On the 20th of August, 2020, IPPNW and METO held a joint webinar targeted at stimulating disarmament initiatives from within the Middle East titled, “Building the movement of health workers to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe involving nuclear weapons”. The idea was inspired by the work of the original founders of IPPNW, Soviet and US physicians, who were among the first to recognise the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons on human health and the dangers they pose to human civilisation and even the very survival of human beings as a species. Almost 100 people from all over the world registered and well over 50% of them attended.
The webinar kicked off with words of welcome from IPPNW Executive Director, Michael Christ who gave a short background to IPPNW, their Nobel Peace Prize from 1985, and their work in launching ICAN in 2007 who won their own Nobel Peace Prize in 2017. IPPNW’s non-political style of campaigning gives them the freedom to speak not as self-serving politicians, but truly as representatives of the medical personnel who will have to bear the brunt of any nuclear conflict and who know better than anyone the long-term effects on the health, not only of human beings, but all forms of life on this planet.
To recapture some of the sense of wonder in the 1980s when IPPNW did the unthinkable and made Washington and Moscow pay attention to the insanity of nuclear war, a short clip was shown of the extraordinary moment when US and Soviet doctors spoke on Soviet television to an estimated audience of 200 million viewers about the need to eliminate nuclear weapons.
The rest of the webinar was moderated by Dr Bjorn Hilt, IPPNW Board Chair from Norway.
First of all he introduced IPPNW Co-president, Dr Ira Helfand, who talked about the detailed risks of a nuclear war, using recently-updated data concerning two scenarios. Firstly, a limited nuclear war between minor nuclear powers such as India and Pakistan. Secondly, a major nuclear war between the USA and Russia. In the former, with “only” an exchange of 100 warheads, between 75 and 125 million people would die in the first week, followed by up to 2 billion people around the world due to the famine resulting from the nuclear winter. In the latter, an all-out war using thousands of warheads, there could be half a billion people dead in the first week, and an ice age would ensue the like of which hasn’t been seen for 18,000 years. If any humans were capable of surviving, the food production system would collapse and starvation and probable extinction would thus be the result. As Ira said so eloquently, “now, this is a danger which we face every day. This is not the plot of a bad movie, this is the threat that we have created for ourselves and which continues to threaten the existence of our civilization, every day that we allow these weapons to continue to exist.”
He further pointed out the importance of disarmament efforts coming from the region of the Middle East, explaining that even if there aren’t currently two nuclear weapon powers within the region that could go to war with nuclear weapons, tensions in the region could lead to nuclear war because of the involvement of outside powers in the region. Furthermore, “The Middle East is one of the most food insecure portions of the planet. It suffers chronic water shortages as well, and because of this it would be particularly vulnerable to the disruption in food production that would follow a nuclear war any place on the planet.”
Bjorn then handed the floor to Chuck Johnson, IPPNW director of nuclear programs, who gave an update on the various treaties concerned with WMDs and the situation in terms of ratifications of countries in the region of the proposed WMDFZ. He paid specific attention to the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which could provide a pathway for a country such as Israel, which has steadfastly refused until now to entertain any idea of joining the NPT, to give up its nuclear weapons. The situation with respect to chemical and biological weapons was also presented. Chuck finished by alluding to the November 2019, UN-mandated conference to prepare a treaty for a WMDFZ in the Middle East. “It gave us a lot of hope that there is a possibility that this treaty might have the ability to move forward at some point and hopefully soon!”
The next speaker was Emad Kiyaei, METO co-founder, who gave more background on the WMDFZ and its inherent connection to the NPT process, nothing that that process has failed to take any of the agreed steps towards the zone. As a result, efforts in the UN General Assembly have given renewed impetus to the process by mandating the “November Conference” process that started in 2019 with a conference in New York between representatives of all 22 countries of the Arab League, Iran, and the UN Security Council P5, minus the United States. Only Israel and the US failed to attend. Despite this setback, the conference could take place.
Emad then went on to describe some of the major obstacles to a zone: Israel’s nuclear program, Iran’s nuclear program, whatever is left of Syria’s chemical weapon program, Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s nuclear program, a general over-militarisation of the region, Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry, the Israel-Palestine conflict and others. All of these are challenges that will have to be resolved, and initiatives coming from IPPNW and METO are essential. “We are clear-eyed about the fact that these challenges are there, but we are also very aware that if we do not pursue or introduce avenues forward, we may feel like we are stuck in the mud.”
Finally, of the presenters, was Sharon Dolev, METO co-founder, who talked more about the work of METO and the history of the Draft Treaty, a project established by members of civil society, academia and diplomats, from inside and outside the region, to prove that it is possible to make a WMDFZ Treaty and that two things must be overcome: a lack of belief and a lack of goodwill. The Draft Treaty which is currently in its third iteration with iterations 4 and 5 in the pipeline is a tool for campaigning.
When talking about the November 2019 conference, Sharon explained, “What we saw in this room last November was states that usually do not agree with each other, it’s not just after all the Israel-Arab conflict, there are so many conflicts in within the Middle East, and yet we saw 23 states sitting in the room and making progress, reaching an agreement, and reaching a final document. And in this final document, the first paragraph invites initiatives like our initiative to continue the progress and to continue contributing ideas for the promotion of the zone, and that is very encouraging, especially inside the Middle East.”
Sharon’s final point concerned the possibilities that open up when countries from the region are in the same room talking to each other. “We know that once they’re in the room, then we can talk about human security, and that for us is a very important second step.” Clearly, military security will not come without human security.
Before the Q and A, Molly McGinty, IPPNW program associate, warmly welcomed everyone in the webinar to join IPPNW and METO, and to spread the word and encourage others to do likewise.
This webinar was a starting point for a mutually beneficial cooperation between IPPNW and METO which both have evaluated as something very positive and to be repeated in the future targeting different segments of society. As Ira Helfand so clearly said, “The choice is up to us, and if we make the right choice, and if we act decisively and with courage and the determination, we can eliminate these weapons, we can save the world from this terrible danger.”