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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

Banning the bomb


Sixty-six 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 plane.

“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 Boy’ detonated.

Destructive effects
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 international law.

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 was rejected.

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’.

“I felt the hot sand on
my back as I ran, and
I was blown over
before I reached
the shelter.”

Reiko Yamada,
Hiroshima survivor



Contrary 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 the NPT.

“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
future war, we shall
experience the annihilation of
thousands of human beings
in appalling suffering.”

Marcel Junod

A 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 in Nagasaki.

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.”

Several 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.

“Catastrophic consequences”
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.

Nuclear diplomacy
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 never repeated.

“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.”

“Human agency”
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 would lose.

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 Conference.

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 weapons.

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
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 Jones










“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.”

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 Jones













“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

The Hospital of Hope still treats Hiroshima’s survivors

Hiroo 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 first president.

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 Peace Park.

“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


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