Are we on the eve of destruction?

Are we on the eve of destruction?

A majestic building in the city of Hiroshima, before and after a massive bomb that devastated the city in 1945. It is later known as the Atomic Bomb Dome or Genbaku Dome. Pictures courtesy of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
A majestic building in the city of Hiroshima, before and after a massive bomb that devastated the city in 1945. It is later known as the Atomic Bomb Dome or Genbaku Dome. Pictures courtesy of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)

What we cannot prepare for, we must prevent. Nuclear weapons are among humanity's darkest and most inhumane arsenal of war. It is high time, then, 75 years after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to look back and acknowledge the incalculable human impact of this dangerous instrument of destruction.

The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused suffering and devastation never seen before. So much so that humanity continues to live in the shadow of this traumatising memory to this very day. 75 years ago, on Aug 6 1945, a new type of weapon exploded above the city of Hiroshima. Within a fraction of a second, a massive dome of fire filled the sky. The intense heat of the explosion eclipsed the centre of the city, immediately vaporising all living things. A millisecond later, a violent supersonic blast wave expanded outwards from the fireball in all directions, destroying most of the city and its 340,000 inhabitants. Three days later, this new weapon was once again unleashed upon Nagasaki, resulting in death and injury of 60% of the city's population.

It would later come to light that the explosion had instantly killed tens of thousands of people and inflicted unspeakable suffering upon many others. A few weeks later, Fritz Bilfinger, a delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), arrived in Hiroshima to assess the damage. The telegram he sent back to his colleagues painted a chilling picture: "City wiped out; 80% of all hospitals destroyed or seriously damaged; inspected two emergency hospitals, conditions beyond description, full stop; effects of bomb mysteriously serious, stop."

The unspeakable suffering and devastation witnessed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, led the ICRC and the wider International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to conclude that this inhumane and indiscriminate weapon must never be used again.

In the following decades, however, the stockpiling of nuclear weapons continued. After 75 years, there are still nearly 14,000 nuclear weapons in the world, thousands of which are ready to be launched at a moment's notice. Many states are now intensifying their efforts to develop faster, "more precise" and "more useable" nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, nuclear weapons are given an increasingly prevalent role in security policies and military doctrines. Furthermore, the UN secretary-general has warned that "The Cold War is back … but with a difference. The mechanisms and safeguards to manage the risks of escalation that existed in the past no longer seems to be present." These developments contribute to a further deterioration of an already hostile international security environment.

The use of even a fraction of these weapons would cause mass suffering and destruction on an unimaginable scale. Recent research by the ICRC and UN agencies shows that no government or international organisation has the capacity to respond to the colossal humanitarian needs that would follow a nuclear detonation. Who, then, will assist the victims of a nuclear explosion, and how?

Our inability to answer this question makes it clear that prevention is the only responsible course of action. We know that even a limited use of nuclear weapons would have long-term and irreversible effects on human health, the environment, the climate and food-production -- that is, on everything that life depends -- threatening future generations and the very survival of humanity. What can we do, then? To this, we say: What we cannot prepare for, we must prevent.

The first step is to recognise nuclear weapons for what they are: weapons of war with unacceptable humanitarian consequences. Military objectives can never justify using inhumane or indiscriminate weapons. These considerations led the ICRC and the wider Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to conclude it is difficult to envisage any use of nuclear weapons that would be compatible with the principles of international humanitarian law (IHL) and to call for their prohibition in 2011.

Throughout history, the international community has taken steps to prohibit and eliminate weapons that have unacceptable humanitarian consequences. In 2017, States responded to the evidence of the immense suffering that would result from any use of nuclear weapons by adopting the landmark Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

Thailand is party to all major treaties related to nuclear weapons, such as the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT), the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), along with the TPNW. In addition, Thailand is also a party to the Bangkok Treaty of 1995, which establishes Southeast Asia as a nuclear-weapon-free zone. All countries of Asean are party to the Bangkok Treaty. Thailand remains engaged in efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons and has called on states to endorse similar positions.

Speaking at the 50th Anniversary of the Treaty of Tlatelolco International Seminar, Thani Thongphakdi, ambassador and permanent representative of Thailand to the United Nations and Other International Organisations in Geneva and chair of the 2016 Open-ended working group (OEWG), outlined the objective of multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations:

"Looking ahead, we do not yet know what shape or form this legal instrument will take. I wish to reiterate though what most participating countries called for ... is "a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination, which would establish general prohibitions and obligations as well as a political commitment to achieve and maintain a nuclear-weapon-free world."

A nuclear-weapon-free world. A promise to ourselves and those that will come after us. A promise that we will no longer allow such power for devastation to be used ever again. It is fitting, then 75 years after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that we now honour the memory of the victims and take action to eliminate the use of nuclear weapons. Cognisant of our inability to respond to the consequences of a nuclear explosion, any risk of use of nuclear weapons is unacceptable. To this, we say, once again: What we cannot prepare for, we must prevent.

Sippakorn Chongchuwanich is a legal adviser at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Bangkok Regional Delegation.

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