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“We will not be silent in the face of evil”

November 22, 2022
Dr. Mary-Wynne Ashford, 1939-2022

[Ed. note: Dr. Mary-Wynne Ashford, IPPNW’s co-president from 1998-2002 and a former president of Canadian Physicians for Global Survival, died on November 19 as the result of injuries from a fall. A prolific writer and eloquent speaker, Dr. Ashford was an ardent advocate for peace, health, global security, human rights, and the environment. We offer these excerpts from Mary-Wynne’s speech at the closing plenary of IPPNW’s 14th World Congress in Paris, on July 2, 2000, where she spoke movingly about the interconnections among the major global issues of our time.]

Twenty years ago, in the dark times of the Cold War, a handful of doctors challenged orthodox beliefs about the enemy and founded an organisation of doctors determined to prevent nuclear war. From its beginning, IPPNW focused on the fact that there could be no meaningful medical response to a nuclear war, that prevention is the only rational course.

We are not a group of activists who happen to be doctors; we are doctors first, committed to easing suffering and death. We bring that commitment to the global stage in our attempt to prevent the ultimate suffering and death of nuclear war. The tools of our work are research, education and advocacy, and our unique contribution is that we bring the skills, expertise and ethics of medicine to the work of preventing war. We are non-partisan and neutral with regard to conflicts but we will not be silent in the face of evil. We recognise that nuclear war cannot be prevented without preventing conventional war.

We know that in more than half the world, doctors face the immediacy of other issues such as inadequate nutrition, polluted water, disease and poverty, and that nuclear war seems a distant problem. At the same time, we know that the effects of a nuclear war would not spare the South. In 1993 the mandate of IPPNW was expanded to read “IPPNW seeks to prevent all wars, to promote non-violent conflict resolution, and to minimise the effects of war and preparations for war on health, development, and the environment.”

IPPNW was founded by two world-renowned cardiologists: Dr. Bernard Lown of the United States, and Dr. Evgenie Chazov of the USSR. These charismatic leaders touched doctors all over the world and inspired more than 200,000 to join in the work to educate the public and world leaders about the looming threat to the survival of our planet. In the early 1980s, IPPNW held World Congresses in cities on both sides of the Iron Curtain, and seized the attention of cameras the world over. In 1985, IPPNW won the Nobel Peace Prize for its work bringing together doctors from the US and the USSR to prevent nuclear war. In 1989 the IPPNW World Congress was held in Hiroshima. We are still haunted by the images of Hiroshima: The Atomic Bomb Museum; the shadows on the paving stones where once a human being stood in the light of a fire brighter than the sun, and disappeared; and the voices of the hibakusha telling of an unimaginable nightmare.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the vast majority of the public heaved a huge sigh of relief and went on with other things. Peace groups folded as many social activists turned their attention to other urgent social issues such as human rights, and the deterioration of the environment. After 1991, membership in IPPNW and its affiliates dropped significantly, and public events dealing with nuclear weapons were rare.

Committed activist doctors in IPPNW recognised that disarmament was not, in fact, advancing. We intensified our efforts at the UN, and continued to publish research documents exposing, among other things, the health effects of militarism, including plutonium production, low level radiation, the threat of nuclear war by accident or terrorist attack, the effects of a bomb on Bombay, and the continuing devastation caused by anti-personnel landmines.

IPPNW has been part of several major successes on the path to disarmament. Let me remind you of them briefly because they illustrate the increasing power of civil society to bring about change in the international sphere. In 1987 a handful of activists (doctors and lawyers) in New Zealand were considering whether nuclear weapons were illegal under international law. They reasoned that if dumdum bullets were illegal then nuclear weapons surely must be. A lawyer commented that their ideas made little difference, unless the World Court made a statement that nuclear weapons were illegal. The problem was that only a nation state or a UN agency, not ordinary people, could ask the opinion of the Court. The group then decided to campaign to get a nation to take the question forward at the UN General Assembly. 

Dr. Ashford helped popularize IPPNW’s “We said no nukes” slogan in the early 2000s.

In 1988 a New Zealand doctor brought this project to IPPNW for support. I recall the meeting where we voted unanimously to support the World Court Project although many of us thought it was a crazy idea that would never go anywhere. It turned out to be a brilliant idea that circled the globe. Over the next few years, three million people all over the world signed declarations that it was their conscientious belief that nuclear weapons were abhorrent and should be banned, and they requested the World Court to give an advisory opinion about their legality. 

At the UN General Assembly, the Non-aligned Movement proposed the resolution, and delegates voted overwhelmingly in favour of asking for an advisory opinion from the Court. Fourteen months later, in 1996, the Court gave its opinion that in general, the threat or use of nuclear weapons is not legal under international law, and perhaps more importantly, that Article VI of the Preamble to the NPT is a legally binding obligation of the nuclear weapons states to proceed to full and complete disarmament. This marked the first time that civil society had succeeded in moving the General Assembly to an action. The importance of the advisory opinion was very evident at the NPT Review last May, where many countries cited the opinion in their submissions.

A second example of IPPNW collaborating in a powerful action by civil society is the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. One of the first meetings of this campaign took place in a convent in London England in 1992. Some fifty representatives of NGO’s met for three days to learn the facts about landmines, the injuries they caused and the legal instruments that might be used to ban them. The level of expertise and strategizing was exceptionally sophisticated, and the campaign moved swiftly to capture media and government attention. In the next year the campaign was greatly facilitated by e-mail communications. As you are aware, once Canadian Foreign Minister, Lloyd Axworthy, took up the issue and Princess Diana became an advocate for the treaty, the process was fast-tracked. Canada brought together like-minded states to write a treaty which was signed in 1997. In this case, civil society laid the groundwork and worked in partnership with government. NGOs continue with monitoring the signatory countries and working for mine clearance and treatment of victims….

Let me speak for a moment about the role of Non-governmental organisations in the elimination of nuclear weapons. Since 1992 when NGOs were first invited to take part in Preparatory meetings for the Conference on Environment and development, more and more UN Conferences have been opened to NGO participation. The disarmament meetings, however, continue to limit access and input from NGO’s. On the other hand, NGO briefing documents are highly valued by government delegations and NGO presentations are now incorporated into the agenda of some conferences. Our IPPNW books are in great demand at UN Conferences.

NGO knowledge is deep and the networks are broad. In terms of nuclear disarmament, academics, analysts and NGO’s have developed tremendous legal and technical expertise over several decades…. 

For the last three years, IPPNW has sent annual delegations to decision makers in the nuclear weapons states. These delegations continue to build on the early strategy of IPPNW to meet with key leaders. In his book, Perestroika, Mikhail Gorbachev wrote:

 “The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War has come to exercise a tremendous influence on world opinion in quite a short period of time… I had met Professor Lown before, but this time, after their congress in Moscow, I met all the leaders of the movement. It is impossible to ignore what these people are saying. What they are doing commands great respect. For what they say and what they do is prompted by accurate knowledge and a passionate desire to warn humanity about the danger looming over it. In the light of their arguments and the strictly scientific data which they possess, there seems to be no room left for politicking. And no serious politician has the right to disregard their conclusions.”

IPPNW leaders have met with senior government members in the UK, France, Russia, the US, and India. In fact, in India we have met with the President, the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defence. Perhaps you are also aware that two delegations from IPPNW have gone to the DPRK (North Korea) to meet with colleagues and to take humanitarian aid and medical materials and literature. Dr. Ken Yokoro of JPPNW has carefully laid the groundwork for these meetings and I was pleased to join Dr. Yokoro, Dr. Ian Maddocks of Australia and Dr. John Pastore of the US on the last mission. I hope that in the light of the signs that North Korea is opening to the outside world, that IPPNW doctors will organise exchanges to provide some of the equipment, books and journals they need so desperately. Such an initiative would help to build bridges and perhaps offer some stability in the transformation of North Korean society.

Dr. Ashford delivering medical text books to doctors in North Korea in 1999. Photo: Dr. John Pastore

This month President Kim Dai Jung of South Korea has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work toward the re-unification of North and South Korea. This is a time when we can foresee the likely outcome of the initiatives being taken by Kim Jong-il to open North Korea to the rest of the world. If events follow the pattern that we saw in Eastern Europe, it is likely that Kim Jong-il will be toppled in the relatively near future. How can we prepare now for the reintegration of a very deprived population similar in many ways to the East Germans at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall? What can we do to try to ensure a bloodless revolution in power? In order to avoid a flood of refugees, we need to begin to build the bridges and prepare groundwork that will help the people restructure their society quickly after a change in government. We have enough case studies of countries that have overthrown their Marxist-Leninist leaders that we should be able to predict the challenges and act to minimise upheaval.

War on Public Health

The changes in warfare in the past century have resulted in increasing the proportion of civilian deaths, until civilians now make up 95% of the deaths in war. Recent changes in military strategy from targeting populations to targeting infrastructure have been described as “war on public health”. In the case of Iraq and Serbia, sanctions have prevented reconstruction and restoration of the basic needs of a modern society. The significance of this change has raised little outcry because when the bombing stops the media withdraw and the impression is left that the war somehow spared the innocent. The insidious effects of destroying the water supply, sewage system, agriculture, food distribution, electricity, fuel systems and the economic base for an entire country are not obvious until starvation and disease create a humanitarian crisis that cannot be ignored. In fact, far from sparing the innocent, this deliberate strategy disproportionately kills the very young, the very old and the very weak. IPPNW must take this issue to the public as an inhuman violation of all standards of civilised behaviour and demand that civilians not be held hostage to the dictators they are powerless to remove.

One further issue has slipped from the agenda of social action. It is the issue of militarism and the environment. In 1992, the UN Conference on Environment and Development inadvertently sparked a downturn in the level of collaboration between activists working on environment and those working on disarmament. President George Bush prevented the topic of militarism and the environment from being on the official agenda of UNCED. The NGO Forum focused to a large extent on the issues that were on the table, and gradually, the importance of the environmental destruction wrought by the world’s military forces seems almost to have disappeared from the agendas of environmental conferences. This loss is of grave concern, because of the level of devastation caused by world-wide military activities. Okinawa is one of many places where a foreign military base brings environmental and social destruction. IPPNW must restore it associations with related environmental researchers and activists and rebuild the synergy of collaborative work on these issues.

IPPNW today has strong affiliates acting on a wide range of issues. We have developed effective e-mail communications that allow us to make decisions rapidly with full participation of our federation. We have a highly effective central office, and a presence at the UN through the new New York office. We are key participants in the Hague Agenda for Peace and the Middle Powers Initiative. We are developing new joint programs with PSR/USA that will bring the influence of an international organisation to support the work of our American affiliate. We have a growing student movement and an important relationship with the International Federation of Medical Students Associations.

The next two years will define the world’s direction concerning nuclear weapons.  We must also work to shine a spotlight on the bloody civil wars in Africa and elsewhere that kill and maim countless thousands, and ruthlessly destroy the prospects for democracy and economic stability.

Viktor Frankl wrote” Auschwitz showed what man is capable of, and Hiroshima showed what is at stake.”

Our work is daunting in its scope, but we have many allies and many successes behind us. For twenty years we have worked together with great respect for the strengths and creativity that come with diversity. Our friendships have overcome disagreements, financial difficulties, and vast distances. Our commitment to our shared ideals gives us the will and the power to change the world.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Henry R Shibata permalink
    November 23, 2022 7:37 pm

    What an unfortunate loss!
    Mary-Wynne Ashford was a remarkable person, an eloquent crusader for our cause and wonderful friend to so many of us !
    She will be truly missed. May she rest in peace!
    Henry R Shibata MD MSc
    Professor Emeritus McGill University

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