Picture of Mary-Wynne Ashford

Photo Credit: CRB Photography

Mary-Wynne Ashford is a retired family practitioner and board member of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War Canada.

The dream of the founders of the United Nations has finally come to fruition. The first resolution of the General Assembly on January 24th, 1946 called for the peaceful uses of atomic energy and the elimination of atomic and other weapons of mass destruction. Now at last, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons became law when the 50th country ratified it. The Treaty will come into force January 22, 2021, almost exactly 75 years after the first resolution. Canada has not yet signed.

Doctors founded the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) in 1981 to bring together Soviet and American doctors to alert the world that the greatest threat to human health is the danger of nuclear war. IPPNW quickly grew to over one hundred thousand doctors worldwide. IPPNW received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.

For decades people have marched, protested, sung songs, made films and written books calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons, and for decades the nuclear weapons states have stymied all efforts to force them to disarm.

What happened to bypass intransigent nations was that Norway moved outside the UN to hold a conference of like-minded states to talk about the humanitarian consequences of these horrific weapons. Holding conferences outside the UN is known as the “Ottawa” process, after Canadian Foreign Minister, Lloyd Axworthy, used it to get the 1997 treaty to ban landmines.

Norway also broke from usual UN meetings by inviting civil society participation and expertise. For the first time, the agenda changed from discussion of security and deterrence to what actually happens in a nuclear attack. Experts, including doctors, scientists and academics, testified to the effects of a limited nuclear exchange on the people, the economy, the agriculture, the climate and the long lasting effects on the whole world.

Doctors have been involved in raising awareness of the catastrophic health consequences of nuclear weapons since the early 1960s when they found that in the areas downwind of US nuclear bomb tests, children’s baby teeth contained radioactive strontium. The resulting protests against radioactive fallout forced Kennedy and Kruschev to ban atmospheric bomb tests in 1963. By the 1980s, the world was awash with nuclear weapons, with 70,000 at the peak of the Cold War. We still have 13,410 nuclear weapons with 2,500 on high alert – launch on warning.

IPPNW founded the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) in 2007 because there was a need for a large coalition of disarmament groups to work to end the stalemate of negotiations at the United Nations.

ICAN represented civil society in collaboration with governments at the series of conferences on humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. ICAN was awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for this work that resulted in the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

The Treaty is very explicit. There can be no misinterpretation or waffling on its provisions. It prohibits the development, testing, production, stockpiling, transfer, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons. It also prohibits countries giving assistance and encouragement to the prohibited activities. Finally, any direct or indirect control over nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices is forbidden.

At a time when the Presidents of the US and North Korea have both threatened the use of nuclear weapons, the risk of a devastating exchange has been so extreme, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist advanced the hands of the Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds to midnight. That is the highest it has been since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. It is particularly dangerous that a president, alone, can order a nuclear attack.

An exchange of fewer than 100 nuclear bombs would not only kill tens of millions immediately, but it would hurl black, radioactive soot and debris high into the stratosphere where it would remain, blotting out the sun and causing widespread crop failures and famine. Nearly two billion people would likely die.

Actually eliminating nuclear weapons will take decades, because the long, stepwise process must include mutual safeguards, inspection, and verification of the dismantling and disposing of the weapons. The most difficult part is not the technical details, however. It is getting the nuclear powers to give up the myth that security can be guaranteed by weapons that can end life on earth in an afternoon.  Leaders at the UN have said that it will take the full force of civil society to convince all governments to join the Treaty. After 75 years, we can celebrate, but we can’t stop marching.