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Youth-led nuclear disarmament

September 7, 2018

By guest authors Kelvin Kibet, IPPNW International Student Representative (Kenya) & Nikki Shah, medical student member of Physicians for Global Survival (IPPNW’s  Canadian affiliate)

“In the quest for total nuclear disarmament, we must take every opportunity to speak against nuclear weapons to every human. By doing this we shall solidify the hard truth that nuclear weapons should never have been made or used.”

I kept this at the back of my mind when I thought of conducting an educational session on the dangers of nuclear weapons at the International Federation of Medical Students Association’s (IFMSA) 62nd General Assembly in Canada this past August. Only a few months earlier IFMSA had accepted our proposal to conduct a session at their Standing Committee on Human Rights and Peace at the Assembly.

IPPNW and IFMSA have enjoyed informal working relationships for years, and over the next month, I worked with the team at the IFMSA to create a session dubbed “Youth-led Nuclear Disarmament.” The session was going to explore how youth and students can speak against nukes as we all push governments to sign the TPNW. This opportunity reminded me of how our IPPNW founding fathers must have felt when they first united to speak against these nukes. I imagine they found seemingly insurmountable hurdles, but, like us, did not give up.ifmsa-canada-2.jpg

I always get excited at the opportunity to share messages of peace with peers because somehow I feel like we resonate in our opinions and views on this world. However, being a student and living in a “visa first” world, it is never that smooth moving from country to country, and my challenges began.

I required a visa to enter Canada. In Kenya, it is a minimum of 15 days from the application day. As a student, I also require  leave of absence from university. This takes another couple of weeks. Despite noble intentions of contributing to world peace, and with only a few days to the event, I consulted IPPNW’s Executive Director, Michael Christ, on a way forward because of the uncertainties of the visa. Luckily,  we found a silver lining in this storm cloud, and a way to revive the student chapter in Canada.

Michael, through Dr. Neil Arya of Physicians for Global Survival (PGS; IPPNW Canada) and Canadian Physicians for Research and Education in Peace (C-PREP), connected me to a very enthusiastic Canadian medical student, Nikki Shah. Neil mentioned that Nikki had done a paper assessing knowledge of undergraduates on nuclear weapons. I knew instantly she was the perfect person to deliver our “Youth-led Nuclear Disarmament” session. After a few Skype calls, we were on the same page and I am incredibly delighted that she did a tremendous job and shares her part of this journey.

Nikki writes:

I was happily surprised when I received an email from Michael and Kelvin introducing themselves and describing the session. I was initially introduced to this topic as an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto. With support from C-PREP, and supervised by a physician active within PGS, I completed a research project examining students’ knowledge about and interest in nuclear weapons. The unfortunate, albeit unsurprising, conclusion was that they have very little knowledge about or interest in the topic, especially as compared to other issues and advocacy campaigns. I recognized the importance of this opportunity to discuss nuclear weapons and their harm to motivated medical students from around the world.

I was on an emergency medicine elective at the time and was worried about a conflicting schedule. However, I was able to request a shift change so that I would be able to fly to Montreal the night before the session and fly back home the following day right after my presentation.

With only a few days until the presentation, Kelvin and I were able to coordinate a call to review a presentation outline he had shared with me, as well as flesh out exactly how we envisioned the session would go. The first goal was to inform the students about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. The second was to engage them to consider their own country’s stances, actively consider the logic (or lack of) in arguments for or against nuclear disarmament, and come up with ideas and concrete steps to advocate for disarmament in their own countries.

The session itself was inspiring. I asked everyone in the room (around 60 students) to introduce themselves and state where they were from. I was thrilled to see participation from students all across the globe – much to my surprise there was only one other Canadian in the room!

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Nikki Shah (left) posing with enthusiastic participants Fumika and Chisaki from IFMSA Japan

I started the presentation discussing general information about IPPNW, which was a new organization to many in the room. I used IPPNW-developed case examples on the impacts of one Hiroshima-sized nuclear bomb followed by the scenario of a “small” localized nuclear war between India and Pakistan. The scenarios convey the  terrifying impact locally and the devastating impact globally of the use of nuclear weapons.

I described a nuclear famine resulting from temperature drops via significant soot and debris. I had heard these implications presented by Dr. Helfand at two PEGASUS conferences. Each time I heard this information, my stomach felt queasy. It was no different when delivering the presentation. Given global tensions today and the many nuclear arms in existence, this is a terrifying possible reality.

Next, along with the help of IFMSA executives, I facilitated a debate “for vs. against” nuclear disarmament.  Students spent around 20 minutes researching and preparing possible arguments, and later chose representatives from their groups to deliver these facts.

I was genuinely blown away by the debate. All students were passionately active and had taken the time to consider various points of view.  I was touched by the anecdotes offered by a student from Japan who had grown up in a country terrorized by the destructive  consequences of nuclear weapons. Other thoughts from students that resonated include, “A balance of terror is still terror” and “War is war but it still has rules, nuclear weapons break all those rules.”

Lastly, students split into their regional groups to brainstorm advocacy ideas pertaining to region-specific organizations, communicating with governments, outreach to other students and youth, and outreach to NGO’s with similar goals. The groups shared many great ideas.  Common themes including the importance of simple but effective use of social media (e.g., impactful infographics), and concrete milestones to monitor progress (e.g.,  getting the government to make an official statement on the issue).

I concluded the session emphasizing the importance that knowledge and awareness play in motivating others to be interested in this topic and to push for change.

I hope to continue working with PGS, C-PREP, IPPNW, and my new friend Kelvin, in these efforts.

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