Nuclear weapons

Any use of nuclear weapons would be catastrophic, and very likely beyond any capacity of humanitarians to help. That is one of the main reasons Red Cross believes that nuclear weapons should never be used. In the work toward a nuclear-free future, there remain reasons for hope, and reasons for concern.

Leading the way to a nuclear-free future

New Zealand has long advocated for the elimination of nuclear weapons. It was one of the first signatories of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which aimed to prevent states without nuclear weapons from acquiring them. The five states already possessing them pledged in the NPT to a process of disarmament, but progress has been very slow for over 50 years.

The 2016 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) is an important milestone in the ongoing effort to secure a global ban on the use of nuclear weapons.

The New Zealand Government ratified the TPNW in 2018, the 14th state to do so. New Zealand has a significant leadership role, particularly in encouraging other states to support and implement the treaty.

To ensure that nuclear weapons are never used again and are completely eliminated, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement calls on states to join other signatories of the TPNW and to fulfill their longstanding nuclear disarmament obligations and commitments.

Nuclear weapons and humanitarian assistance

There is presently no effective way of delivering humanitarian assistance after a nuclear blast. The scale of destruction, the radiation and the enormous number of people affected would create serious challenges for aid organisations.

Following an explosion, an overwhelming number of people would need immediate treatment. However, in the affected area, most medical personnel would be dead or injured. The blast would destroy local medical centres and any surviving medical supplies would be quickly used up.

Many who survived the explosion would later die from radiation sickness. Survivors would also face an increased risk of developing cancers like leukaemia and thyroid cancer. These long-term effects are still being felt in Japan, where nuclear weapons were used in 1945. The impact also continues in the Pacific, where nuclear testing occurred over decades until the middle of the 1990s.

The radiation would also pose serious health risks to humanitarian aid providers. Special protection measures would need to be taken, complicating the response. The humanitarian impacts would be profound and long lasting, across a wide area, and beyond the capacity of humanitarian response. As a humanitarian concern, we work with others in the international community toward a ban on nuclear weapons.

Related reading:

Effects of nuclear weapons on human health (PDF)
Nuclear weapons and the challenges for providing humanitarian assistance (PDF)

Nuclear weapons and international humanitarian law

International humanitarian law (IHL) restricts how all weapons may be used in armed conflict. These rules state that attacks must not be directed at civilians. IHL also prohibits attacks which do not distinguish between military targets and civilians, and requires protection of the natural environment.

The use of nuclear weapons would be very likely to be incompatible with key principles of IHL. The Red Cross is concerned that nuclear weapons would harm combatants and civilians without distinction. Detonating weapons could immediately cause large numbers of civilian deaths and injuries. The resulting fires, firestorms and radioactive fallout could increase the number of casualties even further. 

A nuclear blast could cause extensive damage to infrastructure that supports civilians, which are designated ‘civilian objects’ and prohibited from attack. It could affect the global climate, food production and the health of future generations.

Related reading:

Nuclear weapons and international humanitarian law (PDF)

How can I help?

You can be an advocate and join the movement calling for all states to ban nuclear weapons use.

  • Spread the word – through your social media and personal platform, share the message of nuclear disarmament. Share the New Zealand Red Cross and International Committee of Red Cross’ messages.
  • Become an IHL champion – connect with us by emailing You’ll find out about opportunities to learn more and connect to the International Humanitarian Law community in New Zealand.