THE BLOG
08/01/2015 08:15 am ET Updated Aug 01, 2016

70 Years After Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Urgency of Banning Nuclear Weapons

Seventy years ago, the two nuclear bombs that were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought the world into the era of mass destruction by killing, in a flash, more than 200,000 people. Nowadays, nine states still hold 16,000 nuclear weapons, of a power far greater than that of Little Boy and Fatman used on August 6th and 9th, 1945. Regarding their devastating impact on natural and human environment, it is more than time to move forward on the way to the prohibition of such weapons.

The typology of weapons is divided into two camps: on the one hand, conventional weapons, which have a limited impact and scope; on the other hand, weapons of mass destruction (WMD), intended to kill indiscriminately both soldiers and civilians, and more widely all living organisms, with devastating and lasting effects on the environment. Within this second category, are gathered chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

Due to their non-selective action and long-term consequences, the international community has endeavored to adopt conventions aimed at the prohibition of the development, the production, the storage and the use of chemical and biological weapons. Paradoxically, if these weapons are relatively easy and inexpensive to produce, their use remains complex, because subject to numerous uncertainties, in particular meteorological ones.

Nuclear weapons, for their part, have much more destructive effects, as illustrated by the case of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. As the environmental, health and human impact of the 67 tests conducted on this small territory in the 1950s and 1960s continue to persist today, this David of the Pacific decided in 2014 to refer the matter to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), in order to gain recognition of the violation, by the nuclear Goliaths, of their obligations in the field of nuclear disarmament.

Surprisingly, while the proliferation of nuclear weapons is combated legally and diplomatically, with the support of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), for now, there is no universal consensus to promote their ban. Certainly, efforts have been made on this path. Thus, the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) came to restrict the right to own such weapons to the five states that detonated a nuclear device before January 1st, 1967 (United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France and China). In return, they committed themselves to negotiate in good faith in order to reach a general and complete nuclear disarmament. Furthermore, as recognized by the ICJ in an advisory opinion of 1966, "the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law", in particular because they operate indiscriminately and cause unnecessary harm.

It is certainly to protect itself against potential convictions that France was careful to join to its ratification of the Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) of 1998 an interpretative declaration - the validity of which is questionable - that provisions on war crimes would concern exclusively conventional weapons and could not prohibit the use of nuclear weapons. France is, moreover, the only country in the "nuclear club", with Britain, to have ratified this treaty. Sign, however, that this approach is far from consensual, its interpretation remained isolated, while other countries (Egypt, New Zealand, Sweden), on the contrary, declared in the occasion of their signature or ratification of the ICC Statute that the provisions concerning war crimes apply whatever the means and the types of weapons used, including nuclear weapons. In May 2015, the NPT Review Conference highlighted this categorical opposition between the minority of nuclear states and the majority of non-nuclear states.

Despite this opposition, nowadays, the request to prohibit nuclear weapons is always more significant. There are many resolutions, including those of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the World Health Organization and the General Assembly of the UN, which emphasize that nuclear weapons represent a real threat to the very existence of humankind and, therefore, that the only path to follow is their legal prohibition.

Since 2010, the humanitarian imperative that prevailed in the various international forums consisted in stressing the dangers caused by a detonation, whether it is voluntary, accidental or malicious. This approach has allowed the emergence of awareness of states about the urgency to fill the legal vacuum surrounding these weapons, which, as noted by the ICJ in 1996, are neither authorized nor completely and universally prohibited by international law. Thus, following the 3rd Intergovernmental Conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, held in Vienna (Austria) in 2014, a "Humanitarian Pledge", inviting the parties to the NPT to take effective measures to prohibit and then to eliminate nuclear weapons, has been joined by a growing number of signatories, now amounting to 113 states.

Promoting the prohibition of nuclear weapons is not an easy task in front of the determination of the nuclear powers and states under the NATO umbrella to defend the deterrent value of nuclear weapons for their security. However, it is a priority for many states and civil society organizations for which a multilateral agreement of banning is essential. The goal is to create the legal basis that will open the door to the second stage, that of the total abolition of nuclear weapons. It is, in fact, impossible to implement a process of elimination, probably lengthy and complex, if the possession of a nuclear arsenal is not previously prohibited.

Seventy years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world can not remain in this legal no man's land, between threat of mass destruction and balance of terror. Accepting the status quo means admitting the scenario of a backward and, thereby, that an atomic bombing could again occur.