Nuclear disarmament sessions at Medact’s Health Through Peace Forum

November 26, 2015

ICAN UK partnered with Medact to put together the nuclear disarmament sessions at Medact’s Health Through Peace Forum, an extraordinary two-day conference which brought together 700 health professionals, campaigners and students to tackle some of the most challenging global issues.

The motivation for medical professionals to take an active part in the fight against nuclear weapons was articulated by Dr Lesley Morrison, a Scottish GP who has protested at the Faslane nuclear weapons base (left).

Dr Frank Boulton of Medact said: “There is no way that emergency services could respond to one nuclear detonation, let alone nuclear war”, adding that more needs to be done to educate British medical students on the reality and psychosocial impact of nuclear weapons.

Reflecting on the history of medical campaigning for nuclear disarmament, Elena Carter presented some of the fantastic posters from the Medact archive, which is now held at the Wellcome Library.

“Warnings from scientists and medical professionals have had a powerful effect. Physicians have made a difference, can make a difference & will make a difference. Humanitarian evidence can trump military arguments. Prospects are good for progress towards a global nuclear weapons ban” – Professor Tillman Ruff, a leading member of both IPPNW (International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War) and ICAN international.


Unpicking nuclear deterrence theory

Kate Hudson of CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) opened this session by stating that “NHS not Trident” is CND’s most popular slogan. She invited people to join CND’s demonstration on February 27th in London – “we have an extraordinary opportunity to marginalise Trident nuclear weapons and show the huge scale of opposition”. Paul Ingram of BASIC (British American Security Council) said that “nuclear weapons give countries a bizarre and irrational feeling of invulnerability” and explained the importance of highlighting the risks involved, as the Humanitarian Initiative is doing. Richard Norton-Taylor of the Guardian argued that “it’s a question of credibility… Nuclear deterrence is just a theory”, and went on to quote in full a brilliantly ridiculous exchange from ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ to illustrate his point.


Humanitarian initiative to stigmatize, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons

We were honoured to have a representative of the Austrian Embassy in London to explain why her country is so deeply committed to the Humanitarian Initiative. Monika Zach (First Secretary, Political Section) explained that “the legitimacy, as much as the legality, of nuclear weapons is challenged by the Humanitarian Initiative”, in which Austria has played a leading role. “As long as nuclear weapons exist, the whole world’s security is put at risk”, she said. Dr Beyza Unal (right), a Research Fellow with the International Security Department at Chatham House,
argued that an assessment of “probability times consequences” shows that the risk of nuclear detonation is actually increasing. She called for “a human security approach to the post cold war world”. Rebecca Sharkey of ICAN UK described the growing international momentum towards a treaty banning nuclear weapons – 121 countries have endorsed the ‘Humanitarian Pledge‘ to “stigmatize, prohibit and eliminate” nuclear weapons in light of their catastrophic consequences. “It’s time to scrap Trident and support an international treaty banning nuclear weapons. This is not a radical proposal”, she said.

Launching their new ‘Don’t Bank on the Bomb’ report, Wilbert van der Zeijden and Maaike Beenes of PAX said that a divestment approach adds to the growing stigma on nuclear weapons and highlights the unacceptable ‘legal gap’ whereby nuclear weapons are the only WMD not explicitly prohibited under international law. The Cooperative Bank is the only UK financial institution named in the report’s ‘Hall of Fame’ for not investing in nuclear weapons; Royal Bank of Scotland ranked highest in the ‘Hall of Shame’…

“This is not the future that must be; this is the future that will be if we do not take action now”

The following day, Dr Ira Helfand of IPPNW gave a terrifying but inspiring plenary talk arguing passionately that “eliminating nuclear weapons should be the highest priority for health professionals”. He explained that the worldwide climate disruption following the detonation of nuclear weapons would be profound and catastrophic, both in the immediate and longer term. Two billion people could be at risk of starvation due to global nuclear winter – a scenario which could come about if the nuclear warheads on just one of the UK’s four Trident submarines are detonated. Showing a map of London, Dr Helfand described the horrific impact of a nuclear detonation over the capital. Addressing particularly the medical students in the audience, he finished with a challenge: “This is not the fight of previous generations. You have an opportunity to change the world, and that is a very good thing to do”.

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