Tony Waterston: ICAN, you can, we can: banning the bomb in Basel

Tony WaterstonBeing a member of a Nobel peace prize-winning organisation confers pride but not necessarily a sense of direction. Both were overwhelmingly present at the 19th Congress of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War in Basel, which was attended by a record number of doctors and medical students from North and South America, Europe, the Middle and Far East, and Australasia.

Pride comes from the remarkable history of IPPNW which gained the peace prize only 5 years after its founding by an American and Russian cardiologist in 1980, at the height of the cold war. President Gorbachev in his memoires paid tribute to the influence of IPPNW on his policies for nuclear weapons reduction. Since then, the movement has brought together Indian and Pakistani doctors, Chinese and Russians, and Israelis and Palestinians, all with an anti-nuclear agenda.

Is the IPPNW still relevant in the 21st century, when we are surrounded by non-nuclear health threats such as climate change, the north south divide, and the tobacco epidemic? I think it definitely is. First, because nuclear weapons could end the world as we know it at any time, and yet are no defence: as one speaker put it well, “security is primarily a matter of relationships.” And second, IPPNW is relevant because it unites doctors in tackling the causes of conflict – and this includes both small arms (the objective of the African affiliates) and misunderstanding and prejudice (the objective of the middle east affiliates).

At the Basel meeting, a sense of direction came from the Middle East affiliates and from ICAN. At the workshop on a middle east nuclear free zone there were doctors and students from Egypt, Israel, the occupied Palestinian territories, Iraq, and Iran, together with the US and many European countries. The Iranian affiliate members were wholly constructive whilst arguing that threats directed at their country would be less effective than incentives, and pointing out that there is a significant anti-nuclear movement in Iran.

The Palestinian and Israeli affiliates will work together on a proposal to heighten public awareness in the region on the medical effects of a conflict between Israel and Iran –  as this is little understood by the general public in Israel. Work will also continue on developing a nuclear free zone in the region and an IPPNW delegation will visit governments to argue the case.

And ICAN? This major project of IPPNW is the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. Utopian? Maybe –but so was the campaign to end the slave trade, and do we not have an equally good case? As a result of IPPNW lobbying, the UN secretary general has thrown his weight behind the setting up of a Nuclear Weapons convention (the main aim of ICAN) and the final document of the recent NPT review committee also called for the same. Perhaps not so utopian.

What will I remember most from the Congress? I think the interfaith service in the Predigerkirche in Basel which was attended by a large number of the doctors from many different countries. The service included readings from Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Bahai, Hindu and Alevitic texts chosen to represent complementary philosophies. Music also played a large part in this hugely moving service, which finished with an improvisation on the church’s three organs based on the recited texts from the service.

Tony Waterston is a 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.