Last month I had the great privilege of attending the Second Meeting on the Implementation of the 2011 Red Cross / Red Crescent Council of Delegate’s Resolution 1 on “Working towards the elimination of Nuclear Weapons” in Hiroshima, Japan. The setting for this meeting, the site of the first ever use of nuclear weapons, a city which has witnessed firsthand the horrific effects of nuclear weapons and has worked towards their eradication ever since, was very appropriate. At this meeting were representatives of 25 Red Cross and Red Crescent national societies, the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
The Red Cross / Red Crescent Movement has worked for 150 years to alleviate the suffering of victims of armed conflict and natural disaster. The abolition of weapons of mass destruction and other weapons considered to be inherently indiscriminate, inhumane, or excessively destructive, has been a focal point of the Movement’s efforts for decades. In 2011, the Council of Delegates, a gathering of Red Cross / Red Crescent national societies and the international elements of the Movement (the ICRC and IFRC), adopted a resolution calling for the prohibition on use and abolition of nuclear weapons. Currently, no law exists expressly prohibiting the use of nuclear weapons. Since 2011, the Red Cross / Red Crescent Movement has worked in domestic and international forums to persuade nations to accelerate the pursuit of complete disarmament of these weapons.
During the meeting I had the opportunity to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. The museum contained stories of survivors of the atomic bombing (hibakusha), images of Hiroshima after the bombing, declassified US military documents, and artifacts recovered from the city. Walking through the museum and observing the exhibits was a powerful and moving experience. For me, the most striking artifacts were a pair of watches recovered after the blast. Eerily the watches had stopped at precisely 8:15am, the exact time when the atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.
Looking at these watches, I began to realize the magnitude of what had happened that day. 8:15am literally marked the end of time for tens of thousands of innocent Japanese citizens. Detonating 600 meters above the city, the bomb created a fireball 280 meters in diameter with a temperature of 5,000 degrees Celsius (over 9,000 degrees Fahrenheit), a mere second after the blast. Initial temperatures at the point of the explosion reached over one million degrees Celsius. Within an instant the heat, shockwave and radiation from the blast killed nearly one third of the city’s inhabitants. 90 percent of the city was flattened.
The watches are also symbolic, marking the end of time of the non-nuclear age. In reality, time continued. The suffering of the victims of the blast in Hiroshima continued long after the fires which engulfed the city had been extinguished. Thousands of people who survived the initial blast died within days, succumbing to severe burns and other wounds. In the days and weeks that followed, those who continued to live suffered from inadequate medical attention as emergency services were nearly non-existent and supplies exhausted, the infrastructure of the city destroyed in the blast. Even many years later, survivors of the blast experienced fatal side effects from radiation exposure. It is estimated that by the end of 1945 140,000 people had died as a direct result of the bombing in Hiroshima. Reconstruction of the city took many years and reconciliation continues today.
Despite advances in technology, implementation of safeguards and confidence building measures, as well as the reduction of nuclear stockpiles by the United States and Russia, the world remains at risk of experiencing another nuclear disaster. Since 1945, citizens of the world have witnessed tensions between nations draw the world to the brink of nuclear conflict and the accidental launch of nuclear weapons remains a remote, yet real, threat to global security. Even a limited nuclear exchange would have catastrophic consequences for the entire world.
Today, the clock is ticking towards midnight on the fate of the world. While it is not possible to recreate the time that victims of the atomic bombings have lost, perhaps the efforts of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement can restart the watches of the non-nuclear age which stopped 68 years ago.
For more information on the work of the RC/RC Movement on this issue and the effects of nuclear weapons, please visit the website of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
International Committee of the Red Cross, Council of Delegates 2011: Resolution 1, Nov. 26, 2011 available at http://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/documents/resolution/council-delegates-resolution-1-2011.htm.
The Outline of Atomic Bomb Damage in Hiroshima, Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, Mar. 2006.