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Anatomy of an IPPNW Stalwart

April 9, 2010

The following profile of IPPNW board member and chair of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) Tilman Ruff appeared in The Age and was written by Jo Chandler.

WHAT makes an activist?

What compels someone to spend the bulk of their working life pursuing, pro bono, the most noble, consuming and seemingly – until maybe, just maybe, this week – hopeless of causes? What enables that person to continue to focus on collective safety even after a close call with personal mortality?

These are the questions you take to a meeting with Associate Professor Tilman Ruff, part-time physician, full-time campaigner against nuclear arms, and cancer survivor – a doctor who considers protecting the world from nuclear arms as fundamental to public health as the vaccines he dispenses. An old-school leftie who headbutts the Rudd government over nuclear inertia while consorting with the likes of former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser and former military chiefs to espouse ambitious nuclear disarmament ideology.

Right now, Ruff is a hopeful man. Cautiously hopeful. With many caveats – much like the overhauled American strategic policy limiting the use of nuclear weapons released this week by President Barack Obama. Ruff says the vision of a world without nuclear weapons, while still too distant, feels closer. Maybe closer than at any time since the nuclear age exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Ruff was born a decade after that moment, in Adelaide, in 1955. For most Australians of that era, war loomed as a shadow rather than a reality – a menacing spectre through the Cold War chill. It crept up, too close for comfort, during the Vietnam War. It haunted the ancient history of parents, many of whom would just as soon forget.

But not Tilman Ruff’s family, where the impact of two world wars on two generations still resonated, raw and real. The memories lingered so powerfully in family lore they imprinted on young Tilman, born into peace, but formed under the dark cloud of nuclear fallout.

When the next war comes, I want the first bomb to drop on my head,” his grandmother used to say. ” I don’t want to live through another one.” Three of his grandfather’s brothers had been killed in fighting.

The proximity of war could not be denied in such a family, Ruff acknowledges over coffee in Carlton, downstairs from his office at the Nossal Institute of Global Health, deep in the academia precinct. As he talks, it emerges that he comes from a long line of forebears who determinedly set out to live their beliefs despite the hardships. Therein lie the makings of an anti-war warrior.

Ruff’s great-grandparents left Germany for Palestine in the mid-1800s to establish a utopian Christian enclave in the Holy Land, committed to peace. Ruff describes them as idealists and free thinkers who left behind dogma, ordained clergy and repressive German Protestant orthodoxy for a new life founded on the most basic Christian principle – ”love your neighbour as you love yourself”. They set up schools and farms, contriving a community until the family interned in Egypt through World War I.

They returned to their farms until the next war started, when they were put on a ship bound for who knows where, with all the portholes blacked out to ensure they didn’t signal to passing German submarines. They eventually found themselves in Australia, where they were interned in a camp in dairy country in Tatura, northern Victoria, until 1947.

The family settled into life in a new country but clung to the faith and customs of their heritage in the way of so many diaspora communities. Tilman’s father, Dieter Ruff, an engineer, moved his family to Melbourne’s eastern suburbs and became leader of their religious community, the Temple Society.

Dieter gave his son a broad spiritual grounding that sustains him to this day, including introducing him to Buddhism and meditation. What he would not manage to pass on, ultimately, was his Christian belief.

At Glen Waverley High School, as a teenager, Ruff was heavily influenced by both his family’s social-justice doctrine and by an activist older cousin – ”kind of a ratbag communist”. He joined what he believes was the world’s first high school branch of Amnesty International. He wrote letters supporting the prisoners including a young man from Crete, locked up by the military junta for writing a slogan on a wall.

”He was released. How much was due to our efforts we couldn’t know, but his family were enormously grateful.” The sense that writing letters, that taking an interest in a distant being, had made a difference ”was incredibly empowering”.

His fledgling activism was stoked by the momentum of the movement against the Vietnam War. ”My father and I didn’t necessarily see eye to eye on a lot of things at that stage, but he did something then that was very important for me,” Ruff recalls. ”He wrote to the principal and said, ‘I don’t necessarily agree with Tilman, but he feels very strongly about this, and I’d be grateful if you would excuse him from school – he wants to go to the moratorium.’ ”

There he was, at 15, ”being on the streets with 100,000 people in Melbourne, feeling you could be part of a greater movement to change history”. Ruff became increasingly involved with student and Christian movements, with human rights support work.

Activism paused when he knuckled down to medical studies. On graduating, rather than settling into a life defined by career and family, Ruff found himself drawn back to campaigning.

His course was inspired by two people, both doctors who defined the threat of nuclear war as the most urgent and fearsome hazard to human health. One was Melbourne activist Dr Helen Caldicott, the other was a distinguished cardiologist from Boston called Bernard Lown, co-founder of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW).

The group was set up by physicians from the US and the former Soviet Union articulating the first principle of their profession – that doctors have an obligation to prevent what they cannot treat. They began the task of trying to explain the cataclysmic medical and scientific facts about nuclear war to policymakers and the public, exposing the weakness of civil defence strategies.

Ruff joined the group’s world conference in 1985, the year it won the Nobel Peace Prize. ”It was the most powerful moment … We really made a difference.

”[Former Soviet president Mikhail] Gorbachev later said repeatedly that the end of the Cold War would not have happened without the medical evidence that really brought home to him the devastating consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and the impossibility of any meaningful medical response.”

The 1980s were a busy time. Alongside his nuclear advocacy, Ruff was working in his day job as an infectious diseases specialist. It was an era when vaccines were offering new hope on many frontiers, while HIV emerged as a diabolical new threat.

But disarmament work cemented itself as Ruff’s core passion.

The thing that really spurred me on was becoming a parent. This extraordinary, unquestioning, complete devotion and love you feel for your kids … It is a critical parenting task to make the world safe for them – just like making sure they don’t get hit by cars and that they eat well.

Then in 1989, in Hiroshima for another disarmament congress, Ruff went to the bathroom and found himself passing not urine, but lots of blood. He soon underwent radical surgery for aggressive cancer. His bladder was removed and he was ”replumbed”. His health is not without its hiccups today, but he is mostly well.

He wonders sometimes about the clouds of radiation that tracked over southern Australia in the ’50s after nuclear testing in the deserts. He knows all about the particular vulnerability of unborn babies and young children to such isotopes. His surgeon told him he had never taken a cancerous bladder out of someone so young before – he was 34. Might nuclear weapons have shaped more than his professional and political destiny? He shrugs – he will never know.

In an essay he wrote about the cancer last year, Ruff reflected that ”such experiences remind one of the precious and fragile gifts of life and health, that neither can ever be taken for granted, that every day should be fully lived, and that one should focus on what matters”.

What mattered to Ruff was to keep campaigning. Then peace broke out, and other threats emerged – such as climate change. Nuclear disarmament faded as a public preoccupation and slipped down international agendas.

”As humans, we are so poorly equipped, in terms of our hardware and our software, for dealing with issues that are diffuse and complex and for which you can’t easily assign blame,” Ruff reflects.

”After the end of the Cold War there was this kind of misguided lapse into somnolence, and a misplaced sense of relief, that the risk of nuclear confrontation was off the agenda. It wasn’t.”

In January this year the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock back from five to six minutes to midnight, recognising signs of a growing political will to tackle both climate change and the terror of nuclear weapons. ”A lot of people – including most of the leaders of nuclear states – were talking about a world free of these weapons.

”We’ve come a long way. The numbers of nuclear weapons have been reduced from the peak of 70,000 in 1986 to about 23,000 – that’s a drastic reduction.

”There have been treaties negotiated which have reduced nuclear weapons verifiably and been implemented effectively. And there is a clear legal obligation for disarmament – the non-proliferation treaty is legally binding, and it commits nuclear states to disarm.”

But there has still been more talk than walk, Ruff argues. ”There is this enormous gulf between the very fine words and the actual delivery of policy” – though the new US strategy ”is a very significant positive step”.

Ruff’s focus is fixed on a legally binding and verifiable nuclear weapons convention. His contribution, since 1996, to developing blueprints for how that might be achieved is the work he is most proud of.

Every class of indiscriminate and inhumane weapon that has been abolished has been dealt with in this way: through a treaty. Dum-dum bullets, chemical and biological weapons, landmines, cluster munitions – why not nuclear weapons? Don’t tell me this can’t be done.

He pursues the objective through the grassroots – with the global group he chairs, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) – and diplomatically, as one of two invited non-government advisers to the co-chairs of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament.

He works the top end of town. In 2007 a letter appeared in The Wall Street Journal signed by George Schultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn calling for a world free of nuclear weapons. Ruff proposed ”the Fraser Group” for Australia. Malcolm Fraser invited Sir Gustav Nossal (scientist), Dr Barry Jones (former Labor minister), General Peter Gration (former Defence Force chief), Lieutenant-General John Sanderson (former chief of the army and former governor of Western Australia) and himself. They published the first of several letters in Fairfax papers last year under the title ”Imagine There’s No Bomb”.

”That US push, from these erstwhile Cold War warriors, really in a lot of ways provided the political space for Obama to push the nuclear disarmament agenda as strongly as he has,” Ruff says.

This week that momentum has increased with the release of the US Nuclear Posture Review, which pledges not to use atomic weapons against a non-nuclear country, and the signing of a new weapons treaty between the US and Russia.

The idealist in Ruff is frustrated that it is not going further, happening faster. ”But I am enormously encouraged because we are seeing movement on multiple fronts. It’s just beginning, but you can already get a sense of it. I hope it will really accelerate during the non-proliferation treaty meeting next month.”

”This is the best chance we have had at least since the end of the Cold War, and maybe since the late 1940s, to really make serious progress – not just to reduce but to abolish nuclear weapons.”

While heartened by events in Washington, Ruff is dismayed by Canberra’s apparent inertia. ”We’ve dropped the ball,” he says. Like Obama, Rudd came to office articulating the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, ”with talk of leading the international agenda on a nuclear weapons convention, reactivating middle-power diplomacy, and nuclear disarmament being a high government priority”.

But in terms of commitment, energy and leadership, Australia has been lacking.

Australia risks not only missing out on being part of the push for the solution, Ruff argues, but inhibiting it.

”Obama has a big fight on his hands. He is the first US president elected on such a specific platform for nuclear weapons abolition. He’s really serious about trying to prosecute that agenda while facing enormous political challenges and in the face of a really obstructionist opposition. He needs all the support and encouragement he can get, and Australia is missing.”

DR TILMAN RUFF CV
BORN Adelaide.

EDUCATED Glen Waverley High School, Monash University.

FAMILY Married to Dr Charlotte Laemmle, two children – Ingrid and Kristian, 27 and 21.

CAREER Infectious diseases and public health physician focused on immunisation and nuclear disarmament.

WORKS Nossal Institute for Global Health, Melbourne University (associate professor). Consultant to AusAID, UNICEF, WHO, Australian Red Cross.

ROLES Chairman International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons; board member International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War; NGO adviser to the co-chairs of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament.

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