Pressenza is in York, in the north of England, to cover the Health through Peace conference organised by MedAct, the UK affiliate of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.  IPPNW are also here in force to hold their world congress.

Despite his intense schedule, we caught up with Programme Director, John Loretz, to talk about the aims of the congress, the Ban Treaty and where IPPNW goes from here.

Pressenza:  So first of all, tell me about IPPNW, its history, how it started, how many countries it’s operating in, etc.

John Loretz:  Sure. IPPNW started in 1980, and it was organized primarily by U.S. and Soviet Union physicians who were really concerned about the Cold War, the state of the nuclear arms race and the threats going back and forth about winnable nuclear wars, and we put a lot of work into trying to educate the public and decision-makers at that time about the medical and environmental consequences of nuclear weapons.  So the same thing that we’re dealing with again today, really.  And we won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985 as a result of that work.

Since that time, IPPNW has grown into a federation in over 60 countries.

We have affiliates in just about every region of the world. And while the primary focus of the organization continues to be nuclear weapons and the abolition of nuclear weapons, we’ve also spread out over the years to deal with other aspects of armed violence and public health.  We participated in the Mine Ban Treaty campaign back in the 90’s and the Cluster Munitions Conventions campaign, and we’ve been heavily involved in the Arms Trade Treaty, trying to bring the public health dimension into that.

But that said, trying to get rid of nuclear weapons, which really represents the greatest public health threat to the world, has been the primary focus.  So we’ve been heavily involved for the last 5 or 6 years on this humanitarian initiative to try to produce the Ban Treaty.  And we’re just thrilled that we finally got it on July 7th!

PZ:  What is the framework for this specific congress, what are its aims?

JL:  We have these congresses every two to three years.  This is the 22nd one.  They’re all different.  So the way we’ve approached this one is that we partnered with MedAct, which is IPPNW’s UK affiliate, and for the past three years MedAct has done these “Health Through Peace” forums that have really tried to take a very broad look at the intersections between health issues, armed violence, war and development.

The programme therefore is a kind of an amalgam.  We’ve done this jointly with them, and so we’ve joined one of their Health Through Peace forums with an IPPNW Congress which brings the nuclear issue into it a bit more strongly.

Our focus on this is really to highlight the Ban Treaty, and what led to that, and where it’s going to go from here, and then to put that into the context of violence issues and the relationship between health and peace.

PZ:  IPPNW has been a driving force behind ICAN and obviously the Ban Treaty.  So you’ve seen the development over the last eight years.  In what moment did you think, “We’re going to get a treaty out of this?”  When did you suddenly think it’s going to happen?

JL:  At the Open Ended Working Group meeting [a UN conference in 2016 in Geneva to study measures that could lead to nuclear disarmament].  That’s where I thought, “Ok, this is really coming together.”  Up until then I had a sense that the Ban Treaty was the agenda for this process, but you could never really get a clear answer out of the core states who were going to have to drive it, that they were committed to that.  It seemed very exploratory right up until the Humanitarian Pledge was announced in Vienna at the conference on the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons [December 2014].

And then there was a tide-change at that point, I would say.  The pledge came out and we said, “All right, this is now going to become a political process.”  But where it’s going to lead and how fast it’s going to lead there was a little unclear.  By the time of the Open Ended Working Group in Geneva in 2016, by the end of that meeting, I said that this is a Ban Treaty that’s coming.  That was the moment when I said, “Yes, this is where this is leading, and it’s going to start leading there quickly now, it looks like.”

What I said to the IPPNW International Council which met here over the weekend was, “I’ve been telling you for the last few years now that the Ban Treaty is coming, and I’ve been watching myself tell you that with more confidence each time I said it, and I was deathly afraid that I’d have to stand at this meeting and tell you what went wrong.”  In the end nothing went wrong.

PZ:  This Ban Treaty finds its roots in the 2010 NPT Revision Conference outcome document when, for the first time, language on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons was included.  Did IPPNW have anything to do with helping that language get into the document?

JL:  I don’t know if we did or not.  But I know that we were there and making the humanitarian case and then presenting the medical and environmental evidence, as we had been for a few years before that.  If I had to say where that language came from and actually got into the document, I would say it was from the International Committee of the Red Cross.  I have a feeling that they used some backdoor connections to really push that into the outcome document.

But I think the only reason it’s there is because so many of us; IPPNW, ICRC and others were there at that Review Conference, along with ICAN, which really made its first big move at that conference, to try to push that message.

The thing is that the humanitarian impacts, the medical consequences, all that, that was the message in the 1980’s during the Cold War.  And once the Cold War ended and the issues receded into the background again that message got kind of subdued and lost again, and all of the talk about nuclear weapons became about strategic concerns, deterrence, maybe some step-by-step process for nuclear disarmament, but that would all revolve around when the nuclear-armed States thought it was going to be the right time to do something.  And we did this sort of one-step-forward, two-steps-back thing for some 10 or 20 years.  And we kept saying, “No, the message is not about that.  The message is about medical consequences and what’s going to happen to the environment and the humanitarian impact.”

It was only in 2010, once those words finally got back into an NPT review document that we were able to switch over to that framework again and really start pushing.

That’s been a seven year process that started then and led to the Ban Treaty this year.

PZ:  Which has been a whirlwind if we look at the NPT process.

JL:  It moved very quickly, and that’s really the other thing.  Even though I was confident that we were moving in the right direction, the last year or two has really been breath-taking, and we’ve never seen anything move this quickly in that kind of forum.

There were some questions, I think, that a lot of us had about whether the UN was going to be the right place, an effective place to do this.  And we were kind of leaving our options open so that if things didn’t look like they would work out in the UN, we’d move into something more like an Ottawa Process and the Mine Ban Treaty.

In the end there was a lot of interest in keeping the UN as the forum for this.  So we said, “Ok, let’s see how far we can take this,” and it worked this time.

But having been in many, many NPT PrepComms and Review Conferences and other UN forums, I just watched everything be kind of static and moribund and no real progress made, and this time the feeling in the room was so different.  These were meetings where people in the room really talked to each other.  They weren’t just reading from prepared papers that had been sent in from their governments.  You could tell that they were determined to do this and were looking for ways to do it quickly, and just the openness and honesty of the whole process is what drove it faster than anyone expected.

PZ:  The failure of the 2015 NPT conference to come out with an outcome was probably very useful to the Ban Treaty process, no?

JL:  I think it was, but by 2015 this process was on such a fast track that all we were really worried about was that something might happen at that 2015 review conference that might derail things or disrupt things.

And what we specially didn’t want to see happen was to have the Ban Treaty set up as some sort of competitor or as an agreement that was going to somehow interfere with or undermine NPT goals.  We wanted to make sure that we put out the message that the Ban Treaty was really meant to fulfil an essential goal of the NPT [article VI] and work in parallel with that and then just kind of push it along towards its own stated goals, and I think we succeeded in doing that.

In that sense, coming away from the 2015 NPT with that intact helped move things forward towards a quicker end this year.

PZ:  Obviously there’s a lot of resistance to the Ban Treaty…

JL:  A little!

PZ:  Do you think it will take an actual nuclear explosion above ground with all the death and destruction that that implies before civil society will rebel against the nuclear violence imposed by the P5 (the USA, Russia, France, China and the UK)?

JL:  I sure hope not.  I mean that’s the thing we’re trying to avoid, isn’t it?

I hear people talk about that sometimes.  Is it going to take a disaster for people to really wake up again?

I think the question comes out of a correct sense that it’s been some seventy years since Hiroshima and Nagasaki and that memory of what nuclear weapons really do has been lost somewhat.  There’s a lack of understanding that’s real, that’s immediate and physical about the impact of these weapons, and that maybe it’s going to take something like that again before people really get it.

I’m not so sure that’s the best motivation for doing it!

And you could see that going in several different directions, on the one hand if that happened it could finally motivate people to get rid of the weapons, or we could end up with some kind of global martial law or everything gets out of control and it’s not just one weapon, one city but we have the thing we fear most which is a real nuclear war that could lead to a nuclear winter, if it’s bad enough.

So I don’t really want to speculate too much about that scenario.  I hope it doesn’t come to that but what’s behind that question though was: is that what it’s going to take, or will something like this [the Ban Treaty] really get us there?

I don’t know, but I think we’ve now charted a path.

There’s a couple of pathways to the elimination of nuclear weapons that are embodied in this treaty.  I think either one of them could work.  But I think for that to happen we’re going to have to maintain these partnerships formed in the process of getting the treaty.  And the states that have championed this, and civil society groups, ICAN, and the international organizations like the ICRC that have been behind this are going to have to find a way to stay together and do the work now of implementing the provisions of this treaty which include ratcheting up the pressure on the nuclear-armed and the nuclear-dependent states and making them feel the seriousness of these prohibitions in some way.

That’s not going to be an overnight process, and it’s going to take time.  But I think that’s the course that we’re on.  My fear is that people would say – and I don’t see any signs that this will happen – but you know, “Ok, we achieved the Ban Treaty, our work is done.   So we’ll move on to the next thing.”  If the treaty just gets signed and ratified and put on the shelf and people don’t really start to take the political provisions of it seriously (we’ve taken an obligation on ourselves to really now push the nuclear-armed and nuclear-dependent states to respect these prohibitions and do something about it) if that work doesn’t continue then we’re done for.

PZ:  Well, that’s the next question.  What are the next steps for IPPNW coming out of this York Congress?

JL:  Well we think that our mission – to provide the evidence for the medical and environmental consequences of nuclear weapons – was the basis for the Ban Treaty.  It was the evidence that made the political case for the treaty.

At a certain point during the negotiations it did become sort of a diplomatic project.  So we had to back off of the underlying message in order to get the treaty through as a political matter, but now that we have the treaty that humanitarian message becomes the most important thing again, because now what we have to see – and this is what we’re talking about here – is how can we take the medical and environmental evidence, the work on nuclear famine and on nuclear winter and keep that in front of people so that they continue to be motivated to implement this treaty.

What we’re hoping to do is really pull together the partnerships in the medical world that we’ve created during the process with the World Medical Association, the nurses, the public health people.  We’re going to be meeting with them in Geneva over the next several weeks to see if we can now bring the international medical community together in Ban Treaty implementation projects.

I think the medical message then becomes more important in some ways than it was leading up to the process because if we don’t keep the consequences of this in front of people we may lose some of the sense of urgency for getting the job done.  What provides the sense of urgency is the constant reminder of what these weapons do.