Remarks upon 76th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki   

Disarmament and Arms Control

Remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki Online Forum


76 years ago today, during World War II, the unthinkable happened. As the people of Hiroshima were starting their day, an atomic bomb was detonated above their heads. A sudden, blinding pink and white light penetrated everything. This was followed by a suffocating heat and blast wave that swept away all in its wake. Buildings were collapsed and then engulfed in flames, as the city was reduced to rubble.

Those closest to the blast were vaporised, their only remains a blackened shadow burned into the scorched earth. 70,000 people died on impact, and a sickening new force had been unleashed.

Those further from the blast had their skin burnt from their bodies. Many more suffered radiation sickness, attacking their very DNA, causing catastrophic internal haemorrhaging and organ failure.

Three days later, just as news was beginning to reach those in other parts of the country, the people of Nagasaki fell to the same devastating fate. 40,000 civilians were instantly killed. In the five years that followed, 340,000 people – the vast majority civilians – had succumbed to the attacks. The landscape of warfare was changed forever.

It’s very important that we continue to honour the victims of these attacks, and we heed the message of the survivors loud and clear. Namely, that nuclear weapons are an unacceptable and inhumane weapon by their very nature, and their very existence should be abolished. 

So too must we heed the message of our neighbours in the Pacific, who too have first-hand experience of the horrors of nuclear weapons. We stand with our brothers and sisters across the region in demanding justice for the nuclear testing regimes they experienced at the hands of the world’s most powerful countries.

The devastating legacy of world powers testing their atomic weapon on the lands of indigenous populations – forcibly removing and dislocating communities and devastating their ecosystems with atomic bombs – continues to reverberate around the region. 

Covid-19 has challenged us – it has thrown up important questions around pandemic preparedness. But what if we faced something much worse – something that in all probability could not be responded to.

As long as nuclear weapons continue to exist, the prospect of nuclear war remains all too real – whether it is front and centre of the public consciousness or not. In reality, nuclear war would be the largest humanitarian emergency in history. It would involve a health crisis that would immediately overwhelm our hospitals, an environmental catastrophe that could not be remedied, and near certain economic collapse. Indeed, human survival would be in the very balance.

And yet nine countries still possess a total of 13,000 nuclear weapons. 76 years today after their first – and combined with the attack on Nagasaki, their only – use as an offensive weapon; 51 years after most of the international community committed to disarming itself from such devastating weapons by agreeing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Of course, we have made important progress in that time. The United States and Russia – the two largest nuclear powers – have agreed that a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought; a statement that their two leaders have recently reaffirmed. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was negotiated. Arms control agreements have been drawn up. And arsenals have come down from their Cold War peaks.

But, there are still unacceptable gaps and delays in compliance with the obligations and commitments States have under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

It’s well beyond time that the world’s biggest powers shouldered their special responsibility and convened multilateral negotiations to disarm their arsenals.

Instead, we are seeing massive investments of trillions of dollars in nuclear weapons, including in modernisation programmes. We are watching a new nuclear arms race unfold, featuring weapons with dangerously destabilising enhancements. We are seeing increases in some nuclear stockpiles, and reductions in transparency. We are continuing to face the risks of nuclear weapons, including the many thousands that are kept on hair trigger alert. And we are confronted with the reality that some states continue to contemplate the use of nuclear weapons, with all the catastrophic consequences for current and future generations and for the environment that we are so well aware of.

Nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction. Their use in virtually all theatres of war have been determined to be completely at odds with International Humanitarian Law. Alongside the other two weapons of mass destruction – biological and chemical weapons – they have been categorically outlawed under legally-binding Treaties.

I do not pretend, however, that our road to eliminating nuclear weapons will be easy. But we must make progress - our survival could very well depend upon it.

The bombs in today’s nuclear arsenals are many times more powerful than the two used in 1945. The carnage they would unleash would be more long-lasting, with unthinkable humanitarian costs that no state could ever respond to. Their consequences are far too horrendous.

For these reasons, New Zealand has long been at the forefront of international efforts to advance a progressive vision of disarmament, working with partners from across the globe whether as a member of the New Agenda Coalition, the De-alerting Group, and more recently the Stockholm Initiative. We thank all of our partners – whether States, civil society or activists – for your creativity, ambition and partnership in each of the groups we are active in.

In 2017, New Zealand along with our partners launched negotiations on a Treaty to ban nuclear weapons. Earlier this year, that Treaty entered into force. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons represents the brightest spot on the nuclear disarmament agenda.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists – the group responsible for setting the Doomsday Clock – have called it a glimmer of hope against a dark nuclear landscape.

The Treaty brings much-needed attention to the risks posed by nuclear weapons. And I encourage all those listening today to get involved with it. Talk with your friends and family overseas, especially those live in the nuclear powers, about mobilising to support the movement. We must learn the lesson of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Eliminating nuclear weapons would be one of the greatest acts of humanity we could collectively achieve. It’s the only act that will go some way to redressing the countless victims that perished on the mornings of 6 August 1945 in Hiroshima and three days later on 9 August 1945 in Nagasaki, and all those that have suffered from nuclear tests in the decades that followed. 

To all of the victims, the Hibakusha, your courage and strength lives on in our mission.