On June 6th, we at Pressenza premiered our latest documentary film, “The Beginning of the End of Nuclear Weapons”.  For this film, we interviewed 14 people, experts in their fields, who were able to provide insight into the history of the subject, the process which led to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and current efforts to stigmatise them and turn the ban into elimination.  As part of our commitment to make this information available to the whole world, we are publishing the full versions of those interviews, together with their transcripts, in the hope that this information will be useful for future documentary film makers, activists and historians who would like to hear the powerful testimonies recorded in our interviews.

This interview is with Kathleen Lawand, Head of Arms Unit at the International Committee of the Red Cross, at the ICRC offices in Geneva, Switzerland on the 12th of December, 2018.

Questions: Tony Robinson, Cameraman: Álvaro Orús.


What is known about the emergency response given in Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

What we know is that, in the immediate aftermath of the bomb in Hiroshima, and we know this from having been present ourselves in the weeks that followed the explosion in Hiroshima; out of 300 doctors present in Hiroshima, 270 had died; out of 1,700 nurses, 1,600 had been killed; and out of some 140 pharmacists, 120 had been killed.

So you can imagine the situation when the ICRC, our doctors and delegates, happened upon the scene in Hiroshima.  There were no medical personnel or infrastructure, or virtually none left, to take care of the tens of thousands of people who were dying and injured and in desperate need of help.

Miraculously, the Japanese Red Cross Hospital stood standing in the debris, and it had been built in stone, so it somehow withstood the blast, although its windows were all blown out, and crucially it’s critical medical equipment, laboratory equipment had been destroyed or damaged beyond use, but despite this, thousands of survivors huddled in the hospital and most of them died.

Out of 1,000 survivors that were there, 600 died in the days that followed the blast, because they just could not get the medical attention that was required.

The evidence presented in Oslo.

In Oslo, we presented evidence about our inability to respond as a humanitarian organization, our inability of the ICRC, but then the inability of our movement, of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, to provide an adequate humanitarian response in case of use of nuclear weapons, and this was done very scientifically, on the basis of a major study that we published in 2009, so almost 10 years ago, in which we assessed our own capabilities and those of other international agencies to provide humanitarian assistance in case of use of nuclear weapons.

And what we found is that there is no adequate capacity existing at national level and none whatsoever in terms of international coordination, at international level to respond to a nuclear blast, and this is a grave concern indeed.

So the only adequate response is to eliminate nuclear weapons, to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons.  This is the ultimate way to prevent the humanitarian catastrophe that would ensue from the use of nuclear weapons, and to which we and other agencies would just simply not be able to respond to.  By the way, I should add that the findings of our study were corroborated in a similar study carried out a few years later by the United Nations agencies.

What was the role of the ICRC in changing the discourse to humanitarian consequences?

Well the Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference in May 2010, indeed made a historic finding.

All of the state’s party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty agreed by consensus that any use of nuclear weapons would have catastrophic humanitarian consequences, and nuclear weapons must be considered through the lens of International Humanitarian Law.

Now we know from the decision, the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice in 1996, that any use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to International Humanitarian Law, also known as the Law of Armed Conflict or the Laws of War, and this has been a conclusion of the ICRC and the global Red Cross and Red Crescent movement for many years now.

For us, it’s difficult to envisage any use of nuclear weapons that would be compatible with International Humanitarian Law.  This was one of the starting points for a historic statement by the president of the ICRC in April of 2010, so this is one month before the Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference, in which he called on States to begin negotiations for a legally-binding, international agreement to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons; not just on the basis of the fact that any use would be generally incompatible with humanitarian law, but also crucially just on the basis of the evidence of the catastrophic humanitarian consequences and the inability of any humanitarian-assistance organization to be able to respond to such catastrophe, to be able to meet a magnitude of the humanitarian needs that would be generated by the use of nuclear weapons.

Bear in mind as well, and this is in subsequent studies since 1945.  Environmental modelling has shown that even a limited nuclear exchange, this is using maybe just 100 average-sized nuclear weapons limited to a certain region in the world, so not necessarily a global exchange, if this nuclear exchange took place, in particular, in populated areas, the environmental consequences would be such that it would lead to a cooling of global temperatures due to the massive amounts of materials, including radioactive particles, shot up into the atmosphere from these blasts.

And it would most probably lead to food-shortages and probable famine by of over 1 billion people. And this is just a fraction of the nuclear weapons in nuclear arsenals today!  So once again the evidence has been mounting over the last years, a lot of this evidence was indeed presented at the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons intergovernmental conferences that took place starting in Oslo, but then later in Nayarit, Mexico and in Vienna Austria in 2013 and 2014, and now we today have a massive body of evidence that a nuclear war would simply, not only not be winnable, it would likely destroy life on earth as we know it today.

What is the ICRC doing to help entry into force?

The ICRC and National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, as part of our global, humanitarian movement, we have welcomed the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and we have committed ourselves, as a global movement, to promoting its entry into force and encouraging as many states as possible to join the treaty.

We believe now this treaty can really make a difference in terms of establishing a norm at global level, very clearly and comprehensively prohibiting nuclear weapons and reinforcing the stigma against the use of nuclear weapons.

So the treaty sends a clear signal to the world that any use of nuclear weapons, possession, development, etc., is completely unacceptable, and this madness has to stop.

We need to take decisive and concrete steps to end the era of nuclear weapons, and the Nuclear Ban Treaty is a good step in the right direction.  It is a concrete step in that direction.

We believe it is a treaty that complements the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  The NPT commits States, in article VI, to nuclear disarmament, to effective measures towards nuclear disarmament.  Unfortunately there’s been very little by way of concrete steps under article VI, but we believe today there is that step through the Nuclear Ban Treaty.

We also believe that by reinforcing the stigma on nuclear weapons, through the Nuclear Ban Treaty, this actually reinforces the NPT’s non-proliferation objectives.  It creates an even greater disincentive for states to want to develop nuclear weapons and seek out nuclear weapons.

How can ordinary people get involved to help the signing and ratifying of the TPNW?

Well, it’s incredibly important that people who want to do something and get involved, it’s incredibly important through their own communities and any organizations or communities of interests that they work in, be it with youth organizations, the scientific community, teachers associations, many people are also involved in public life at the local level, or at the national level for that matter in their countries, to raise the issue; this grave concern about the continued existence of nuclear weapons, critically about the rising risks of use of nuclear weapons.

We know that with increasing international tensions over recent years, with increasing rhetoric of certain world leaders who are actually, either overtly, or in a subtle but quite clear way, threatening the use of nuclear weapons.  To say that this is completely unacceptable and demand of governments that they take concrete steps and measures to reduce nuclear risks, reduce tensions, and concrete steps towards nuclear disarmament.

This is of interest to all communities.  This is not an issue that belongs only to politicians or experts. Everyone is concerned about nuclear weapons, because nuclear weapons threaten the future of everyone.  They threaten our children, our grandchildren, future generations, entire life on the planet.  So everyone is concerned, and everyone has the legitimacy and a voice to bring to debates about nuclear weapons.

What is your motivation?

Well, I think today I draw my motivation just by looking back at what we’ve accomplished over the last eight years.  If you look at the last eight to ten years, if you would have asked anyone if we’re going to ban nuclear weapons through a new treaty, people didn’t take us seriously, people said, “Oh, this is utopic.  It’s unrealistic.  It’s not going to happen.”

Well it did happen.  It happened because we all pulled together, we work together.  Everyone with their own expertise and added value, and so on.  And certainly the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement brought its own contribution to this effort to ban nuclear weapons through bringing its first-hand testimony of what we saw in Hiroshima; the ICRC working side-by-side with the Japanese Red Cross back in 1945 to do the best we could, against all odds, to bring relief to the dying and wounded in the tens of thousands.

We could hardly have an impact there, and so based on our first-hand experience we were able to bring this testimony and succeed through this testimony and bringing about a change in mindsets of governments, of a critical mass of governments, to turn things around and to cease to look at nuclear weapons in narrow, military and security terms but to broaden the perspective, and indeed focus the perspective on what these weapons actually do.  What is the evidence of what they do to human health, to people, to societies and their long-term impacts on the environment and on future generations, and indeed the threat that they pose to future generations and to humanity as a whole?

So it was bringing this first hand testimony and also of the long-term impacts of nuclear weapons; the fact that the Japanese Red Cross is today continuing to treat survivors of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In fact, in the five years that followed the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the number of fatalities, so the original number of fatalities in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of 1945, was 140,000 in Hiroshima and 70,000 in Nagasaki.

Those figures increased between two and three fold in the next five years due to radiation sickness from radiation exposure.  So people continued to die massively in the following five years.  The medical system was incapable of responding to this, did not have the capacity to respond, and then later on when the medical system got up and working again in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, through reconstructed hospitals, Japanese Red Cross hospitals continued to treat thousands of survivors from the very high incidences of cancers, leukaemia and other diseases that followed.

So for the decades on, now over seventy three years after the atomic bombings, and the remaining survivors, the Hibakusha continued to suffer from these cancers and illnesses and be treated by Japanese Red Cross hospitals.

I’m feeling very optimistic when I see what we were able to achieve against all odds eight years ago, when we embarked on this eight years ago, calling for a new treaty to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons, and this groundswell that was created, the work of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement with the ICRC, and then of course of civil society, under the umbrella of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons and a range of states, and in building support among the critical mass of states to negotiate the treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons.

So this gives me a lot of optimism that we can do a lot more.  It’s going to take a lot of hard work and dedication, but we are committed to doing it, to seeing the Ban Treaty entered into force, and seeing a majority of states join.

And in the meantime, creating the necessary pressures on nuclear weapon-States, and their allies, to take urgent action, to at the very least, urgently right now, reduce nuclear risks, take the needed steps to reduce the risk of use of nuclear weapons, to prevent their use and then ultimately fulfilling their promises of nuclear disarmament by taking the concrete action needed.