Tony Waterston: Why can’t we stop nuclear weapons?

Doctors first started to speak out about the health impact of nuclear weapons way back in 1980; the BMA published The Medical Effects of Nuclear weapons in 1983 and it was in 1985 that International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its work in publicising what nuclear weapons do to people. Now here we are 30 years later with more countries possessing these “aweful” weapons than ever before – nine at least, including Israel, and several more on the want-to-be list.

Yet in the madly illogical world of nuclear negotiations, it is considered more dangerous for Iran to take steps to develop nuclear weapons than for Israel to possess them, Britain considers that its own weapon, which is entirely US controlled, acts as an independent deterrent (against whom?), and the five “official”  nuclear powers recently boycotted a conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. Not to speak of UK planning to spend £12bn that it doesn’t have on updating Trident, which most of the population doesn’t want.

All these issues came to mind when I attended the NGO section of the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) preparatory committee in Geneva at the end of April (this prepares for the NPT review in 2015), as a member of Medact, the UK affiliate of IPPNW.

Fortunately the NGO meetings were islands of sanity and clear thinking and the work of the International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear weapons (ICAN), which was initiated by IPPNW, was seen as of high quality and led by forward thinking men and women from 70 countries with speakers from Israel, Nigeria, Argentina, Egypt and Switzerland.  The focus of the day which I attended was the plan for a conference on a Middle East weapons of mass destruction free zone (WMDFZ) . A meeting with a Foreign Office minister demonstrated the commitment of the British to openness with NGOs and their strong wish – as one of the four conveners of the anticipated conference – for the meeting to go forward. Due to take place in Helsinki last December, the meeting was cancelled at short notice owing to Israel’s unwillingness to participate.

Here we enter diplomatic niceties where no one is prepared to be honest about the stumbling blocks in the way of actually getting round a table. Could Israel’s refusal to acknowledge its own nuclear weapons be one of the reasons?
The end result was that the Arab states were angry about the lack of progress being made and Egypt walked out of the NPT prepcom.

To me this was a bit like a long anticipated child protection case conference being cancelled on a whim, and the child at the centre (the long suffering Middle East population) being the ones to suffer.

Fortunately the NGOs came to the rescue in the form of a brave Egyptian delegation which, supported by the Israeli ICAN member, offered to set up a “mock” conference on a ME-WMDFZ (sorry the initials are terrible). The aim would be to test the water and perhaps embarrass the recalcitrant governments into attending?

Is this a health issue? Surely, since nuclear war is the worse health calamity to hit the world and could easily happen. Do doctors have a part to play? Surely, in highlighting the need for prevention and also the huge benefits to population health if Middle East states work together on energy resources, climate change, food and water and refugees. This kind of cooperation surely confers a much higher degree of security than any number of nuclear weapons.

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.