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Devastating effects of nuclear weapons are the highest form of violence

September 20, 2019

[Editor’s note: On 18 September, IPPNW co-president Arun Mitra gave the following talk—”Humanitarian consequences of nuclear war: possibilities and perspectives for prevention”—at the International Scientific-Practical Conference dedicated to the 30th anniversary of the “Nevada-Semipalatinsk” International Antinuclear Movement.]

Dr. Mitra addressing the “Nevada-Semey” conference on 18 September.

This is my second visit to the country which banned nuclear weapon testing long ago.  During my first visit in 2014 to participate in the 21st World Congress of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), we had the privilege to visit Semipalatinsk. The visit not only enriched our knowledge of the health and environmental impact of nuclear weapon testing, it also reaffirmed the commitment to continue to struggle for a nuclear-weapons-free world.

On behalf of IPPNW, I take this opportunity to express heartiest congratulations to the government of Kazakhstan for the ratification of the Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) on 29 August 2019, the International Day Against Nuclear Testing. The ratification by Kazakhstan has made the journey of TPNW past the halfway mark to entry into force. We are sure Kazakhstan will strongly promote the treaty as part of their bilateral, regional, and international diplomacy. Your support to nuclear test survivors voices, including from Kazakhstan, is of utmost importance to spread the message of the inherent dangers of nuclear weapons. We should try to facilitate their presence at all key international nuclear weapons related events and meetings. This will help build public opinion for nuclear abolition.

War is the most serious threat to public health, with catastrophic effects on infrastructure and environment, and accounts for more deaths and disability than many major diseases combined. It destroys families, communities and sometimes whole cultures. It channels limited resources away from health and other social needs. Wars cause death, injury, migration, and concentration in refugee camps that affect normal life. In conflict situations, children and women are worst affected. The children lose their education and as a result of continuous exposure to violence, watching death of nears and dears, get psychologically disturbed and end up with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The devastating effects caused by the use of nuclear weapons are the highest form of violence. Thanks to the wisdom of Dr. Bernard Lown and Dr. Yevgeniy Chazov, this was recognized by the physicians who organized themselves as IPPNW in 1980. The humanitarian impact of the nuclear weapons has always been the main focus of IPPNW.

The catastrophic effects of nuclear weapons on our health, society and the environment must be at the center of all public and diplomatic discussions about nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. This is the basic principle underpinning what has become known as the Humanitarian Initiative.

The recollections of the Hibakusha, the survivors of atomic bombing, have brought to the fore the horrors caused by these weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A visit to the Peace Museum in Hiroshima fills us with dreadful shock to watch the devastation that occurred. Dr. Marcel Junod, the then head of ICRC delegation in Japan, who was the first foreigner to visit Hiroshima, described that within one mile or so of the epicenter everything had been torn apart, blasted and swept away as if by a supernatural power; houses and trees had disappeared. Beyond that all houses had been gutted by fire. All that remained was the outline of their foundations and heaps of rusty metal. Large number of population suffered from the effects of radioactivity with multiple haemorrhages. They needed small blood transfusions at regular intervals; but there were no donors, no doctors to determine the compatibility of the blood groups. Junod notes the consequences of the bomb for Hiroshima’s medical corps: out of 300 doctors, 270 died or were injured; out of 1,780 nurses, 1,654 perished or were injured. He appealed for the bomb to be banned outright, just as poison gas was outlawed in the aftermath of the First World War.

We continue to see the long term effects of those atomic bombs to this day. In this sense they are weapons that keep on killing. Even now, 74 years later, Japanese Red Cross hospitals continue to treat many thousands of victims of cancers and other illnesses caused by radiation exposure.

A hypothetical study by the nuclear physicist M. V. Ramana, “Bombing Bombay,” concludes that the explosion of a Hiroshima-sized (15 kt) nuclear weapon over Bombay would result in 150,000 to 800,000 deaths within a few weeks from the combined effects of blast, burn, and radiation. Fallout related cancers and other illnesses would increase the casualty totals over time. The medical profession has no remedy to offer under such situation.

The social impacts of disempowerment; victimization; abuse of basic human rights; disruption of traditional communities and their ways of life and means of sustenance; displacement of the people from their homes cause long-term health impacts extending to future generations. Concern about transmitting genetic mutations to one’s children can have profound and long-term direct and indirect physical and mental health consequences. The only way to make certain that a tragedy of such proportions never happens is the complete global abolition of nuclear weapons.

A study titled “Nuclear famine: the global climate effects of regional nuclear war” by IPPNW co-president Ira Helfand, based on the research of Rutgers University Professor Alan Robock and others, concluded that even a limited nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan using 100 Hiroshima-sized nuclear bombs would affect weather patterns throughout the world. Soot and debris injected into the atmosphere from the explosions and resulting fires would block sunlight from reaching the Earth, producing surface cooling that would last for several years and affect crop production seriously. This would result in large scale famine which could put two billion people at risk globally. The situation will get worse by the immense potential for war and civil conflict that would be created by famine on this scale.

It is important in this context to emphasize that no effective humanitarian response is possible for even a single nuclear weapon detonated in a population centre, let alone nuclear war. This has been the unequivocal conclusion of the World Health Organization and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. Similar resolutions by the World Medical Association (WMA), International Council of Nurses (ICN) and World Federation of Public Health Associations (WFPHA) have corroborated this.

We are equally concerned with the inherent negative impact of nuclear energy. The examples of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima nuclear disasters bear a strict warning. The Indian affiliate of the IPPNW, Indian Doctors for Peace and Development (IDPD), carried out a study on the health effects on people living around the Jadugoda uranium mines. The findings of serious health hazards among these people helped us carry forward the message of use of renewable energy resources.

Humanitarian priorities in regard to nuclear test explosions include the need to prevent further nuclear tests; to minimize further radioactive leakage through long-term monitoring of contaminated sites, emplacement of feasible barriers to leakage of contaminants into the biosphere, and clean-up of contaminated debris.

The passage of Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) by the UN on 7 July 2017 is a great opportunity the world should not miss. Several organizations including IPPNW joined hands together under the banner of International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). Dr Tilman Ruff, co-president of IPPNW, who was one of the active participants in this campaign said that it was a hard work to lobby with the non-nuclear-weapons states to withstand the pressures by the major nuclear weapons possessing powers and vote with thumping majority in the UN General Assembly in favor of the TPNW. It is a moral defeat of the nuclear weapons possessing countries who did not participate in the deliberations. They must respect the global opinion for a complete nuclear disarmament.

The TPNW prohibits the development, testing, production, possession, stockpiling, use, or threatened use of nuclear weapons on the basis of their catastrophic health, environmental, and humanitarian impacts.  This is a significant step towards eliminating the most destructive weapons ever created. To make the treaty operational at least 50 countries should ratify the treaty.

There are several ongoing low-level conflicts around the globe. These can escalate into larger wars where the use of nuclear weapons may not be ruled out. There have already been numerous near misses when nuclear armed states began the process of launching their nuclear weapons in the mistaken belief that they were already under attack.  Nuclear war was not avoided on these occasions because we had foolproof technology, or wise leaders or sound nuclear policies.  It was avoided because, in the words of former US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, “We lucked out…it was luck that prevented nuclear war.”

Dr. Mitra (right) with Nevada-Semey President Olzhas Suleimenov

Kazakhstan should continue its leadership in the nuclear abolition movement by encouraging its fellow members of the Central Asian Nuclear Free Zone—Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, along with the free-standing Nuclear Free Zone Mongolia—to sign and ratify the treaty at the earliest date possible. Kazakhstan can also play a vital role in convincing the governments of India and Pakistan to join TPNW. It is important as the brewing tension between the two countries poses serious danger to use nuclear weapons. Kazakhstan can also put efforts to negotiate with other nuclear-weapon states to abolish these weapons.

History is witness that all issues, conflicts, and wars can be resolved through mutual dialogue and global initiatives. Unfortunately this process has taken a back seat. Events like this always play a vital role in promoting local, regional, and global dialogue.

Peace is doable.

Thank you very much.

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