MAPW President, Dr Margaret Beavis on Banning nuclear weapons : why does it matter and what can we do about it?

Writing in the Australian Medical Association (AMA) Victorian monthly vicdoc, MAPW President Dr Margaret Beavis, sets out why banning nuclear weapons is important and how a ban will be achieved. 

Banning nuclear weapons:

Why does it matter and what can we do about it? As doctors, a major cornerstone of our work involves preventing death and disability. Earlier this year the AMA Federal Council unanimously voted on a resolution to encourage our government to ban and abolish nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons have long been the ultimate weapon of mass destruction, and with almost 16,000 remaining in the world it is only a matter of time before they are used - either by a nation, a rogue group or an individual.   We have bans on chemical and biological weapons, cluster munitions and landmines. Yet nuclear weapons remain legal.Nuclear weapons obliterate whole cities in a moment.  Less known is their potential for devastating impact on our climate, and subsequent mass starvation.  Even a limited nuclear war – perhaps a breakdown in the tense standoff between Pakistan and India - would create a particulate cloud resulting in a decade-long worldwide nuclear winter[1]. Detailed modelling of corn, rice and wheat crop yields finds lasting reductions, putting up to 2 billion people at risk of death by starvation[2].The International Red Cross Red Crescent Movement (IRCRC) has declared there is no possible humanitarian response to a nuclear attack. The doctors, nurses and hospitals are destroyed. As a result the IRCRC supports the only possible approach, which is to work for their elimination.  A ban would be a two-step process. Once made illegal, countries would then work out the nuts and bolts of stockpile destruction and verification.   The nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPTi) has long promised the elimination of nuclear weapons. And over several decades the world’s nuclear arsenal has shrunk from over 50,000 warheads to 16,000.  But in reality the weapons we have now are many times more powerful. This year’s round of NPTi negotiations again failed to produce any concrete steps to disarm.   Existing measures have steadily lost credibility. After US President Obama and then Russian President Medvedev signed the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the US congress only ratified the Treaty when US$85 billion was allocated to nuclear weapons modernisation. This subsequently more than quadrupled to US$355 billon to be spent in the coming decade[3].  Not only is this a complete failure of disarmament, just imagine what these vast funds could achieve in healthcare, education and foreign aid.   Given the failure of the NPTi, a new process was needed. In 2007 the Medical Association for Prevention of War (Australia) launched ICANi - the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear weapons. This has been an amazing success story, with ICANi now having over 400 partner organisations in 95 countries. Over the last 2 years ICANi has been instrumental in three government level conferences outlining the appalling humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons- held in Norway, Mexico and Austria. 158 governments attended the most recent in December last year. This year 121 nations (and counting) have signed on to the Humanitarian Pledge, which commits to the creation of a legal ban.   As mentioned earlier, in March the Federal Council of the AMA unanimously endorsed a resolution calling for government to support the banning and elimination of nuclear weapons. In October this very strong resolution was taken to the World Medical Association conference in Moscow and again endorsed unanimously. This meeting included representatives from National Medical Associations in the USA, Russia, France, China and the UK - all countries with extensive nuclear weapons arsenals. Outlawing nuclear weapons is not a radical proposition: it enjoys widespread support among nations and humanitarian movements like the IRCRC. Indeed, a 2014 Neilson survey found 84% of Australians were supportive or strongly supportive of Australia’s government joining international efforts to ban nuclear weapons. Yet the Australian government has not supported the current process.   Since the WMA resolution, very recently there have been further positive developments.In early November, the disarmament and international security committee of the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Humanitarian Pledge in the form of a resolution. Of the 157 nations that cast a vote, 128 (77%) were in favour. This encouraging development is the next step towards an international working group developing wording for a ban.The AMA has taken a powerful stand on this critical issue. We now need to ensure the Australian government takes concrete action to support disarmament. Please consider contacting your local MP to urge that Australia signs on to the Humanitarian Pledge. And please consider joining MAPW. In this world of conflict, death and ever increasing numbers of refugees, we can use our expertise as credible advocates about the health impacts of war, and continue to work to produce effective outcomes.
1. Toon, O. B., Turco, R.P., Robock, A., Bardeen, C., Oman, L., Stenchikov, G.L.,2007: Atmospheric effects and societal consequences of regional scale nuclear conflicts and acts on individual nuclear terrorism. Atm.Chem.Phys., 7, 1973-2002.   2. Helfand, I. 2013: Nuclear Famine: Two billion people at risk.  Physicians for Social Responsibility.   3. Sanger D.G., Broad W.J.  2014 U.S. Ramping Up Major Renewal in Nuclear Arms New York Times 21 September 2014 accessed 3/8/2105