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Crucial to sign up for a nuclear-free celebration

I’d like to remind all other nations of our organisation’s inability to provide any remotely adequate medical or humanitarian response to a nuclear crisis and call on all countries which are yet to sign – including Australia, the nuclear-armed nations, and some of their allies – to do so now.

A family prays as paper lanterns are floated on the Tenma River to mark the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing.

A family prays as paper lanterns are floated on the Tenma River to mark the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing.Credit:Getty Images

But today should still be celebrated. It’s the dawn of new era in which the last weapon of mass destruction to be regulated by international law will finally begin to be controlled. Other weapons that cause unacceptable harm – contrary to the laws of war – have already been banned, such as cluster munitions, anti-personnel landmine and chemical weapons.


Nuclear weapons are incompatible with the rules of international humanitarian law. The laws of war are unambiguous: weapons must be able to distinguish between civilians and combatants, as only combatants can be legally attacked.

Weapons must not cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering. Their effects must be proportionate to their military objective. And weapons cannot be used if they cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the environment.

The aftermath of the bombing of Nagasaki, August 1945.

The aftermath of the bombing of Nagasaki, August 1945.Credit:J. Norman Ingram/Cox News Service Photo

Rather than leaving the fate of these weapons to the handful of countries that legally own them, and which were not fulfilling their obligation to work towards their elimination, the public debate has been reframed from being defined as a matter of defence policy, to being about the unacceptable humanitarian consequences of use of nuclear weapons.

We know all about those consequences.

Members of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement were there when the bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There was little they could do to deal with the immediate needs of those needing help, or to alleviate the long-term suffering of the people on the ground.

The impacts lasted decades and, devastatingly, even affected the children of those who survived those bombs. Research is still being conducted to determine whether the illnesses being experienced by descendants – two generations later – can be explained by mutations in their DNA that was caused by radiation.

With the coming into force of this treaty, let’s hope we’re getting closer to the time that we’re never that helpless again.

An anti-aircraft gun position at Iran's nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz, Iran.

An anti-aircraft gun position at Iran’s nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz, Iran. Credit:AP

We want Australians to know that nuclear weapons are not an acceptable defence policy option. They are barbaric tools that cause hellish devastation and untold suffering to civilians.

Some critics argue the treaty is toothless because the nuclear-armed nations and their allies have not yet signed it.

This ignores the reality of International law-making, which is that creating new norms is an incremental process. It takes patience and persistence. No weapon has ever been eliminated without first being studied, stigmatised and prohibited.


With the advent of a vaccine for COVID-19, we can be cautiously hopeful that the end of the current global pandemic is in sight. Unfortunately, though, we can’t rely on medical science to save us from the impacts of a nuclear attack. There can be no vaccine for the health effects of a nuclear weapon.

Elimination is the only option. This is why we believe in a future without nuclear weapons.

Kym Pfitzner is the CEO of Australian Red Cross.

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