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Nuclear weapons are so typically twentieth century

December 9, 2010

It is twenty-five years since IPPNW received the Nobel Peace Prize, and 30 years since the founding of our federation. We can certainly feel good about what we have accomplished in those three decades, while realizing that we have not yet eliminated nuclear weapons from the world. If we look back, it is only to link what we’ve done with what we still have to do.

Dr. Chazov (kneeling) and others tend to a journalist who had a cardiac arrest during the press conference.

At the press conference after the Nobel award ceremony, a Soviet journalist lost consciousness and fell off his chair. “Damn malingerer,” hissed a Western journalist. Such was the atmosphere in those days, suspicion and hostility everywhere. The two cardiologists, Eugeny Chazov and Bernard Lown, who had received the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of IPPNW, rushed to the unconscious man, found that he had had a cardiac arrest, and started resuscitation. After defibrillation the man was brought to an Oslo hospital, and survived.

Many years later, in his memoir Prescription for Survival, Dr. Lown recalled his words at the Oslo press conference immediately after this incident:

We have just witnessed what doctoring is about. When faced with a dire emergency of sudden cardiac arrest, doctors do not inquire whether the patient was a good person or a criminal. We do not delay treatment to learn the politics or character of the victim. We respond not as ideologues, nor as Russians nor Americans, but as doctors. The only thing that matters is saving a human life. We work with colleagues, whatever their political persuasion, whether capitalist or Communist. This very culture permeates IPPNW. The world is threatened with sudden nuclear death.

We work with doctors whatever their political convictions to save our
endangered home. You have just witnessed IPPNW in action.”

The important characteristic of the work of IPPNW, compared with that of other peace groups, is the medical approach. We thought, and still think, that a nuclear war is the greatest threat to the survival of our patients, and of humankind. Thus, prevention of nuclear war is a medical duty. We also believe that if humans can take to their heart—can really understand—the consequences of a nuclear war, they will demand that all nuclear weapons are abolished.

We have been true to our obligation of medical neutrality when we demand protection from nuclear war for every human being, regardless of nationality. Today the threat comes not just from the nuclear weapons of the US and Russia—though it still does—but from nine countries that possess the means to inflict “sudden nuclear death,” and from others who may acquire those means in the coming years. A changing threat means that IPPNW has had to change as well. Russian doctors still engage with American doctors, but nowadays Swedish doctors talk with Iranian doctors, Finns talk with North Koreans, Indians talk with Pakistanis. This is our own version of track two diplomacy—from physician to physician, from medical student to medical student—and we know that it makes a difference.

We have often ventured rather far into the political field. We have prescribed a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and a Nuclear Weapons Convention, and we have proposed many steps on the way that we think will lead to a world free from the risk of nuclear genocide. Have we been able to stay within our medical competence when we propose how nuclear abolition can be achieved—when we offer a “prescription for survival?” This is a difficult question.

We do not merely say to a patient who has a respiratory illness “just stop smoking.” We also try to suggest practical and effective ways for her to combat the tobacco addiction. We have a similar responsibility to propose means by which a nuclear-weapons-free world can be achieved. We must show the roadmap and the tools. When we are told that nuclear abolition is wishful thinking, we should say that the idea that we can maintain nuclear weapons for generations without them being used is the real delusion, defying credibility.

What we must not do is get caught up in the technicalities and jargon of nuclear doctrines and arms control—the language diplomats use to explain how this approach and that approach have been tried and found not acceptable by one country or the other. We need to avoid this trap and have confidence in our medical message: Nuclear weapons are the greatest threat to the survival of mankind and thus must be abolished.

IPPNW has broadened its agenda since 1985, but our mission has never changed. We are working against all wars, and we are waging a very important campaign against armed violence—especially the small arms and light weapons that are killing millions every year. Here we have no problem staying within our medical domain, since the medical arguments and human stories make the most compelling case against the tragedy of war.

In our campaign against the nuclear holocaust, we shall continue to use every available tool—ethical, humanistic, and medical— to bring about a change in the policies that place us in such peril. I can here, as so often, not do better than to quote Arundhati Roy:

The nuclear bomb is the most anti-democratic, anti-national, anti-human, outright evil thing that man has ever made.

“ If you are religious, then remember that this bomb is Man’s challenge to God. It’s worded quite simply: We have the power to destroy everything that You have created.

“If you’re not religious, then look at it this way. This world of ours is four thousand, six hundred million years old. It could end in an afternoon.”

Wars are becoming outdated. Twenty-five years ago there were more than twenty interstate wars raging. In the ten years just past, there have been only three, according to the peace research institute SIPRI. Unfortunately, civil wars are not decreasing, but wars between nations are becoming unfashionable. Is this because so many countries have become democratic? If this is the reason, nuclear weapons should also become unfashionable. A majority of people in most countries demand that all nuclear weapons should be abolished.

It is twenty-five years since we received the Nobel Peace Prize. Let us hope that it will not take another twenty-five years until the Nobel Prize is awarded for the final abolition of this threat to our existence.

Or, maybe, that step will be barely noticeable. Nuclear weapons will just disappear, as the worst nightmare wanes from our mind when morning breaks.

Nuclear weapons were so typically twentieth century…

IPPNW Germany joins the protest at one of several demonstrations throughout Berlin, and activists symbolically sweep nuclear weapons into the trash.

One Comment
  1. December 10, 2010 12:41 pm

    Thank you Gunnar for your thoughtful reflections on the 25 years anniversary of the IPPNW Nobel Peace. In a seemingly hopeless struggle for a nuclear-free world, it is heartening to read your optimistic predictions that nuclear weapons belong to the past. Your parallel of the medical approach to tobacco addiction is indeed well taken. Most smokers want to quit but lack the belief that it really can be done. We, as physicians, must encourage them to take this decisive step before it´s too late – in their lifetime.

    “in their lifetime”

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