The aftermath of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima August
1945 is chilling testimony to the catastrophic humanitarian
consequences of nuclear weapons. The sheer devastation
serves as a stark reminder of why these weapons are inherently
inconsistent with international humanitarian law, which
requires fighting parties to protect noncombatants, humanitarian
workers and the wounded. Photo: ©ICRC
years after two atomic bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki — and
two decades after the Cold War ended — some say the
time is right to restart the drive towards the elimination
of nuclear weapons.
AS the August sun beat down, the still, sticky air was filled
with the shrill hum of cicadas. It was only a few minutes
after 08:00, but already the day was fiercely hot. In the
grounds of Koi Primary School in western Hiroshima, the headmaster
decided to give the sweat-sodden schoolchildren a few minutes
break from their daily semaphore practice.
As the youngsters sat in the shade of the ginkgo and cherry
blossom trees, one boy suddenly pointed up to a silver dot
in the cloudless, azure sky. “A B-29!” he shouted.
Reiko Yamada, sitting with her friends on the edge of the
sandpit, looked up, scanning the blue expanse for the American
“I thought the plane was gone at first, but it started
to turn and I remember thinking how pretty its vapour trail
looked,” she says. “Then, all of a sudden, there
was a blinding white flash and everybody instantly began
to run for the school’s air-raid shelter. I felt the
hot sand on my back as I ran, and I was blown over before
I reached the shelter.”
Struggling under the branches of an uprooted tree, 11-year-old
Yamada managed to free herself and sprint down the steps
to the crowded bunker. Although she didn’t realize
it during those first disorientating moments, the United
States had just dropped the world’s first atomic bomb
2.5 kilometres (1.5 miles) to the east, less than a month
after successfully testing a similar device in the New Mexico
desert. The date was 6 August 1945.
The Enola Gay dropped its deadly payload, containing 60
kilograms (132lbs) of uranium-235, at 8:15. At 580 metres
(1,900 feet) above the centre of the city that was filled
with people heading to work and school on a Monday morning, ‘Little
A brilliant flash brighter than the sun temporarily blinded
anyone looking in the direction of the explosion as a fireball
of white heat, measuring thousands of degrees Celsius,
instantly vaporized or carbonized almost everyone close
to the hypocentre. At the same time, intense heat rays
and radiation were released and a powerful shockwave radiated
out from the blast, obliterating buildings up to 4Kilometres
(2.5 miles) away. A billowing column of white smoke, reaching
up to 17,000 metres (55,770ft), formed a giant mushroom
cloud over the shattered, burning remains of the city.
A smothering blanket of smoke and dust turned day to night.
Yamada was heading towards the hills around Hiroshima when
black oily drops of radioactive rain began to fall. “We
were shivering and our teeth were chattering, it was so cold,” the
77-year-old recalls. “We didn’t know if we were
shivering because of the cold or because we were scared.”
Up to 80,000 people were killed instantly by the explosion.
Another 70,000 suffered horrific burns and other injuries.
But with a vast area of Hiroshima levelled, including most
of the hospitals, there were few facilities and medical staff
to help deal with the catastrophe. Chaos reigned.
Even before the ICRC’s Marcel Junod became the first
western medical expert to set foot in Hiroshima after the
bombing, the ICRC had questioned whether atomic weapons were
lawful in a 5 September 1945 circular to National Societies: “It
is clear that developments in aviation and the increasingly
destructive effects of bombing have made practically inapplicable
the distinctions hitherto drawn, whereby certain classes
of people had by right a special protection (for instance,
the civil population in contrast to the armed forces).”
There was little doubt that the events of August 1945, as
well as numerous other incidents during the six years of
the Second World War, had ushered in a new era of warfare
that would have serious implications for the Geneva Conventions
and Protocols, the treaties that established the humane rules
of war. Since humanitarianism was at the heart of the efforts
of the ICRC, the organization was determined to ensure the
protection of civilian populations during conflicts through
While the 17th International Conference of the Red Cross,
which met in Stockholm in 1948, took a firm stand against
atomic weapons, the overriding message of the following year’s
Diplomatic Conference was somewhat ambiguous. Although the
conference affirmed the principle of civilian immunity during
wartime in the Fourth Geneva Convention, the delegation of
the Soviet Union didn’t believe it went far enough
and called for a ban on the use of atomic weapons. The proposal
A little over two weeks after the end of the conference,
the Soviets successfully carried out their first nuclear
test. A modern, deadly arms race had begun. The ensuing years
of the Cold War were marked by hundreds of nuclear tests
(which also resulted in serious humanitarian consequences),
the development of ever-more powerful weapons and an expansion
of the so-called ‘nuclear club’.
the hot sand on
my back as I ran, and
I was blown over
before I reached
to the rules
In the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall — with Cold War brinksmanship
at an end — the international community shifted towards containing the
proliferation of nuclear weapons and the major powers towards reducing existing
stockpiles via Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START I and START II).
Although various agreements, such as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation
of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and numerous test-ban and arms-control
treaties, have sought to reduce arsenals, prevent the spread
of weapons and stop nuclear testing, none of these pacts
has restricted the actual use of nuclear weapons.
While the nuclear superpowers have cut their arsenals significantly — from
roughly 60,000 warheads to about 22,000 today — the
number of countries in the nuclear club has increased. The
destructive power of any one of those weapons is many times
that of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The international community has tried to stem this proliferation
with sanctions and intense diplomatic pressure. But in recent
years, many among the world’s diplomatic and military
elite have suggested that these diplomatic efforts would
be more effective if nuclear-armed countries took even bolder
steps towards eventual disarmament, an important goal of
“There’s been a realization that the only way
to stop this trend of proliferation is to have a credible process
that leads to the elimination and prohibition of nuclear weapons,” says
Peter Herby, head of ICRC’s Arms Unit.
“If this weapon
is used in a
war, we shall
in appalling suffering.”
hero of Hiroshima
As streams of blackened figures clogged the roads out of
the decimated city, hundreds of kilometres away in Japanese-controlled
Manchuria a 41-year-old Swiss doctor visited Allied prisoners
of war. Marcel Junod was on his way to Tokyo to take up his
new post as head of the ICRC delegation. Arriving in the
Japanese capital on 9 August, he was oblivious to what had
happened in Hiroshima three days before and that morning
By the end of the month, an ICRC delegate, Fritz Bilfinger,
managed to reach Hiroshima. His telegram detailing the extent
of the “horrifying” devastation and “mysteriously
serious” effects of the bomb prompted Junod to contact
the Allied occupation forces and appeal for food and medical
supplies for the victims in Hiroshima.
On 8 September, accompanying a special investigation team
of ten Americans and two Japanese doctors, along with 12
tonnes of relief supplies, Junod set off for western Japan.
In a paper entitled The Hiroshima Disaster, he described
the scene as the plane flew over the port city: “The
centre of the city was a sort of white patch, flattened and
smooth like the palm of a hand. Nothing remained.”
As the first foreign doctor to visit the former bustling
prefectural capital, Junod, whom Reiko Yamada refers to as
the “saviour of Hiroshima”, toured the apocalyptic
landscape. “In the midst of an indescribable pile of
broken tiles, rusty sheet iron, chassis of machines, burnt-out
cars, derailed trams and buckled lines, a few trees pointed
their charred and flayed trunks to the sky,” he wrote. “On
the banks of the river, boats lay gutted. Here and there,
a large stone building was still standing, breaking the monotony.”
One such building that remained was the concrete-constructed
Red Cross Hospital, situated 1.5km (0.9 miles) from the hypocentre.
Heavily damaged and without much of its equipment, the hospital
was inundated with 1,000 patients on the day of the blast;
600 died almost immediately. Junod witnessed many more similar
scenes of hopelessness elsewhere.
After observing so much indiscriminate destruction and suffering,
Junod was convinced that nuclear weapons should be banned
in much the same way that poison gas had been after the First
World War through the 1925 Geneva Protocol. “If this
weapon is used in a future war,” he warned, “we
shall experience the annihilation of thousands of human beings
in appalling suffering.”
former military leaders and statesmen — members
of the diplomatic elite who in some cases were hawkish defenders
of nuclear weapons during their careers — have recently
made strong statements calling for reductions in and the
elimination of stockpiles.
These calls are not entirely based on humanitarian concerns.
Because nuclear weapons are extremely expensive to maintain,
many political and military leaders question the value of
weapons that effectively cannot be used — for political
and moral reasons — and which are far from the weapon
of choice in modern asymmetric warfare.
At the same time, due to persistent advocacy by the ICRC
and others, there is also growing recognition of the humanitarian
consequences of nuclear weapons. One of the key developments
came in May 2010, when a review conference of NPT states
drafted a resolution that “expresses deep concern
about the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any
use of nuclear weapons and reaffirms the need for all states
to comply with… international humanitarian law”.
This may come across as a rather bland statement in the
face of the destructive power of nuclear weapons. But these
27 words are significant. They mark the first time in the
treaty’s history that signatory states have made any
official acknowledgement of the human toll of nuclear weapons. “Now
all NPT states have recognized these catastrophic humanitarian
consequences. And once you’ve recognized this, it entails
a certain responsibility to act,” adds Herby.
While the NPT conference’s statement falls short of
clearly stating that nuclear weapons violate humanitarian
law, it does, says Herby, “raise a big question about
the legality of nuclear weapons because IHL [international
humanitarian law] is specifically intended to prevent catastrophic
humanitarian consequences from warfare”.
It’s an important step as there is still no definitive
legal consensus declaring nuclear weapons contrary to IHL.
Although the International Court of Justice did conclude
in 1996 that the use of nuclear weapons “would generally
be contrary to the rules of international law”, the
court was uncertain on whether using them in extreme cases
of self-defence would be unlawful or not.
The statement from the NPT states, meanwhile, did not come
by chance. Like much of the language contained in international
accords, these two phrases were the result of intense diplomatic
efforts by various parties, working independently, to develop
a consensus among states party to the treaty.
In the days, weeks and months before the May 2010 NPT review
conference, the Swiss delegation to the conference developed
and lobbied for such language while Swiss federal councillor
Micheline Calmy-Rey made a speech suggesting that nuclear
weapons are essentially illegal under international law.
ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger’s address to diplomats
in Geneva just weeks before the NPT conference added to the
renewed emphasis. Coming exactly a year after US President
Barack Obama outlined his vision for a nuclear-free world
in a landmark speech in Prague, Kellenberger urged all countries
to ensure that the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were
“The ICRC today appeals to all states, and to all
in a position to influence them, to seize with determination
and urgency the unique opportunities now at hand to bring
the era of nuclear weapons to an end,” he said.
Timed just before the NPT conference, the speech was accompanied
by a media communications effort that brought additional
attention and pressure to bear.
IFRC President Tadateru Konoe has made similar speeches,
decrying nuclear arms as a “weapon against humanity”.
Earlier this year, he discussed nuclear weapons (and the
Movement’s response to nuclear emergencies such as
Fukushima) in a meeting with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon,
who also supports the call for a world free of nuclear weapons.
A historic moment
While most of these steps have not been widely reported and
the public seldom know about them, momentum is clearly
building. “Right now is a unique moment in history,
and some might say the last moment, to really address this
issue before the genie is completely out of the bottle,
before more states, and potentially non-state armed groups,
have nuclear weapons,” says Herby.
Ironically, public awareness and concern over nuclear weapons
is at a low point, having faded considerably since the Cold
War era. “At the moment, there is not a large public
cry for the elimination of nuclear weapons,” says Herby. “People
think that it was solved at end of Cold War, which is not
the case. Still, in the face of a lot of public apathy, there
is something very positive happening right now.”
The way to seize the moment, says Herby, is to help “shape
the environment so that states are under pressure not to
use or acquire nuclear weapons and to prohibit their use
and eliminate existing stocks through new international agreements.”
National Societies can help by creating more dialogue and
awareness about the catastrophic humanitarian consequences
of nuclear arms and by persuading their governments to address
nuclear weapons, through prevention and elimination.
This will be easier for some National Societies than for
others. In some countries, the nuclear question is deeply
connected to national identity and politics. But advocates
say there is consensus that National Societies can play a
role by focusing solely on the humanitarian consequences
of the weapons and the implications they pose for IHL.
“We need to broaden the base of concern,” Herby
notes. “For decades, this advocacy has been in the
hands of nuclear weapons experts and associated think tanks,
and civil society NGOs [non-governmental organizations],
most of whom at the moment do not have a broad base of support.”
National Societies, however, do have a broad base. A consortium
of National Societies — Australia, Japan and Norway — are
running an international campaign on the issue. The Australian
Red Cross is engaging younger Australians by using local
celebrities and digital media, such as a web site that
demonstrated the effects of a nuclear explosion on an Australian
city by calculating the number of Facebook friends a user
Preben Marcussen, a policy adviser with the Norwegian Red
Cross, says that the Red Cross Red Crescent, as a credible
humanitarian organization, has the potential to reinvigorate
an international campaign that peaked in the 1980s. “A
stronger Red Cross Red Crescent voice will ensure that the
global debate focuses upon nuclear weapons as an urgent humanitarian
challenge, and that it will bring about the political pressure
the world needs,” he says.
The next big chance to exert that pressure will come during
November’s Council of Delegates, which is expected
to adopt a resolution that will be reported to the International
The resolution is a result of consultations between the
ICRC, National Societies and the IFRC in May 2011 in Oslo,
Norway, where the elements of a possible resolution were
presented to 21 National Societies. Organized by the Australian,
Japanese and Norwegian Red Cross societies, the meeting was
followed by further consultations that then became the basis
of the draft resolution.
The draft presented to the Council of Delegates appeals
to states to “ensure that nuclear weapons are never
used again” and to “pursue in good faith and
conclude with urgency and determination negotiations to prohibit
the use of and completely eliminate nuclear weapons through
a legally binding international agreement, based on existing
commitments and international obligations”.
It also calls on all components of the Movement, “in
light of our common commitment to humanitarian diplomacy”,
to “engage in activities to raise awareness among the
public, scientists, health professionals and decision-makers
of the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons” and
to engage, to the extent possible, in dialogue with government
and other relevant actors on the implications for IHL.
The resolution, it is hoped, will create a foothold for
further discussion and pledges with governments towards support
for the next step — perhaps eventually a new treaty
calling for a prohibition and the elimination of nuclear
This goal may seem like a long shot. But the significant
achievements made regarding a ban on cluster munitions and
anti-personnel mines show that diplomacy and public campaigning
can make a big difference.
Hiroshima survivor Yamada, who continues to campaign for
the abolition of nuclear weapons with her survivors’ group
in Tokyo, says she has faith in diplomacy. “So long
as talks go forward step by step, I am confident that something
will happen... but maybe not in my lifetime,” she says.
Nick Jones is a freelance writer and editor based in Tokyo, Japan.
The Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital (shown here before 6 August 1945) withstood
the atomic bomb blast, but was heavily damaged. Photo: ©Japanese
Red Cross Society
Known as the ‘Atomic Bomb Dome’, this building
survived the Hiroshima bombing though it was at, or very
near, the centre of the explosion. Photo: ©Nick
“Pursue in good faith and
conclude with urgency and determination negotiations
to prohibit the use of and completely eliminate nuclear weapons through a legally
agreement, based on
existing commitments and international obligations.”
Text from a draft
resolution to be
presented to the
Council of Delegations
on the elimination
of nuclear weapons
A section of the hospital was preserved as a reminder of
the bomb’s effects and the hospital’s role in
saving lives. Photo: ©Nick
“Right now is a unique
moment in history,
and some might say the
last moment, to really
address this issue before
the genie is completely out
of the bottle.
”Peter Herby, head
of ICRC’s Arms Unit
Hospital of Hope still treats Hiroshima’s survivors
Dohy (left) points to a clump of blackened rock in a wooden
cabinet and explains how the fossil-like mass was once roof
tiles. “This was 350 metres [1,000 feet] from the hypocentre
and it was melted into one piece,” he says.
Lining the walls of the dingy, one-roomed museum off a nondescript
corridor in the Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital are glass-fronted
shelves filled with pickled human organs. There are slices
of femur bones in jars, revealing leukaemia-saturated marrow,
alongside diseased livers, lungs and brains.
Sixty-six years ago, they all belonged to men and women
who, on the morning of 6 August 1945, happened to be in the
centre of Hiroshima — commuting to work, running errands,
chatting with friends. When the world’s first atomic
bomb exploded above the city, they received massive doses
of radiation and most likely appalling injuries from the
fireball and blast wave.
Eventually succumbing to leukaemia and various forms of
cancer, their deaths are recorded succinctly in English and
Japanese on cards next to the jars. “Autopsy No. 84.
Age 54, Male. Exposed (1.0km). Acute Myeloid Leukemia. Cryptococcosis.
Date of Autopsy: February 1, 1959.” reads one summary.
Beside it sits a section of a grey, infected lung.
The room today serves as a stark reminder of that hot summer’s
day and the enduring effects of the weapon that fell from
the cloudless sky.
Unlike most buildings in the vicinity of the hypocentre,
the concrete-constructed Red Cross Hospital remained largely
intact. Although the devastating shockwave blew out the windows
and destroyed much of the interior, the facility owes its
survival to its solid design.
Ken Takeuchi, an army surgeon who had studied medicine in
Germany and the United States, oversaw the hospital’s
construction in 1939. “My mother used to say that
her father was so involved in designing the hospital because,
I think, he had such a precise, engineering mind,” says
Mitchie Takeuchi, the granddaughter of the hospital’s
Naturally, the hospital was inundated with hundreds of horrifically
burnt and injured victims on that fateful day, many of whom
died soon after. Marcel Junod, head of the ICRC’s Japan
delegation, arrived at the hospital on 9 September. “All
the laboratory equipment had been put out of action. Part
of the roof had caved in and the hospital was open to the
wind and rain,” he wrote in his journal of that time.
While the old building has since been torn down (a section
of it has been placed at the entrance of the new hospital),
the Hiroshima Red Cross and Atomic Bomb Survivors Hospital
remains in the same location. A relief of Junod can be seen
in the entrance of the hospital, while another monument to
the Swiss doctor is located in the city’s Memorial
“In my understanding, the Atomic Bomb Survivors Hospital
is a symbol and a psychological support for the survivors,” explains
Dohy, the institution’s present-day president who was
born just outside Hiroshima less than a month before the
atomic bomb was dropped. “The treatment of leukaemia
and cancer is the same as at other hospitals, but some survivors
choose to come here.”
The hospital now treats more than 100 survivors, or hibakusha as
they are referred to in Japanese, as inpatients and around
the same number as outpatients each day. Naturally, many
of the hospital’s staff are experts in health matters
related to radiation exposure, and the hospital has trained
numerous doctors from abroad.
Following the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986, a number
of medical staff were dispatched to Russia, Belarus and Ukraine
to provide support. And only this year, 15 advisers from
the hospital travelled to Fukushima Prefecture to aid local
Red Cross personnel after a devastating earthquake and tsunami
crippled a nuclear plant there.
Although irrevocably linked to the atomic bomb, the Hiroshima
Red Cross Hospital continues to use that legacy to help both
survivors and those who fall victim to the potentially deadly
energy that lay waste to the city one morning in 1945.
by Nick Jones