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27 Jun 2018

Nobel Peace Prize recipient Associate Professor Tilman Ruff delivered a sobering and powerful anti-nuclear weapons speech at the AMA Leadership Development Dinner on Friday, May 25 at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra.

Professor Ruff is Co-President of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW, Nobel Peace Prize 1985); and founding international and Australian Chair of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2017 “for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons".

In his address to mostly young doctors, Professor Ruff said the fact he was invited to speak on such a topic at an AMA National Conference event was encouraging.

“In the 1980s, after producing detailed reports on the effects of nuclear war on health and health services, the World Health Organisation concluded that nuclear weapons constitute the greatest immediate threat to human health and welfare. They are the only weapons which loom as an acute existential threat to planetary health,” he said.

“Every moment of every day that they exist, launch ready, they threaten everything we strive for and love, everything that matters, the species with which we share our Earth, and everything we are professionally obligated to protect and uphold. Everything that is made, built, lived and struggled for over generations, everything discussed at this conference, could become tragically irrelevant if we do not eradicate nuclear weapons before they are again used. In a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine we asked the stark question: will it be the end of nuclear weapons or the end of us?

“We are the first humans in our long evolutionary history to face twin existential dangers of our own making – ecosystem disruption particularly through rampant global warming, and nuclear weapons. The first is evolving and partly reversible; the second acute and largely irreversible.

“The consequences of any use of nuclear weapons would be cataclysmic. If a war that began in the South China Sea or the Korean peninsula escalated, the warheads on Chinese ballistic missiles that would head for Australia would be up to five megatons, five million tons of TNT in explosive power. A single such warhead over a city would ignite hundreds of thousands of fires that would rapidly coalesce into a massive firestorm 45 kilometres across, releasing many times more energy than the explosion itself.

“In Canberra, spanning past Uriarra and Bywong, stretching to Royalla and Tidbinbilla, temperatures would exceed 800°Celsius and every living thing would die.

“In Melbourne, in this area would extend to Springvale, Wantirna, Warrandyte, past Greenvale and to Point Cook. Such a weapon over Sydney would burn all the area between Mona Vale, Parramatta, and Sutherland.

“It is the unequivocal conclusion of WHO and the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, the world’s largest humanitarian organisation, among others, that no effective health and humanitarian response is possible to even a single nuclear detonation on an urban centre. The only cure is prevention.”

Professor Ruff went on to say that eradicating nuclear weapons has been urgent and unfinished business since the very first resolution of the United Nations General Assembly on 24 January 1946 called for the elimination of nuclear weapons. International law requires nuclear disarmament, to which all States are ostensibly committed.

“We have made substantial progress in controlling other kinds of indiscriminate and inhumane weapons,” he said.

“Treaties which prohibit and provide for the elimination of biological and chemical weapons, landmines and cluster munitions have dramatically reduced the production, stockpiling, financing and use of these weapons.

“In each case, the approach which has proven effective is to establish that these weapons can only have indiscriminate, unacceptable consequences; and codify their rejection in an international treaty that provides the same legal standard for all states. This then provides the basis and motivation for the weapons’ progressive elimination. Stigmatise – prohibit – eliminate.”

Professor Ruff told his audience that medical and scientific evidence, and effective evidence-based advocacy, was key to reaching agreement for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and an international ban on nuclear proliferation.

But he said many nations, including our own, were not acting in ways that would advance elimination.

“We custodians of human health have a key role to play to now use the treaty as a tool to advance nuclear weapons elimination,” Professor Ruff said.

“Albert Einstein said those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act. I feel that strongly, and that health evidence and health professionals have a key role to play.

“While this responsibility is heavy, it cannot be ignored. The problem will not go away through denial or inattention. While our predicament is unprecedented, so is the opportunity to do good. What better thing to do with one’s life than, literally, labour to save the world.”


Published: 27 Jun 2018