The leading international federations representing the world’s physicians, public health professionals, and nurses have told a special UN working group that the medical and scientific evidence about the consequences of nuclear weapons requires urgent action to prohibit and eliminate them as “the only course of action commensurate with the existential danger they pose.”
International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), the World Medical Association (WMA), the World Federation of Public Health Associations (WFPHA), and the International Council of Nurses (ICN) have submitted a joint working paper—“The health and humanitarian case for banning and eliminating nuclear weapons”—to the UN Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG), which holds its main meeting in Geneva this week to decide what new legal measures are needed to achieve nuclear disarmament. The OEWG will report back to the UN General Assembly later this year.
The working paper summarizes the evidence presented at three international conferences on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, emphasizing that:
- a nuclear war with weapons in existing arsenals could kill many more people in a few hours than were killed during the entire Second World War;
- radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons lingers in the environment, causing cancers and other illnesses over generations;
- Fewer than one percent of the nuclear weapons in the world today could disrupt the global climate and cause a nuclear famine;
- The thousands of weapons in the world’s largest arsenals could trigger a global ecological collapse in a nuclear winter;
- a meaningful medical and humanitarian response to aid the survivors of nuclear conflict is impossible.
The four federations told OEWG participants that they have “a unique opportunity and a shared responsibility to take leadership on nuclear disarmament by reframing the goal as a humanitarian-based process for banning and eliminating nuclear weapons.” They urged the OEWG to “assert the need for a new treaty that…explicitly prohibit[s]…nuclear weapons, based on their unacceptable consequences.”
IPPNW, a non-partisan federation of national medical groups in 64 countries, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985 for its efforts to educate US and Soviet leaders about the consequences of nuclear war. Co-president Tilman Ruff said this is the first time the leading international federations of health professionals have addressed the dangers of nuclear weapons with a common voice. “We have all expressed concern over nuclear weapons for many years,” Ruff said. “The fact that we are now coming together to demand action on disarmament is unprecedented and raises a loud alarm about the unacceptable danger a handful of states are imposing on the entire world. We have a professional obligation to prevent what we cannot cure or treat.”
The WMA, comprising 112 national medical associations, has repeatedly condemned nuclear weapons, and has called for their prohibition and elimination. “Even a limited nuclear war” said WMA president, Professor Sir Michael Marmot, “would bring about immense human suffering and death together with catastrophic effects on the Earth’s ecosystem, which could subsequently decrease the world’s food supply for over a decade and put billions of people at peril of starvation.”
Michael Moore, president-elect of the WFPHA, an international, nongovernmental organization comprising more than 100 multidisciplinary national public health associations, added that the public health hazards posed by decades of testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere and underground were only one aspect of a much graver threat. “It is time for real leadership and action from our presidents, prime ministers, and politicians around the world,” Moore said. “It is past time to rid the world of this threat to the health and well-being of ordinary citizens everywhere.”
Frances Hughes, Chief Executive Officer of the ICN, which links more than 130 national nurses associations representing more than 16 million nurses worldwide, said “the ICN abhors the accidental or deliberate use of nuclear, chemical, biological and conventional weapons and land mines, all of which undermine health and threaten survival. Inherent to nursing is the respect for the life and dignity of people; thus, nurses have a responsibility to work towards eliminating any threats to life and health.”