Opinion: Hiroshima and the Red Cross

Inhumanity of nuclear weapons anchors appeals for abolition

by Yumi Kanazaki, Editorial Writer

One month after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Dr. Marcel Junod of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), headquartered in Switzerland, entered Hiroshima with medical supplies. Dr. Junod is remembered as “a champion of Hiroshima,” a man who helped save scores of lives and spoke out about the tremendous damage that befell the city. During this time, the Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital (today, the Hiroshima Red Cross and Atomic Bomb Survivors Hospital), which had barely survived the bombing itself, worked tirelessly to care for the victims.

Last week, 68 years after the Red Cross first encountered the inhumane nature of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima, representatives from the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies of 24 nations, and the ICRC, gathered here in the city for a first-ever international conference.

Two years ago, in 2011, the Red Cross adopted a resolution which declared the “inhumanity of nuclear weapons.” In this connection, the recent conference was held to discuss concrete measures and form an agenda for action. An action plan will be issued in the fall, designed to guide the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in urging governments and citizens to act.

I was given the opportunity to participate in the discussions that took place in Hiroshima. I came away most impressed by the reaction of the participants who visited Peace Memorial Museum and listened to the personal account of Keijiro Matsushima, 84, an A-bomb survivor. The conference devoted over an hour to sharing the thoughts of these participants. Their comments included a plea that the atomic bombing not be talked about merely in terms of the total number of victims, around 140,000, but that the damage done to each person be stressed. The participants also said that meeting A-bomb survivors was an emotional experience for them.

The discussions highlighting the “inhumane nature of nuclear weapons” have been led by governments and non-governmental organizations (NGO) overseas. These discussions have included imagining such consequences as widespread famine brought on by the use of nuclear weapons. It is a significant step, I am convinced, to link the A-bombed city with the international community, via networking, and encourage people to consider the consequences of nuclear weapons in their own lives.

The Red Cross has become a stronger presence in the arena of nuclear weapons. This evolution began in 2010, in the run-up to that year’s Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference at United Nations Headquarters in New York. Jakob Kellenberger, president of the ICRC, issued a statement which stressed that the use of nuclear weapons would be inhumane and would likely be a violation of international humanitarian law.

At the time, I was covering the review conference at U.N. Headquarters. An ICRC official who played a role in the statement told me that the conference participants would have to discuss their agenda while being reminded of the horrific power of nuclear arms. This person pointed at the photo panels of the A-bomb exhibition that the Japan Confederation of A-bomb Sufferers Organizations (Hidankyo) was staging at the venue.

International humanitarian law--international laws which pertain to a time of warfare--is the collective term for multiple conventions, including the Geneva Convention. These laws provide the basis for the Red Cross’s work, and stipulate, among other things, protections for civilians and prohibitions against the use of weapons that would bring undue suffering to combatants.

The fact that the ICRC, the central force in international humanitarian law, has declared that nuclear weapons are “inhumane” is a profound step forward. Following the advisory opinion issued by the International Court of Justice in 1996, the statement by the president of the ICRC has drawn international attention to the “inhumanity” of these arms for the first time in years. Many governments and NGOs have reacted very favorably to the ICRC statement.

The statement issued by the ICRC president, and the resolution made in 2011, continue to exert their influence. Since the spring of 2012, a series of joint statements stressing the inhumanity of nuclear weapons, spurred by nations such as Norway, have been issued at international conferences and these Red Cross moves have been mentioned on every occasion.

There is hope among some that a nuclear weapons convention can be realized as a result of a joint effort involving certain nations, NGOs, and the Red Cross, just as treaties banning antipersonnel land mines and cluster bombs were achieved.

At the same time, the actions taken by the Red Cross are surely not easy decisions. In every nation, the government and the Red Cross must contend with differences when it comes to their interests and positions on issues. Japan is no exception. The Japanese government is very sensitive to trends that may bear upon the effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear umbrella, and has so far rebuffed the joint statements issued by other nations on the inhumanity of nuclear weapons.

Japan’s Red Cross, which helped spearhead the 2011 resolution, has said that it will naturally urge the central government to take action based on the Red Cross action plan.

I await to see how nations which cling to nuclear weapons will respond to the call.

(Originally published on May 23, 2013)