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ICRC president on nuclear weapons

February 20, 2015


ICRC president seeks elimination of nuclear weapons from a humanitarian standpoint




Peter Maurer, International Committee of the Red Cross president, believes it is important to focus on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and "the necessity to move forward on nuclear disarmament."

During a recent visit to Japan, Maurer, 58, was asked why his organization was so deeply involved in the movement to eliminate nuclear weapons.

He said the ICRC has made assessments on the existing international humanitarian response capability if one is used, and "the fact that either by accident or by use, we are dealing with highly contagious, long-term effect issues, which easily can overwhelm humanitarian actors is very clear."

The ICRC has long been involved in programs from the standpoint of neutrality and humanitarianism.

That stance has led it to provide support even to residents living in extremely dangerous areas, such as those under the control of the militant group Islamic State.

"ICRC has continued to say that we will try to engage 'as good as we can,' with all armed groups, in order to assist and protect people in need," Maurer said. "But, we come to limits. We have no access in many regions of the world where armed groups are in control of certain territories. Nevertheless, we continuously try to expand our network and to build humanitarian operations, and I think, again, there is no recipe, no 'one size fits all.' ”

The transcript of the interview with Maurer follows:



Q: Now. I would like to ask about nuclear weapons. ICRC has advocated the inhumanity of nuclear weapons since 2010, I think. Your predecessor, the former president, made a statement, which triggered the international debate on the inhumanity of nuclear weapons.

Why were nuclear weapons picked among the many humanitarian issues the ICRC was concerned with at that time?

A: Well, in our priority setting, the humanitarian impact of all weapons has continuously and consistently been an important work stream at ICRC, and in that sense it’s nothing but normal--I mean, it would be legitimate to ask if we would not deal with nuclear weapons, then why not? Because, we deal with all the weapons and the impact.

We come to different conclusions, but it has always been, and it is also clearly a task from the Geneva Conventions, which legitimizes the work of ICRC, to inform the international community about the humanitarian impact of weapons.

So, after our engagement on chemical, on biological, on laser weapons, on mines, on cluster ammunition, on the arms trade treaty, it’s nothing but normal from the history of the organization, from its mandate, but also from the specific experience from Hiroshima, that you deal with those weapons.

Now, I think, at the end of the day, we have consistently held the same position since 1945 when our predecessor Dr. Marcel Junod rescued the victims in Hiroshima.

Q: As far as I know, I have heard that it has something to do with Obama taking office in 2009, and the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference final document mentioned the inhumanity of the nuclear weapons, in 2010. Then your former president strongly committed to this issue. Am I correct?

A: I think, after decades of stating a discrepancy between the assessment on the humanitarian impact of a weapon and the fact that the disarmament process on nuclear weapons is illusive, I think it was important to see when there are upcoming opportunities in which a state could deliver on their commitments..

Again, ICRC, neither my predecessor nor myself, will wish to substitute ourselves to the responsibility of states. It’s for states to decide how to negotiate, where to negotiate and, “at the end of the day,” what to negotiate. What we can do is to remind them what is at stake, and for decades, I think, nuclear weapons have been basically part of strategic reflections and of military and defense machineries.

And the big advantage, since the last NPT Conference, which showed some openings and we had agreements on a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East Conference, and on all those issues, so it showed some opening, and this was the climate, the political climate, in which my predecessor came to the conclusion that it was important to go back to a position that we have held since 1945, and just to remind the international community about the humanitarian impact, about the necessity to move forward on nuclear disarmament.

You can’t credibly--I mean, it’s a question also of the credibility of an international instrument. When you have a commitment upon which there is no action.

Q: Sure. Then, to the kind of very delicate question, at the Vienna Conference about humanitarian consequences of the nuclear weapons in December last year, you, as the president of the ICRC, concluded that there is no adequate international humanitarian response capacity after the use of a nuclear weapon. But, on the other hand, as you know, Toshio Sano, the Japanese disarmament ambassador, the representative to Geneva, dismissed it, saying, “It’s too pessimistic,” and he insisted on pursuing a possible way to rescue, in the case of, even, a nuclear aftermath.

A: I would respond in the following way. First, there is no question that in the event of the use of nuclear weapons, ICRC and the Red Cross and the Red Crescent movement would do everything we can to assist those who need assistance.

And I think we have a track record and a legitimacy that is uncontested and respected, and I am not pessimistic, in that sense. I am very assertive and, I think, we have a proven track record of doing the best we can when major disasters hit.

So, the second question, then, is a question of scenario and appreciation of what would happen. We cannot imagine at the ICRC that a nuclear weapon is used in a targeted, limited way, without leading to escalation. If you question this hypothesis, you may question our conclusion.

But, our basic hypothesis is that we do not see how a nuclear weapon can be used and can be limited in scope, from what we know today, in just the use of one weapon. And, if you suppose escalation, to a certain extent, the capacities are soon overwhelmed, and so I don’t want to be pessimistic. Maybe I would rather counter and say it’s a realistic assessment that ICRC has done.

And, if there are over-capacities, should something happen, all the better. But I don’t see it happening. And I think it is important for a humanitarian organization that we are also clear with states. We are not here to cope with every mess that is organized in the world.

There are responsibilities for states, and so we have to be clear on that. Again, it’s difficult to imagine that we can use it in a contained way.

I can imagine that there is an accident somewhere, a nuclear accident, and Fukushima has shown, in the civilian part of nuclear accidents, that even if they are very big accidents, you can mobilize enormous support. But you have also seen where the difficulties are.

I mean, but the fact that either by accident or by use, we are dealing with highly contagious, long-term effect issues, which easily can overwhelm humanitarian actors is very clear. I mean, what we say with regard to no adequate international humanitarian response is not just taken out of the blue. We have made assessments on the existing capacities, and we have assumed a sort of a minimal scope of what realistically could happen.

Q: The viewpoint was included in the chair’s summary of the Vienna Conference. However, the five nuclear powers under the NPT--I mean, the United States and the United Kingdom participated in the conference, but still hesitate to join this humanitarian discourse initiative.

And the Japanese government also resists any negotiation for a ban treaty or any legally binding procedure for nuclear weapons abolition. So, what is your next step, as the ICRC, to persuade those nuclear powers, and their allies under the nuclear umbrellas?

A: Well, I think we have been quite transparent and clear over the last couple of years. We have participated in a movement to make more precise and sharpen our understanding of the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons.

What we think that this should lead to is, at least, a reassessment of nuclear weapons powers on what is at stake in a negotiation. At the NPT Conference in May, we have another opportunity to look at such possible reassessments and to merge the efforts of over 120 or 130 states participating in Oslo-Nayarit-Vienna, and the P-5 (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Nuclear-Weapon States).

And I think there is a broad majority of states, as we read, interested to engage with the P-5. And I think what is coming out of this three-year process of facts and hypotheses and thinking on the humanitarian impact should at least be seriously considered. I think this is the only thing we are asking. We still believe that we cannot continue just expressing commitments, without a process, leading somehow towards the commitment.

We are realistic. We don’t think that “global zero” will happen tomorrow. But, we should at least get away from these polarized discussions, where 120 and more states continuously discuss and highlight the issue of the humanitarian impact, and a number of states do not want to discuss this issue.

And I think what is wrong with moving from commitments which the P-5 did themselves, in declarations a couple of years ago, and what is wrong with legally binding when they, themselves, bound themselves legally to disarm? It’s just a question of credibility, that an international agreement, where the commitment will be a weak agreement if there is no follow-up to the commitments.

Q: That’s the majority countries’ argument, hibakusha’s argument and international organization’s argument. But, on Feb. 6 in London, the P-5 held a conference and released a joint statement that says that the P-5 reaffirmed that a step-by-step approach to nuclear disarmament remains the only realistic and practical route to achieving a world without nuclear weapons. So they are going to make the same statement in the upcoming NPT Review Conference in April and May.

A: Yes, but I don’t see a discrepancy between a step-by-step approach and what we have advocated for, that there is a narrowing of the gap and that the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons is taken into consideration. I am happy about the step-by-step approach, if a step is done.

And it always--if steps are done. And if the steps leads to the final objective, I am very happy.

Q: So, how could you persuade the P-5 to this credible disarmament process? They still argue that the step-by-step approach is the best, there is no other way, and Japan joined this way. How could the ICRC break the ice?

A: I don’t think it is our role, necessarily, to break the ice. It is the responsibilities of states to define where, on what, and how they want to negotiate. It’s the responsibility of ICRC to draw the international community’s attention to the humanitarian impact of weapons, and I think we are not naïve; we know that the first criterion under which a weapon is considered is always military and strategic.

But, we think it is important to add a new dimension of inhumanity to these assessments. And when the new dimension is supported by so many states and is supported by so many facts, this should, by all means, impress on the pace and the way negotiations are envisaged.

Again, we are not proposing any specific agreement, any specific conventions. It’s really up to states to decide. But, what we are underlining is that the impact is many-fold and serious, is long term, stresses capacities to the utmost, or overwhelms them. It’s uncontrollable in terms of environmental and nutritional impact. All those elements that we have mentioned over the past three years, and where a lot of studies have been made--not only by ICRC but by many others.

New facts are now “on the ground,” and I think this has to be taken seriously. In the negotiations, I think that’s our bottom line.

Afterward, you can go step by step and you can mandate through the NPT. You can mandate the international community to explore different models of legal agreements and different steps, and which steps, and you can design a process on the basis of such a commitment.

Q: You visited Hiroshima this time. What was your impression of the city?

A: It’s always involves a lot of emotions. I mean, on the personal level, of course, even 70 years after the dropping of the bomb, it’s a very moving experience, from the account of the survivors to the work of the local Red Cross chapter, to the exhibit in the museum, to see the political authorities, the mayor, engaging and trying to somehow see how to carry forward what was the experience of the city. So, I thought it was an extremely interesting day.

And, in terms of the ICRC, what perhaps struck me the most is from the account of the survivors, to see how close this is to our appreciation of--in a sort of a more humanitarian policy sense, on what has to be done. The survivors speak about all the humanitarian impacts of the nuclear weapons which we have been discussing over the last couple of years, in particular, about the indiscrimination that comes with--the indiscriminate character of--the weapon, about the long-term impact of the weapon, its generational impact, about the possible destruction of assistance infrastructure. So, all the important avenues which have been fed by scientific research and by policy papers over the last couple of years, come up.

So, quite sincerely how I still feel, that it’s important to deliver on the wish and dreams from the survivors now, and to move from commitment to concrete reality.


Peter Maurer was born in Switzerland in 1956. In 1987 he entered the Swiss diplomatic service. In 2000 he was appointed ambassador and head of the human security division in the political directorate of the Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs in Bern. In 2004, Maurer was appointed ambassador and permanent representative of Switzerland to the United Nations in New York. In January 2010, Maurer was appointed secretary of state for foreign affairs in Bern and took over the reins of the Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs. He succeeded Jakob Kellenberger as ICRC president on July 1, 2012.



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