Dr. Ira Helfand, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) and International Steering Group, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)
Over 130 medical and health journals, including the Lancet, the British Medical Journal, the New England Journal of Medicine, and JAMA have issued a joint call for health professionals to advocate for the abolition of nuclear weapons and for the nations of the world to take urgent steps to decrease the growing danger of nuclear war and move rapidly to the elimination of nuclear weapons. At a time of expanded fighting in Ukraine and increased tensions in the Korean Peninsula, leaders of the global health community have underscored that any use of nuclear weapons would be catastrophic for humanity.
The unprecedented call to action came in the form of an editorial co-authored by the editors of 11 of the leading medical and health journals, the World Association of Medical Editors, and leaders of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). The editorial was released on August 1, 2023, in conjunction with the start of the UN Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Preparatory Committee meeting and the 78th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.
“The danger is great and growing,” the editorial warns. “The nuclear armed states must eliminate their nuclear arsenals before they eliminate us. The health community played a decisive part during the cold war and more recently in the development of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). We must take up this challenge again as an urgent priority, working with renewed energy to reduce the risks of nuclear war and to eliminate nuclear weapons.”
The editorial specifically urges “health professional associations to inform their members worldwide about the threat to human survival and to join with the IPPNW to support efforts to reduce the near term risks of nuclear war.”
In keeping with Section 13 of the final Declaration of the First Meeting of States Parties to the TPNW, which urges “interim measures to reduce the risk of use and threat of use of nuclear weapons,” the editorial calls on health professionals to push the nuclear armed states, and those allied with them, to take three immediate steps: “first, adopt a no first use policy; second, take their nuclear weapons off hair trigger alert; and, third, urge all states involved in current conflicts to pledge publicly and unequivocally that they will not use nuclear weapons in these conflicts.”
The editorial also urges health professionals “to work for a definitive end to the nuclear threat by supporting the urgent commencement of negotiations among the nuclear armed states for a verifiable, timebound agreement to eliminate their nuclear weapons in accordance with commitments in the [NPT],” and calls for “all nations to join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.”
The TPNW prohibits developing, testing, producing, possessing, transferring, using, and threatening to use nuclear weapons. It also includes obligations to work toward the elimination of nuclear weapons and to assist victims and remediate the environment affected by the use or testing of nuclear weapons.
By linking recommendations to engage with nuclear armed states with calls to universalize the TPNW, the editorial suggests that the time may be ripe to use the TPNW more aggressively to affect policy within the nuclear armed states.
Medical journals usually work very hard to make sure that nothing they publish has ever appeared anywhere else. The fact that all of these journals agreed to publish the same editorial is a powerful statement of their concern about the current crisis and the need for urgent action.
The editorial itself may be a useful model for seeking public statements of support from other professions for the TPNW and will, in any case, be a highly useful tool in educating the public and decision makers about the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and the urgent need to universalize the TPNW and eliminate them.
We at IPPNW have already found that this landmark editorial is opening doors for us in our discussions with diplomats about engaging the World Health Organization in updating its 1987 report Effects of Nuclear War on Health and Health Services. If anyone is interested in assisting us in advocacy in this effort or any other, please contact Policy Director Chuck Johnson, based in IPPNW’s new office in Geneva.