Humanitarian Initiative

The catastrophic, persistent effects of nuclear weapons on our health, societies and the environment must be at the centre of all public and diplomatic discussions about nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. This is the basic principle underpinning what has become known as the Humanitarian Initiative.

From 2010, governments, the international Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, various United Nations agencies, and non-government organizations began working together to reframe the debate on nuclear weapons – giving rise to the groundbreaking UN process to negotiate a global prohibition on nuclear weapons.

ICAN was a central part of this initiative from its beginning, serving as the civil society partner for three major intergovernmental conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, and at every opportunity encouraging governments to work with urgency to achieve the ban. Here are some of the defining moments.


May 2010: Non-Proliferation Treaty conference

In the final document adopted by consensus at the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference in 2010, parties to the treaty express their “deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons”. This gives impetus to future statements and conferences on the subject.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jody Williams speaks at an ICAN side event at the conference.


November 2011: Red Cross resolution

The international Red Cross and Red Crescent movement – the largest humanitarian organization in the world – adopts a landmark resolution appealing to all nations to negotiate a “legally binding international agreement” to prohibit and completely eliminate nuclear weapons. Nuclear disarmament becomes a top Red Cross priority.

Red Cross leader Jakob Kellenberger calls for an end to “the era of nuclear weapons”.


May 2012: First humanitarian statement

On behalf of 16 nations, Switzerland delivers the first in a series of joint statements on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, urging all nations to “intensify their efforts to outlaw nuclear weapons”. Support for this humanitarian call grows with each new statement. Eventually, 159 nations – four-fifths of all UN members – sign on.

The NPT meeting in Vienna in 2012 at which the first humanitarian statement is delivered.


March 2013: Oslo conference

Eager to strengthen the evidence base for prohibiting and eliminating nuclear weapons, Norway hosts the first-ever intergovernmental conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, attended by 128 nations. Relief agencies declare that they would be powerless to respond meaningfully in the aftermath of a nuclear attack.

ICAN video statement →

Actor and activist Martin Sheen addresses an ICAN forum ahead of the Oslo conference.


February 2014: Nayarit conference

Mexico hosts the second humanitarian impact conference, in Nayarit, with 146 nations present. The chair calls for the launch of a “diplomatic process” to negotiate a “legally binding instrument” to prohibit nuclear weapons – a necessary precondition, he says, for achieving elimination. He declares the conference “a point of no return”.

ICAN video statement →

ICAN delivers a video statement at the Nayarit conference.


December 2014: Vienna conference

A record 158 nations participate in the third conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, in Vienna, which concludes with a pledge to cooperate in efforts to “fill the legal gap” in the international regime governing nuclear weapons. Within months, 127 nations endorse the document, known as the Humanitarian Pledge.

ICAN video statement →

Six hundred ICAN campaigners gather in Vienna ahead of the conference.


August 2015: Hiroshima and Nagasaki anniversaries

Organizations throughout the world hold events on 6 and 9 August 2015 to mark 70 years since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which claimed more than a quarter of a million lives. ICAN urges governments to fulfil the Humanitarian Pledge by launching a process to negotiate a global ban on nuclear weapons.


August 2016: UN working group in Geneva

A special UN working group on nuclear disarmament meets in Geneva in February, May and August 2016 to discuss new legal measures to achieve a nuclear-weapon-free world. It recommends the negotiation of a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons – a decision that the Red Cross describes as having “potentially historic implications”.

Governments vote overwhelmingly in favour of adopting the working group’s report.


December 2016: UN General Assembly resolution

The United Nations General Assembly adopts a landmark resolution to convene a conference in 2017 to negotiate “a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination”. The decision heralds an end to two decades of paralysis in multilateral nuclear disarmament efforts.

The First Committee of the General Assembly adopts the resolution on 27 October 2016.


July 2017: Nuclear weapon ban treaty adopted

Following a decade of advocacy by ICAN and its partners, and weeks of negotiations at the UN headquarters in New York, an overwhelming majority of the world’s nations vote in favour of adopting a landmark global agreement to ban nuclear weapons, known officially as the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

Elayne Whyte Gomez, who chaired the negotiations, celebrates as the treaty is adopted.