Red Cross champions Nuclear Weapons Convention, Canada still tentative

The International Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement has come out strongly in support of negotiations toward a nuclear weapons convention, in a resolution passed at the biennial meeting of the Council of Delegates in Geneva a week ago.

Emphasizing International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and “the incalculable human suffering that can be expected to result from any use of nuclear weapons,” the Council states flatly[i] that the international community lacks any capacity for an adequate
humanitarian response to the use of nuclear weapons and thus appeals to States
“to ensure that nuclear weapons are never again used.” This basic non-use objective, adds the Council, should prevail regardless of possessor State views on the legality of nuclear weapons.

The Council, whose decisions are generally taken by consensus, includes the International Federation and individual national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. It pointedly stated that it “finds it difficult to envisage how any use of nuclear weapons could be compatible with the rules of international humanitarian law, in particular the rules of
distinction, precaution and proportionality.”

That conclusion led it in turn to call on all States “to pursue in good faith and conclude with urgency and determination negotiations to prohibit the use of and completely eliminate weapons through a legally binding international agreement, based on existing commitments and international obligations.”

The Red Cross/Red Crescent action is a welcome affirmation of growing support for an overarching legal framework or umbrella convention that sets a comprehensive legal foundation for the prohibition of nuclear weapons.

In 2010 by all parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) urged “all nuclear-weapon States to undertake concrete disarmament efforts”and insisted that “all States need to make special efforts to establish the necessary framework to achieve and maintain a world without nuclear weapons.”[ii] The NPT call was preceded by and  referenced “the five-point proposal for nuclear disarmament of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, which proposes, inter alia, consideration of negotiations
on a nuclear weapons convention or agreement on a framework of separate mutually reinforcing instruments, backed by a strong system of verification.”[iii]

The common commitment to humanitarian diplomacy within the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, said the Council of Delegates, should lead all components of the Movement “to raise awareness among the public, scientists, health professionals and decision-makers of the catastrophic humanitarian consequences” of nuclear use and of “the international
humanitarian law issues that arise from such use.”

The Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement’s attention to IHL and nuclear weapons also affirms the conclusions of what has become known as the Vancouver Declaration on nuclear weapons and IHL,[iv] described here earlier this year.[v] Earlier this year an extraordinary gathering of legal experts concluded that all weapons of mass destruction “are, by definition, contrary to the fundamental rules of international humanitarian law forbidding the infliction of indiscriminate harm and unnecessary suffering.” That judgement, the declaration goes on to say, applies especially to nuclear weapons because of “their uncontrollable blast, heat, and radiation effects.” The statement concludes:
“An ‘absolute evil,’ as the President of the International Court of Justice called nuclear weapons, requires an absolute prohibition.”

A useful background document[vi] accompanies the action by the Red Cross/Red Crescent Council of Delegates, helping, as it says, to “further reframe the international debate on [nuclear] weapons in terms of their human costs and international humanitarian law
implications,” and documenting the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement’s well-established commitment to nuclear disarmament.

Meanwhile, Canada remains guarded on the matter of a nuclear weapons convention. This fall Canada chose to abstain rather than explicitly support a General Assembly (First Committee) resolution calling on all states to commence “multilateral negotiations leading to an early conclusion of a nuclear weapons convention prohibiting the development, production, testing, deployment, stockpiling, transfer, threat of use of nuclear weapons and providing their elimination.”[vii] Canada, to its credit, did not join most of NATO and states with nuclear weapons in voting “no,” with the implication that its abstention indicates support for the substance of the resolution even though it has reservations
about elements of it. The next step must be explicit support, followed by concrete
diplomatic and programmatic action to advance that objective in the global arena.


[i] “Working towards the elimination of nuclear weapons,” Draft Resolution & Background Document, Council of Delegates of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, Geneva, Switzerland, 26 November 2011.

[ii] Final Document, Volume I, Part I, Review of the operation of the [Nuclear
Non-Proliferation] Treaty, as provided for in its article VIII (3), taking into account the decisions and the resolution adopted by the 1995 Review and Extension Conference and the Final Document of the 2000 Review Conference Conclusions and recommendations for follow-on actionsConclusions and recommendations for follow-on actions (Section I.B.iii), New York 2010 NPT/CONF.2010/50.

[iii] Secretary-General’s address to the East-West Institute, “The United Nations and security in a nuclear-weapon-free world” New York, 24 October 2008.


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