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Nuclear weapons abolition – a fundamental human right in a democratic world

January 7, 2009

From December 11-13, 2008, IPPNW Co-Presidents Ime John and Vappu Taipale participated in the 9th Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates in Paris, France. The theme of the summit was “human rights and a world without violence,” and it coincided with the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Drs. John and Taipale gave the speeches that follow, and were instrumental in drafting the Summit press statement, which stated:  “There is no greater threat to human rights than nuclear weapons. We call for the global legally verifiable elimination of all nuclear weapons through the prompt adoption of a nuclear weapons convention.’’


Nuclear weapons abolition – a fundamental human right in a democratic world

Dr. Ime A. John

Co-President, IPPNW

Mr Chairman,
Fellow Nobel Laureates and Nobel Laureates Organisations
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen

It gives me great pleasure to address this distinguished assembly of Leaders and Statesmen who have excelled in so many important endeavours to achieve a more peaceful world in which human dignity and security have the highest priority. I also wish to thank the Gorbachev Foundation for its unwavering commitment to engage and nurture a community of Nobel Laureates during the nine years in which it has sponsored these annual summits.

This year’s theme, “Human rights and a world without violence,” is not only timely, but urgent in our present world, where the Universal Declaration adopted 60 years ago must not only be preserved and respected in its original intent, but must be adapted to encompass and guarantee human rights in social, political, and cultural contexts that have changed and evolved — sometimes dramatically — since 1948.

We are used to thinking about the right to health, the right to a secure environment, and the right to live free of fear and oppression as fundamental human rights. In a world awash in nuclear weapons, a commitment to human rights must also be a commitment to a world in which the threat of nuclear annihilation is eliminated. A world in which each generation, in pursuit of its own human rights, makes a promise to protect the right to existence of the next generation, and the ones after that. Therefore, I have decided to address the topic of nuclear weapons abolition as a fundamental human right in a democratic world.

Human societies have long searched for more peaceful ways to resolve conflicts and to settle disputes on the basis of equity and fair play. Yet nations continue to seek domination over each other through war and the exercise of raw power. It was no coincidence that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was conceived and adopted in the years just after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while the world was still recoiling in horror from the introduction of weapons of mass destruction into a world that had already exhausted itself in two world wars and the deaths of tens of millions — combatants and non-combatants alike.  We still see the consequences of that egregious affront to human rights and human dignity in the faces of the Hibakusha and their families.

The international community has made more than one attempt to abolish these instruments of mass extermination and to ensure that they will never be used again. Those attempts have been only partially successful, but persisted throughout the decades of the nuclear age, most recently in the form of resolutions on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation passed by the First Committee of the UN in October and adopted by the General Assembly in December. Within the past year, a chorus of prominent voices has begun to call seriously for a nuclear-weapons-free world. In a now-famous pair of editorials in the Wall Street Journal, George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, and William Perry broke ranks with the nuclear cold warriors and echoed what IPPNW and other Nobel Laureates had been saying for decades — that we would either abolish nuclear weapons or they would abolish us. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon told the East-West Institute on 24 October that “a world free of nuclear weapons would be a global public good of the highest order,” and said that the Model Nuclear Weapons Convention drafted by NGOs and championed by Costa Rica and Malaysia would be a good starting point. During his successful election campaign, President-Elect Barack Obama said that he wanted to provide leadership toward a nuclear-weapons-free world. India has resurrected the Rajiv Gandhi nuclear disarmament plan, and even President Sarkozy of France has now endorsed the goal of abolition.

Nevertheless, the good-faith commitment to nuclear disarmament enshrined in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) remains unfulfilled, and the nuclear weapon states, without exception, are modernizing their nuclear arsenals and the infrastructures that will produce new weapons well into this century. Some nuclear weapon states are not party to the NPT, and many non-nuclear-weapon states that are NPT members are losing patience with a double standard that has dragged on for almost 40 years. The failure to complete this long overdue task is not only a threat to global security, but poses a serious danger to the human rights of people in all countries of the world. These dangers are too often imposed on citizens who do not have a meaningful say on matters of global life and death. What is this, if not a human rights violation of the highest order?

Role of democracy
In the 1980s, millions of people around the world demonstrated in the streets for nuclear disarmament, while decision makers said the idea of a nuclear-weapons-free world was naïve and impractical. Today, the situation is strangely reversed, with serious statesmen and diplomats asserting that a world without nuclear weapons is a necessity, while the public is largely silent, preoccupied with other critical issues such as global warming and the economic crisis. Yet when asked, citizens of countries throughout the world express opinions in support of a Nuclear Weapons Convention. We find ourselves in a historical moment when the voices of the civil society and the voices of the powerful can make common cause in promoting a nuclear free world.

Will the Obama administration fulfill the President-Elect’s pledge to rid the world of these weapons? What of Russia, the UK, France and China? Can the democratic institutions in these Countries be placed in the service of this ultimate human rights project? How do we respond to countries such as Iran, which claim a human right to develop nuclear facilities for energy, but which leave the world anxious about their intentions? South Africa, which once had a nuclear weapons capability, renounced it, but now nuclear energy is making  resurgence. Even my own country, Nigeria, is working seriously to acquire nuclear energy technologies that are only a few steps removed from a bomb-making capability.

Many non-nuclear-weapon states have already come together in exercises of democracy resulting in the creation of nuclear free zones in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. They are contributing to the momentum building up within civil society for nuclear abolition.

The call itself is not new. The World Health Assembly adopted a resolution in 1983 asserting that “nuclear weapons constitute the greatest immediate threat to the health and survival of mankind.” The World Medical Association condemned nuclear weapons in 1998, and just renewed its call for their elimination at this year’s WMA annual meeting in Seoul, in October.

IPPNW, which has mobilized physicians and medical students in 62 countries to educate the public and decision makers about the irremediable medical consequences of nuclear war, launched the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) in 2007. The goal of ICAN is to reawaken public concern about the growing threat posed by nuclear weapons, and to mobilize civil society to demand a nuclear-weapon-free world through the negotiation and adoption of a Nuclear Weapons Convention. The international community reached such agreements on chemical and biological weapons, on landmines, and, most recently, on cluster munitions. There is no reason, other than political resistance, why we cannot come to agreement around the prohibition of nuclear weapons as well.

Nuclear abolition and a healthy world
The WHO has made it clear that the definition of health encompasses far more than freedom from diseases and their symptoms, but that health is “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being.” Nuclear war — and security policies based on the capability to threaten the use of nuclear weapons — is the antithesis of health as defined by the WHO. Our fundamental message — that doctors can offer NO meaningful medical response to a nuclear war, and that prevention is the only responsible option — has not changed from the earliest days of our movement.

Chairman and Colleagues,
With tensions in the Caucasus, the Middle East, Africa, South Asia and elsewhere, the world must take a decision about security and freedom from the devastation of armed conflict as a human right. As Nobel Peace Laureates, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to engage with political decision makers in promoting a concrete agenda for health, security, human dignity, and human rights. A convention that abolishes nuclear weapons is an important advancement of fundamental human rights that can no longer be postponed.
Thank you for attention.


Women and mothers promoters of change –
a total global freeze of  military expenditure is needed now to face the global economical situation

Vappu Taipale

Co-President, IPPNW

IPPNW is a physician’s movement and therefore we look at the world through our profession. When IPPNW was set up in the early 1980s, the fear of a nuclear war was very real and palpable. Prevention of nuclear war was our urgent priority in health.

Today the environment of world politics is different. Still, the nuclear weapons have not disappeared; the stores are there and even refilled with increasingly modern technology. The imagined threat has become weaker, if not forgotten. But a disease will not disappear just by rejecting information about it and a cancer will not heal just by making it disappear from our consciousness.

There have been dramatic reductions in mortality in all industrialised countries, particularly for infants and children. However, this overall improvement masks less favourable trends: there are systematic differences in health across the population within all countries. Especially the situation as regards mental health and mental sickness has steadily deteriorated in the developing countries and particularly among poor people. Even the rich countries face a steady increase in depression, suicide and anxiety disorders but do not show much ambition and progress in the mental health field.

There is an uneven distribution of health and disease, favouring those in socially advantaged position, whether measured by income, education, occupation or other measures of socio-economic status. In fact, the world has grown more unequal. The WHO rapport on Social Determinants of Health (2008) has pointed out the crucial importance of social justice in health. Today, the problem still exists: human rights are violated and there is structural violence as to people´s rights to health.

Poverty and poverty-bound ill-health means that opportunities and choices most basic to human development are denied. Health is one of the most prominent choice people everywhere in the world appreciate. The world has today the material and natural resources, the know-how and the people to make a poverty-free world a reality in less than a generation. This requires conscious policies and a strong civil society everywhere.

When investing in child human rights and child health, some of the measures are taken on a macro scale, on the level of the society in general. These measures include the provision of education and training, safeguarding the economic circumstances of families with children, and a long-term family policy. Some of the measures are environmental, because it has become more and more difficult to guarantee the basic qualities of environment to the children: healthy food, fresh air and pure water — just the challenges from the beginning of the hygienic movement in the 19th century.

I am mother of four children and grandmother of six. As a child psychiatrist I was one of the first in IPPNW to raise the issue of children and war on our agenda. Militarism means subordinating of the values of the society to the needs of the war and to the preparation of war. Militarism can be structural; it can be targeted to the minds of people or reach the behaviour of people. Children have always been, as a part of any human society, influenced by famines, illnesses, conflicts and occupations, eye witnessing human violence and participating in many ways in crises and warfare. Methods and means of warfare have become increasingly sophisticated. Conflicts opposing regular armed forces and irregular combatants are more frequent. In modern warfare, losses are much more severe among civilians, and they even are consequently growing in severity all the time. Military expenditure in the world is high, consuming resources needed to alleviate poverty and to reach Millennium Development Goals.


we mothers and women are here to protect our children.

The major economic recession which affects all the countries will hit children worst and have several consequences during next decades. All the nations should freeze immediately their military expenditure in order to protect their children. This will serve as the first step to total nuclear disarmament, to protect human rights and to build up a world without violence.

There are positive signs to be found in the world during last months. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has uttered his strong will to nuclear disarmament as well as President –elect Barack Obama. President Nicholas Sarkozy, France holding the presidency of European Union has come out with strong support to nuclear abolition. Global Zero group has prominent members and supporters.

Future innovations are neither merely macroeconomic nor technical but social. They involve increased social understanding, deeper cultural interpretations, better co-operation between different scientific fields, and enhanced dialogue between science, civil society and politics.

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