IPPNW's 19th World Congress demands fulfillment of pledge for a nuclear-weapons-free world

John Loretz* and Maria Valenti, Medicine, Conflict and Survival Vol 26, No. 4, October-December 2010, 252-258

International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War, Boston, MA, USA
'Nuclear abolition: for a future' was a thoughtful choice for the title of the19th World Congress of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, held in Basel, Switzerland from 25th - 30th August 2010. While the Congress programme reflected IPPNW's broad range of activities to confront the causes and humanitarian consequences of armed violence, the 'red thread' running throughout the sessions was the unprecedented - if, perhaps, fleeting - opportunity to rid the world of the only weapons capable of erasing our future. The Congress theme, therefore, was both an aspiration and a warning that perfectly summed up this moment in time.

IPPNW Congresses have become multinational, multicultural, intergenerational events where networking, relationship building, and strategizing are at least as important as the speeches and workshops. More than 700 doctors, medical students and IPPNW supporters from 45 countries converged on Basel, a charming city at the foot of the Alps, whose historic buildings and monuments were untouched by the aerial bombing that devastated so much of Europe during the Second World War. Thirty-three participants arrived by bicycle at the conclusion of an 11-day, 750-kilometer, three-country, low-carbon Ban All Nukes (BAN) Tour, promoting a European nuclear weapons free zone all along the route from Düsseldorf to Basel.

The programme itself was as complex as a fine Swiss watch, and - 'cliché' or not - was engineered by the host affiliate, PSR/IPPNW-Switzerland, with characteristic precision and efficiency. This was not easy, given the need to coordinate a two-day student congress with its own full agenda of speakers and workshops; a one-day 'pre-conference' on uranium mining, health and indigenous peoples  ("http://www.ippnw2010.org/index475d.html?id=71"); a continuous series of activist meetings to map out two-year strategies for IPPNW's core programmes - the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons(ICAN) and Aiming For Prevention; and the three-day Congress programme at the heart of the event, all book-ended by two days of governance meetings of IPPNW's board and its International Council. Somehow the Swiss held everything together, for which they deserved everyone's admiration and gratitude.

Logistics are important, but they serve a purpose. In Basel, IPPNW's purpose was to send a clear message: the nuclear threat represents the most extreme form of an epidemic of armed violence that undermines human security everywhere on Earth, and negotiations on global nuclear disarmament cannot be postponed to 'some century' (a disheartening phrase recently uttered by US Secretary of State Clinton), but must be commenced now.

In a statement released at the opening of the Congress (ippnwbasel. wordpress.com/2010/08/26/statement/), IPPNW countered the prevailing attitude among the nuclear weapon states that getting to zero, if it is possible at all, may take decades:

If nuclear weapons were a deadly virus with the potential to sicken and kill hundreds of millions of people in a global epidemic, the nations of the world would spare no expense to contain and eradicate it. We have done this with smallpox, tuberculosis, and polio, and we are marshalling our resources today against HIV/AIDS, cancer, and other emerging health threats. Unlike contagious diseases, however, we have brought this nuclear danger upon ourselves. Nuclear weapons are manmade products. They are more horrifying in their effects than any virus, but eradicating them is actually a simpler task, requiring little more than a firm decision to disarm and the resolve to see that decision through to a conclusion. . . .

A Nuclear Weapons Convention, requiring all nuclear-armed nations to eliminate their arsenals and prohibiting all nations from acquiring nuclear weapons in the future, is the most effective and practical way to guard against a humanitarian catastrophe of our own making.

This conviction was echoed by Christine Beerli, Vice President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), who spoke during the opening session. Like IPPNW, Madame Beerli said:

The International Committee of the Red Cross . . . believes that the debate about nuclear weapons must be conducted not only on the basis of military doctrines and power politics but also on the basis of public health and human security. The existence of nuclear weapons poses some of the most profound questions about the point at which the rights of States must yield to the interests of humanity, the capacity of our species to master the technology it creates, the reach of international humanitarian law, and the extent of human suffering that people are willing to inflict, or to permit, in warfare.

Reminding the audience that the ICRC had called for a ban on nuclear weapons less than a month after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Beerli recounted the preoccupation of the Red Cross with this issue over the decades of the nuclear age, culminating most recently with an appeal from ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger 'to ensure that such weapons are never used again.' For the ICRC, she concluded, 'preventing the use of nuclear weapons requires fulfillment of existing obligations to pursue negotiations aimed at prohibiting and completely eliminating such weapons through a legally binding international treaty.'

No Congress speaker articulated this theme more eloquently or concisely than Micheline Calmy-Rey, the Head of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, who enumerated the nuclear threats facing the world today and then affirmed:

'There is a solution to them; it is called nuclear elimination. If nuclear weapons are abolished, the danger of accidental or willful use, of proliferation and use by terrorists will all be gone.'

The Swiss minister was equally clear about the largest obstacle to achieving a world without nuclear weapons:

'Two decades after the end of the Cold War, nuclear deterrence is still at the center of [the security] doctrines [of the nuclear-weapon states].'

Councillor Calmy-Rey was not only preaching to the converted. Moments after her sharp rebuke to the nuclear weapons states, Russian Ambassador Valery V. Loshchinin and United States Ambassador Laura Kennedy described the New START agreement, the 'resetting' of relations between the US and Russia, and proposals to enforce non-proliferation in order to 'create the conditions for a world free of nuclear weapons.' Ambassador Kennedy, in particular, attempted to reconcile President Obama's pledge to work for that world with his assessment that the goal might not be reached in his lifetime.

The US and Russian ambassadors were received politely, and their presence on the Congress stage was evidence not only of a shift in their countries' policies, but also of a renewed willingness to engage with civil society after eight years of high-level hostility toward peace and disarmament NGOs. Nevertheless, they did not get a free ride from former IPPNW co-president Gunnar Westberg, who did not mince his words in telling Loshchinin and Kennedy that the governments of the largest nuclear weapon states were not living up to the new expectations they themselves had created:

You have at great length told us of the steps of disarmament your countries have taken. But we are not satisfied. It is of little importance if there are 60,000nuclear warheads in the world, or just 10,000. You can still destroy human civilization. You must go for Zero, [but] you did not speak of Zero. . . . The risk of global nuclear war today is much lower than during the Cold War. Bu tit is not zero. And if the relationship between the USA and Russia deteriorates the risk will increase. Better act now, agree on a road to nuclear weapons abolition when the feeling is good. Read and negotiate the Nuclear Weapons Convention and bring these negotiations to conclusion as demanded by the International Court!

How those expectations could be fulfilled - without needless delay - was the subject of intense strategizing by the ICAN working group and IPPNW activists over the course of the Congress. According to ICAN Chair Tilman Ruff, 'there has been a real shift in acceptance of the NWC among governments, to the point where some have been inspired to become champions of getting a nuclear abolition treaty process underway.'

Encouraging and building upon that shift is the goal of the new ICAN two-year action plan, developed and submitted to IPPNW at the conclusion of the Congress. ICAN's mission remains the abolition of nuclear weapons through a global abolition treaty, such as a nuclear weapon convention. The objectives between now and 2012 are to build the movement advocating for a NWC; to increase public education and advocacy for a NWC among NGOs, the public and governments; and to develop a core group of civil society and state partners as a driving force for an abolition treaty.

IIPPNW and ICAN will continue to emphasize the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and nuclear war, challenging the concept of deterrence, in particular, as a misguided policy that endangers entire populations rather than protecting them. Nuclear weapons will also be presented as a resource and human security issue, diverting vital financial and scientific resources from real human security needs, and from full implementation of the Millennium Development Goals. The connections between the nuclear issue and other global threats, such as global warming, will be made more explicit. Over the next two years, ICAN will work to expand its activist base, both within the IPPNW affiliate network and among a broader coalition of NGO partners; will urge governments to articulate clear, supportive positions on a nuclear weapons convention and make clear statements on NWC in official statements in multilateral for a (such as the UNGA); and will give special attention to student voices, through IPPNW's student-led Nuclear Weapons Inheritance Project (NWIP) and the Europe-based Ban All Nukes generation (BAN g). A new ICAN project - the MillionPleas video chain letter initiative - was introduced to Congress participants by ICAN Australia. The goal is to collect and post one million online video messages asking the nuclear-weapon states to 'please' abolish nuclear weapons. IPPNW's US affiliate, Physicians for Social Responsibility, has launched a similar video project called 'One more for zero'.
In its Congress statement, IPPNW continued to emphasize the broader context of armed violence and its implications for health and security: /p>

Since the end of the Cold War, wars and other military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkan states, former Soviet republics, the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and Latin America have claimed millions of lives, mostly among non-combatants. Small arms are involved in wars and crimes, suicides and accidents that result in hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of injuries each year. Moreover, the use of small arms and other conventional weapons can all too easily escalate to the use of nuclear weapons, especially in the most volatile regions of the world. The WHO has identified violence, including armed violence, as an important and preventable health problem, requiring public health approaches to better understand the root causes and to mount effective interventions. This is the goal of IPPNW's Aiming For Prevention programme, which is now in its 10th year.

Aiming for Prevention (AfP) activists gathered in Basel to develop strategies for building global awareness of the public health dimensions of armed violence. In particular, AfP researchers and activists are exploring ways to engage with the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development (www.genevadeclaration.org), which calls for measuring and monitoring injuries and deaths from gun violence, and for the creation of 'practical programmes on the ground, where the difference is made in terms of lives and livelihoods.' Translating clinical and other public health data into health-promoting policy initiatives is one of the key objectives of this IPPNW programme in the year ahead.

A plenary session, four workshops, and several student congress sessions were devoted to AfP and armed violence prevention. The plenary, 'Preventing Violence, Promoting Health and Development: A Medical and Moral Imperative', featured a short film, Faces of Violence, conceived and produced by Igarape' and the Small Arms Survey with assistance from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence process. Kidist Bartolomeos of the World Health Organization's (WHO) Department of Violence and Injury Prevention outlined the need for medical community involvement as a key civil society player in armed violence prevention. She reviewed the global burden of violence, including the stark reality that 91 per cent of violent deaths occur in low and middle income countries. She noted that violence obstructs achievement of the Millennium Development Goals and that an evidence based public health approach is needed to prevent all types of violence. Bartolomeos called for inter sectoral approaches and noted that engaging the health sector is one of the '10 best buys' in reducing the consequences of violence. IPPNW is an active member of the WHO Violence Prevention Alliance.

IPPNW affiliate physicians from around the world made a series of brief presentations about violence prevention work in Mexico, Zambia, New Zealand, Nepal, the United Kingdom, Ecuador and Nigeria. Their dramatic photographs and commentaries underscored the humanitarian dimensions of armed violence and its consequences on victims, families and societies. Other IPPNW projects, such as injury research in Papua New Guinea and Zambia, peace education via independent radio in Nigeria, and education about the horrors of armed conflicts in the Middle East, Mexico and Nepal were also summarized. Sebastian Taylor of Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) highlighted the goals of the Geneva Declaration, a diplomatic initiative aimed at addressing the interrelations between armed violence and development, and how IPPNW members can participate.

Bernard Lown, one of the founding co-presidents of IPPNW, addressed the Congress from his home in Newton, Massachusetts, via the internet based teleconference programme Skype. Technical problems forced Lown to restart his talk several times, but in the end the technology was vindicated as a means to bring people together across continents and time zones. This was especially important, since the IPPNW International Council had just passed a resolution calling for greater efforts from the entire federation to reduce carbon emissions, including those associated with international travel.

Lown spoke about the continuing economic and social disparities between the global North and the global South and the implications for social justice, armed conflict and the abolition of nuclear weapons:

The North/South divide is mammoth and growing. According to the UN Human Development Report in 1960 the income gap between the richest and the poorest was 30-1; by 1999 it had more than doubled to 74-1. The just released Oxford Multidimensional Index of Poverty finds that 1,659 million [people] in developing countries live in acute poverty, of whom 840 million are continuously hungry. . . . The divide between the North and South is maintained, nurtured and made cancerous also by the arms trade. This has become a substantial source of developing world debt which limits poor countries investing in education, in health care, in clean water, in sanitation and in critical infrastructures. Tanzania, for example, spends four times more on debt repayment than on education and nine times more than on health.

In his call to action to IPPNW in the coming years, Lown identified this as the first of three key areas in which we need to focus. 'It is not possible,' he said, 'for affluent nations to purchase security when wretched and hungry multitudes are clamoring outside the gates of the big house. Terrorism is not to be defeated by projecting military mayhem largely against civilians.'

Other plenary speakers throughout the Congress issued calls to action to medical professionals, including the ICRC's Christine Beerli, who said that 'the use of [conventional] weapons is, and must continue to be, a public health issue,' calling them 'weapons of mass destruction in slow motion.'

A series of four AfP workshops explored the Geneva Declaration; North-South affiliate cooperation; IPPNW's participation and leadership in global initiatives related to landmines, small arms and cluster munitions; the development of additional case studies and One Bullet Stories; and possibilities for additional injury surveillance projects.

Following a series of consultations with representatives from other organizations, including the WHO's Department of Injuries and Violence Prevention, and AOAV, AfP activists established several working groups to plan for the coming year's efforts to advance a public health approach to violence prevention at both international and regional levels. These goals were reflected in the conclusion of the Congress statement:

Peace, security, and freedom are the rights of all people, and the most effective pathway to achieving these rights globally is the Millennium Development Goals. Armed violence of all kinds is a threat to human security and to development. The public health dimensions of this global problem, however, are poorly understood. In order to reduce the high rates of injury and death from intentional violence, we need action-oriented research, education, and advocacy in support of prevention policies at all levels of society. Recognizing that health and development are intricately linked, IPPNW came out as an early supporter of the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development, which calls for a measurable reduction in the global burden of armed violence and tangible improvements in human security by 2015.

Notes on contributors

*John Loretz is Program Director of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and a North American editor of MCS.
Maria Valenti is the coordinator of IPPNW's Aiming for Prevention programme.