ + ]

1. Available at ima-junod-120905.htm
2. Available at .htm
3. Available at _presentations/Plen1_Beerli_Eliminating_Nuclear%20Weap ons_a%20Humanitarian%20Imperative.pdf
4. Available at nuclear-weapons-statement-200410.htm
5. Available at
Rob van Riet

About Rob van Riet

Rob van Riet is Coordinator of the Disarmament Programme at the World Future Council. In addition, he has been U.K. Coordinator of Parliamentarians for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament (PNND) since 2011 and has served as the Director of the Nuclear Abolition Forum since its founding in 2011. He was a co-author of the InterParliamentary Union/PNND Parliamentary Handbook Supporting Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, released during the 127th Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly in Quebec City, Canada, in October 2012.