Towards a nuclear weapons-free world for tomorrow’s generation

A tram damaged by the nuclear bomb in Hiroshima, 1945. Photo courtesy ICRC.

by Sahar Haroon
Regional Legal Adviser
International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)


International Humanitarian Law or IHL, the protections it affords to persons not or no longer participating in hostilities and the limits that it imposes on means and methods of warfare have been crucial at all times throughout history. Yet today this is true more than ever when we see the increasingly protracted nature of armed conflicts around the world as well as growing number of conflicts – both international and non-international.

Among the many IHL treaties, especially those that regulate means and weapons of warfare, perhaps the entry into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) has been one of the bigger milestones that the international community, non-governmental organizations and humanitarian actors have achieved in recent years. In a way exhibiting what we can collectively accomplish when united in purpose.

Complementing the disarmament and non-proliferation regime on nuclear weapons, the TPNW stands out in the absolute prohibition on the use and threat of use, on the development and testing, and on the transfer or deployment of these horrific weapons. Horrific they certainly are, as history is witness, in their consequences and adverse impact on human beings, on medical and humanitarian assistance and on the natural environment – oft the silent victim of armed hostilities. Devastating impact that is felt through generations, through decades, through space and time making it immeasurable yet unquestionable.

That is what humanity faces in the event of intentional or even accidental use of these weapons. That is not a world we should aspire to. That is not a world the younger nor future generations deserve. That is not a world anyone deserves. The TPNW is then that elusive light at the end of the tunnel in all this. With 68 States party to the treaty and 28 signatories today we can perhaps begin hoping for a safer future. Every State that accedes to the treaty, strengthens the hope that we may yet see a world free of nuclear weapons, a world that is united in protecting humanity. And while that is cause for jubilation and motivation, we are still a long way from the realization of that dream. Will we learn from history or will we continue to live under this threat?

Amidst all this, for me it is indeed heartening to be in Southeast Asia, comprising of countries committed to ensuring the region remains a nuclear weapons-free zone. To be engaging with authorities in countries such as Malaysia and the Philippines who were among the first to ratify the TPNW and have since been strong advocates of universalization of the treaty and of its underlying rationale is without a doubt one of my stronger inspirations. However, the bleak future that awaits us in the form of intentional or accidental use of nuclear weapons is clearly a concern not just limited to Southeast Asia and the efforts then need to match the concern we all face regardless of our geographical location. Efforts that need to resonate in all corners of the world.

With Malaysia now as the co-Chair for the Working Group on Universalization alongside South Africa formed at the 1st Meeting of State Parties (MSP1) to the TPNW in June 2022, this work is indeed well in motion. This working group and the two others – one on victim assistance and environmental remediation and the other on implementation of Article 4 – have committed to advance and implement these objectives. MSP1 also saw an additional 3 States join the TPNW, creating a momentum that needs to be utilized to the advantage of all that is worth striving for to protect and preserve humanity.

Within the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (the Movement), it is an equal pleasure to support the Malaysian Red Crescent Society (MRCS) while they scale up outreach to young people to raise awareness of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and to promote their active involvement in support of universalization. As the future generation of the world, and those who are going to inherit the planet from us, the youth indeed have a right to be concerned about the state the world will be left to them in and to have a voice in its protection. In furtherance of this, on 1-2 August 2022, in partnership with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the MRCS and International Islamic University of Malaysia led the first Conference in the country on mobilizing academe and the youth and brainstorming the role they can play towards this aim. This is a first step, hopefully in a series of many, in the achievement of an aim that favors us all.

Universalization of this historic treaty and its full implementation are indeed not simple tasks, and yet they are as crucial and urgent as they are complex. For the ICRC, as an issue close to heart of the Movement, and having witnessed firsthand the unprecedented devastation caused by nuclear weapons, it is indeed our primary motivator to lead and support efforts that will one day help us realize a world where the taboo against and the prohibition on nuclear weapons will be held universally and our younger generations will not have to bear this burden. – ICRC