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12 Jun 2018

BY PROFESSOR STEPHEN LEEDER, EMERITUS PROFESSOR PUBLIC HEALTH, UNIVERSITY OF SYDNEY

With incredibly dangerous nuclear games on our doorstep, I offer you a new phrase: The Doomsday Competition. 

There are several competitors: global climate change, rampant influenza or a hitherto unknown, but highly contagious and virulent, virus, atmospheric pollution with small particles, conventional wars and unmanageable population growth.

But the competitor that trumps (no pun intended) all others is nuclear war. And despite growing global awareness of the threat of nuclear war and its potential consequences, it receives little discussion in Australia. 

Now for a (non-nuclear) test!

Did you know that the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize went to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)? 

You probably did not, because it received scant media attention, despite the recipient, a critically important founding member of that organisation, being an Australian. The citation for the award read “for [ICAN’s} work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons".

ICAN grew out of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) and was launched in 2007. Dr Tilman Ruff, a public health physician from Melbourne, is prominent in the organisation.

ICAN, as Wikipedia tells it, is a “global civil society coalition working to promote adherence to and full implementation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The campaign helped bring about this treaty. As of 2017 it has 468 partner organisations in 101 countries”.

The medical presence, first in IPPNW and now in ICAN, is substantial. There is no subtlety about the effects of nuclear weapons and no question about the health hazard they pose to human survival. 

It is easy to feel powerless in the face of such a threat, but the work of IPPNW since 1953, when in the face of the threat of nuclear annihilation, it was credited with a major contribution to the UN Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963. 

Lachlan Forrow, a doctor, Tilman Ruff, and Setsuko Thurlow, a Japanese–Canadian nuclear disarmament campaigner who survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, wrote about what was achieved by IPPNW in a recent Perspective paper in The New England Journal of Medicine. “When the Cold War ended in 1991, the [Doomsday] Clock was set back to 17 minutes to midnight,” they said. But now,

….nuclear disarmament has stalled: today, nine countries — Russia, the United States, France, China, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea — maintain nearly 15,000 nuclear weapons. Almost 20 years after warnings were published … about the dangers of “accidental nuclear war,” nearly 2000 weapons remain on “launch-on-warning” hair-trigger alert, despite the growing vulnerability of weapons systems to cyberattack.

Forrow, Ruff and Thurlow continue:

The urgency of ICAN’s work was recently highlighted when the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved its Doomsday Clock forward to just 2 minutes to midnight, the highest level of danger since 1953 and 5 minutes closer to midnight than when concerns about U.S. and Soviet preparations for nuclear war sparked the founding of IPNNW.

ICAN applies to nuclear weapons a proven strategy for making progress toward the elimination of other inhumane and indiscriminate weapons, such as biologic and chemical weapons, antipersonnel land mines, and cluster munitions. This approach can be summarised as stigmatise, prohibit, and eliminate.

In each case, weapons that cannot be used without unacceptable consequences have first been prohibited in an international treaty, which has laid the foundation for their progressive elimination.

ICAN has rapidly grown into a global campaign coalition of nearly 500 partner organisations in more than 100 countries – with the goal of uniting all sectors of civil society, in partnership with governments, to work toward complete nuclear disarmament.

A “limited” nuclear war involving 100 Hiroshima-size nuclear weapons (less than 1 per cent of the current stockpile of weapons) “would ignite massive confluent fires that would release millions of tons of smoke and soot into the atmosphere.”

“Such pollutants would cause substantial global cooling, drying, and darkening for more than a decade, disrupting food production worldwide and putting more than 2 billion people, the majority of them in Africa and Asia, at risk of death from starvation.

The hands on the Doomsday Clock now rest at two minutes to midnight, the most dire it has been. Doctors can draw attention to the humanitarian and health disasters following nuclear war. The ICAN approach is to use these health consequences to lead the debate which will, in turn, change policy – as it did with land mines. 

To be frivolous for a moment, we might say if ICAN, then WE can!


Published: 12 Jun 2018