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The Haas peace award: IPPNW’s humanitarian message continues to resonate

November 10, 2010

I had the privilege of accepting the 2010 John and Chara Haas International Peace and Justice Award, which was given to IPPNW, the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms, and the International Peace Bureau on November 8 in Philadelphia. The award, given by the Project for Nuclear Awareness, recognized the joint effort of our organizations to obtain an advisory opinion on the illegality of nuclear weapons from the International Court of Justice. The World Court Project, as it was known, not only succeeded in persuading the ICJ to generally condemn the use of nuclear weapons as a violation of International Humanitarian Law, but also laid the groundwork for the Nuclear Weapons Convention.

Cora Weiss of IPB and Peter Weiss of IALANA spoke eloquently about the grassroots organizing and legal analysis that were key to the Project’s success. If I can track down their talks, I’ll link to them here later. I had a chance to talk about IPPNW’s contribution to the World Court Project and its relevance to our work today, particularly ICAN.


I’d like to thank the Project for Nuclear Awareness for honoring IPPNW, IALANA, and IPB with this award, which is graced by the names of two people — John and Chara Haas — who have been major lifelong supporters of the civil society movement for a peaceful, nuclear-weapons-free world. IPPNW’s gratitude to the Haas’s for their support of our work, in particular, is enormous and heartfelt.

I also want to acknowledge the IPPNW doctors who led a truly global effort to persuade the World Health Organization to petition the International Court of Justice. The late Erich Geiringer of New Zealand was the chief strategist, who helped guide our affiliates through the often challenging process of lobbying their health and foreign ministries. Anne Marie Janson of Sweden and George Salmond of New Zealand understood the workings of the World Health Assembly as well as anyone, and lobbied successfully for the adoption of WHA resolution 46.40 in 1993. Many IPPNW activists invested a great of their time and energy in the project — no one more so than our executive director Michael Christ, who spent just about every waking hour (and, knowing Michael, probably a few that he should have been sleeping) on the project.

But Michael told me last week about Manasseh Phiri of IPPNW-Zambia, who unquestionably paid the highest price. As an official government advisor to the WHA, Dr. Phirie convinced the Zambian delegation to become the first resolution co-sponsor, gathered support from other delegates, agreed to formally introduce the resolution, and personally hand-delivered the draft to secretariat. When he returned home, Dr. Phiri was fired from his medical position after the US government sent a “demarche” to Lusaka and lodged a formal protest about the Zambian WHA delegation.

What brought doctors, lawyers, and peace activists together on this project was a profound understanding that nuclear weapons by their very nature fall outside anything even remotely justifiable as an act of war under the norms of international humanitarian law. With very little effort, we could create a checklist of the violations: the infliction of unnecessary and disproportionate suffering; an inability to discriminate between combatants and non-combatants; catastrophic harm to neutral parties; the use of poisons, in this case radiation; severe, long-lasting environmental devastation. The details, if they were needed, filled volumes.

The World Court Project, though it ended with the Court’s celebrated 1996 advisory opinion, was really the beginning of a much bigger project that is only now coming to fruition.

The advisory opinion itself  — unanimous on the obligation for the international community to convene and successfully complete negotiations on nuclear disarmament — left the question of how to fulfill that obligation unanswered. We took it upon ourselves to create a roadmap and, since the publication of the first draft of the Model Nuclear Weapons Convention in Security and Survival, we have been pressing that answer on states at every opportunity, both inside and outside the UN system. Now that work is starting to pay off. A growing number of states, including some in a position to influence the behavior of the nuclear-weapon states, have started to embrace the argument that if you want global nuclear disarmament you need to negotiate global nuclear disarmament and stop wasting time on half measures. We call the focal point of such negotiations a Nuclear Weapons Convention. The name matters less than the commitment to a comprehensive, global agreement to abolish nuclear weapons.

IPPNW is a federation of doctors, not lawyers, which is why we and IPB partnered with IALANA in the first place, so that Peter and John Burroughs and their colleagues in other countries could do the heavy lifting on matters of international law and the elements of treaties, which they have done brilliantly. Our contribution — in which we have been joined by medical associations around the world including the ICRC and the World Medical Association — has been the humanitarian message, which starts with the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki but has come to embrace the stories of nuclear testing victims, nuclear industry workers, downwinders, indigenous communities exploited and sickened by the uranium mining industry, and all those whose education, health care, housing, sanitation, environmental integrity, and human dignity are sacrificed daily to military spending.

In our most recent publication, Zero Is the Only Option, we’ve reexamined the medical and environmental consequences of nuclear war in today’s circumstances, including the new scientific evidence that as few as 100 Hiroshima-size weapons targeted on megacities would not only kill 20 million people outright but would also send enough smoke and soot into the upper atmosphere to block sunlight worldwide and cause a significant global cooling and reductions in precipitation lasting for more than a decade. Growing seasons would be shortened by 10 to 20 days in many of the most important grain producing areas in the world. A huge reduction in the Earth’s protective ozone layer would have serious consequences for human health.

Were a regional nuclear war to trigger a global famine, as many as a billion people could die from starvation alone. Famine on this scale would also lead to major epidemics of infectious diseases, and would create immense potential for mass population movement, civil conflict, and war. If even a relatively small nuclear war by Cold War standards could trigger a global catastrophe, the only viable response is the complete abolition of nuclear weapons. That’s probably not news to you, but it’s a message that needs to be delivered to anyone who still labors under the misconception that nuclear weapons somehow add to our security.

We’re sacrificing the future not only to misplaced priorities, poorly understood dangers, and politically exploited anxieties but — in the worst case — to an existential threat.

One of the nuclear-weapon states, which, at the time of the World Court opinion, had not yet crossed that line, made this point clearly and without equivocation in its submission to the ICJ. Here’s what India told the Court a few years before it betrayed its own principles, tested a nuclear weapon, and built its arsenal:

It appears clear that any use of nuclear weapons as a measure of use of force to promote national policy objectives would be unlawful….Even where a wrongful act involved the use of a nuclear weapon the reprisal action cannot involve use of a nuclear weapon without violating certain fundamental principles of humanitarian law…

It is easy [emphasis added] to come to the conclusion that the use of nuclear weapons in an armed conflict is unlawful, being contrary to the conventional as well as customary international law, because such a use cannot distinguish between the combatants and non-combatants…and could even cause widespread and long-term damage which in some cases could even result in what is called a ‘nuclear winter.’

Nuclear deterrence had been considered to be abhorrent to human sentiment since it implies that a state, if required to defend its own existence, will act with pitiless disregard for the consequences to its own and adversary’s people.

Another question which arises in relation to the theory of deterrence is whether the keeping of peace or the prevention of war is to be made dependent on the threat of horrific indiscriminate destruction which justifies the stockpiling of such weapons at an enormous expense, in the hope that they will merely act as a deterrent but will not, in fact, be used. However those who do not have such weapons would all the time be racing to build them and those who already have nuclear weapons would continue to develop even more destructive weapons to maintain the superiority necessary for deterrence and this would keep humanity in the perpetual fear of total destruction….

The use of nuclear weapons, which is otherwise contrary to international law, could only be effectively prevented by eliminating completely their production, manufacture and by ensuring the dismantling of existing nuclear weapons.”

I wanted to quote from India’s submission at some length, not only because of the irony of the whole thing, but also because these are essentially the same arguments against the weapons themselves and against the theory used to justify their existence – deterrence – that we had pressed upon the international community long before the Court itself embraced this conclusion, and have pressed ever since. If the Court itself had accepted India’s argument, it would have had no problem concluding that the use of nuclear weapons is unacceptable and illegal even when the survival of a sovereign state is at stake. Fortunately, the argument for the abolition of nuclear weapons does not require this premise, although its acceptance might make the task easier.

Introducing and explaining the merits of the Nuclear Weapons Convention to states, to parliamentarians, to other NGOs, to the media, and to the public has been at or near the top of the agenda of our organizations for almost 15 years now. ICAN — the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons — was launched by IPPNW in 2007, with the Convention as its primary advocacy goal. I’d like to finish up with a few words about ICAN and extend an open invitation for everyone here to participate in the campaign.

ICAN — which is a campaign, not an organization — starts and ends with the simple belief that working for a Nuclear Weapons Convention is the basis for achieving a nuclear-weapons-free world.

There are ICAN working groups in Australia, the UK, Canada, and France, and new groups are forming in Norway, Italy, and New Zealand. In many other countries where there are not yet formal working groups — for example, Sweden, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland, India, Malaysia, Nepal, Nigeria, Mexico, Japan, New Zealand, and even the US and Russia — activists are making use of ICAN materials and the ICAN name. ICAN has just received a significant two-year grant from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to open a campaigning office in Geneva for the purpose of building and coordinating a civil society movement for a global nuclear disarmament treaty in Europe, with outreach to the Middle East and Africa.

There is no application process or organizational membership required for participating in ICAN; anyone who identifies with the goal, likes the name, and finds the materials we’ve produced useful can run with it, using whatever strategies, networks, and resources make the most sense to them in their local and regional contexts, as long as they do so non-violently.

While confusion about — and resistance to — the Convention has come from many directions, we have seen what many of us consider a breakthrough within the past year. The Convention is a focal point of Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s 5-point action plan for nuclear disarmament. It has picked up dozens of high-profile endorsements in both civil society and diplomatic circles. Earlier this year, 28 individual states, along with the Non-Aligned Movement group of 116 countries, voiced strong support for a Nuclear Weapons Convention at the 2010 NPT Review Conference. The outcome document of the Conference named the Convention twice as a serious proposal for fulfilling the nuclear disarmament obligations embedded in the NPT itself. Abolition NGOs around the world — the organizations honored here tonight and hundreds of others — played a large part in making that happen. We have a long way to go, but we’ve now built a solid foundation.

Many IPPNW doctors make a persuasive — or at least an entertaining — analogy between dependence on nuclear weapons and addiction to tobacco. It turns out this is more than just a clever conceit. We have recently returned from our World Congress in Basel, where my good friend Bjorn Hilt, IPPNW’s chair, told us about some smoking cessation studies, which have shown that smokers who try to quit gradually by cutting down the number of cigarettes they smoke each day are almost sure to fail. The only way to quit, not surprisingly, is to quit. So, Bjorn chuckled, the idea that the US and Russia will reduce their arsenals by a few thousand here and a few thousand there and—as Secretary Clinton has said— get to zero “in some century,” is like a smoker saying “I plan to quit, but perhaps not in my lifetime.”

It’s time to prescribe a little cold turkey to the nuclear weapons addicts.

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