Seventy years ago the Japanese city of Hiroshima was devastated by an atomic bomb causing huge loss of life and suffering that continues to this day. The same fate befell Nagasaki three days later.
By John Borrie, Tim Caughley and Magnus Løvold
Many cities were heavily bombed during the Second World War, not only in Japan, but Hiroshima and Nagasaki were alone in being the targets of single weapons of mass destruction—atomic, i.e., nuclear bombs.
In response to the experience of World War Two, concern to provide better protection to civilians from aerial warfare soon led to a treaty on the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. That agreement was one of four Conventions negotiated under ICRC auspices in Geneva in 1949 . All four treaties are founded on the idea of respect for dignity of the individual. Persons not directly taking part in hostilities must be respected and protected against the effects of war. Impressively, 196 states have committed themselves to the Geneva Conventions of 1949.
Of course, aerial bombardment existed before World War Two. Previous rules of international law included a Declaration negotiated at the Hague Peace Conference of 1907. The Declaration, which prohibited the ‘Discharge of Projectiles and Explosives from Balloons’, was later proven by the First World War to be inadequate for protecting civilians. After that war, the ICRC initiated moves to lay down new rules for the protection of civilians in time of war, but for various reasons these were not adopted by the time a second general European war broke out in September 1939. As the ICRC has itself observed, the events of that war, including heavy aerial bombing of civilians, showed the ‘disastrous consequences of the absence of a convention for the protection of civilians in wartime’.
The four Geneva Conventions helped to fill that gap, but only up to a point. Establishing principles for the protection of civilians during wartime is one thing: outlawing the most egregious armaments—especially weapons of mass destruction—is another matter altogether. Following the use of mustard gas and other toxic agents on the battlefield in World War One, public concern over the dreadful humanitarian consequences that use of chemical and biological weapons could have in any future war gave political momentum to a 1925 Protocol and ultimately to the prohibitions contained in the Biological and the Chemical Weapons Conventions of 1972 and 1993 respectively.
Counter-intuitively, the most lethal weapons of mass destruction—nuclear weapons—are not yet subject to any comparable prohibition. This gap in international law defies the evidence—evidence that in the cases of Nagasaki and Hiroshima is still coming to light 70 years later. Since the rebuilding of the health infrastructure in post-war Japan, hospitals for atomic bomb survivors run by the Japanese Red Cross since 1956 (Hiroshima) and 1969 (Nagasaki) have recorded more than 2.5 million admissions of nuclear weapon survivors as inpatients, notably for treatment for cancers and psychological disorders.
As the ICRC has observed, the use of two relatively small nuclear weapons in 1945 has resulted in increased levels of leukaemia and other cancers amongst atomic bomb survivors over the past 70 years. Genetic damage to non-exposed children of survivors also remains an on-going concern. And few, if any, countries would be able to provide adequate medical care to meet the long-term needs of casualties even of a single nuclear weapon explosion, let alone those surviving the immediate aftermath of the detonation.
Commemorating the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki evokes more than the mere recalling of matters of historical significance. It is sobering to be reminded of the long-term humanitarian impacts of those events of seventy years ago. It is equally sobering that nuclear weapons continue to exist in large numbers—about 16,000. It is imperative to prevent any further use of these armaments until every last one of them is eliminated.