“What has International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) achieved anyway?” The question posed at a workshop on primary prevention needed answering, since the 21st IPPNW Congress meeting we were at coincided with major wars in Gaza, Syria, and Ukraine. Not even the most ardent members of IPPNW would expect our organisation to prevent all war, but we did get the Nobel peace prize in 1985 for warning the world about nuclear war.
And Nobel peace prize winner Mikhail Gorbachev, in his memoirs, said: “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.”
The 21st congress held in Astana, Kazakhstan, last week illustrated the vibrancy of IPPNW even when nuclear arsenals still number more than 16 000 weapons. However, there are hopeful signs, not least from Kazakhstan itself, which renounced nuclear weapons and closed its former Soviet test site in Semipalatinsk in 1991. Congress members visited the site and learned of the genetic damage done to local inhabitants.
So, what did the congress tell us about physicians’ present role in the world of war?
Firstly, that our message resonates in every quarter of the globe. Doctors and medical students came from Nepal and Costa Rica, Australia and Russia, Zambia and Nigeria, Switzerland and Ukraine, Finland and France—and many more—and all are doing amazing work in their home countries and regions. Local projects include a radio programme in Zambia, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, and the Democratic Republic of Congo on violence prevention; Nepalese medical students educating the public about nuclear weapons; doctors campaigning across the world against uranium mining; medical student cycle rides to further spread the peace message; and the medical peace work course, which provides online teaching on peace education.
The congress heard of two further major IPPNW programmes, which are moving the world progressively towards nuclear abolition. ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, was started by IPPNW and is now represented in over 90 countries. There has been considerable success in spreading IPPNW’s core message at the International Conference on the Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons, which is attended by 146 governments, but oddly not by the nuclear weapon states.
ICAN organizes the civil society forum and will work closely with the International Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, which have also come out for nuclear abolition. The next meeting in Vienna in December promises further pressure on states with nuclear weapons. ICAN also hopes to have the backing of the World Medical Association at its next meeting.
The second remarkable IPPNW programme is Aiming for Prevention, which is the campaign to end armed violence. Initiated largely by African states, the group researches, educates, informs, and advocates on small arm violence around the world.
One of the key speakers in Astana was Chris Mikton, from the World Health Organization’s Violence and Injury Prevention department, who presented striking data on the extent of interpersonal violence, which causes 1.5 million deaths a year—more than road traffic accidents and tuberculosis. WHO has an extensive violence prevention programme, including parenting support, life skills training, influencing social and cultural norms, and offering short courses on violence prevention. However, when asked about gun control, Mikton said this was not in their programme . . . could this be anything to do with US funding?
And Kazakhstan? Not at all what I expected: more European than Asian, and seemingly affluent and booming. Astana, the new capital, has a huge building programme of monumental gardens and plazas and wide roads, three Norman Foster skyscrapers, public buildings any city would die for, but so far in this gas rich country, no low carbon mass transit system. Our Kazakh IPPNW colleagues came over as warm, welcoming, and open, as well as intensely interested in the peace message. With members like these, the achievement of IPPNW is certain.
Tony Waterston is a retired paediatrician in Newcastle upon Tyne, working mainly in the community with long term conditions, disability, child abuse, and social and mental health concerns. His interests are in child public health, children’s rights, and global child health, and he leads the RCPCH teaching programme in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Competing interests: I am a member of Medact, the UK affiliate of IPPNW.