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As millions flee Ukraine, the focus must be on abolishing nuclear weapons

The crisis in Europe is a reminder that the abolition of nuclear weapons remains one of the greatest unfulfilled preventive health imperatives, on a par with climate action, writes Dr Sue Wareham OAM, National President of the Medical Association for Prevention of War (Australia).

Beneath her article see tweets from the World Health Organization and others about the assault on Ukraine, from where two million people, mainly women and children, have fled in the past fortnight.


Sue Wareham writes:

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has created human devastation and misery on a large scale. Ukrainians flee in fear or face brutality, and their health workers struggle under intolerable pressure, and at great risk.  Russian President Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons has not only escalated the crisis for the people of Ukraine, but added a new dimension – with implications for us all.

Many Russians look in horror at what their country is doing. Russian doctors, nurses and paramedics recently spoke out against the war, capturing the essence of the calling of health professionals, in a letter which was translated and published in the BMJ.

They wrote: “We swore to help any human, regardless of nationality, religion, or political views. But today our help is not enough.”  The letter calls for “an immediate cessation of hostilities and for the resolution of all political issues exclusively by peaceful means”.

The World Health Organization Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and his European region counterpart have also issued a plea for health to remain a priority, with health systems and health workers being protected and the passage of medical supplies, including oxygen, being secured. In addition to war trauma, the country has 1,700 hospital patients with COVID, and the many others with acute and chronic health conditions who require care.

The voices of health professionals must be strong in demanding peace for the people of Ukraine – and elsewhere, including those places that are largely forgotten. For Ukraine, a ceasefire, the withdrawal of Russian troops and the delivery of all necessary humanitarian relief are essential. And if stability is to be achieved, there must also be a serious examination of the security concerns of all nations in the region, including Russia.

With health as a priority, the issue of nuclear weapons demands particular attention. Peak world health bodies over many years have stated (see for example here and here) – with calls to action – that if nuclear weapons are used again, health professionals would have very little to offer. In the targeted cities, health workers and everything we need to deliver services would be virtually destroyed.

But the effects would go much further and include climate disruption from burning cities, agricultural decline and resultant famine in many places around the globe.

It was this medical reality that played a key role in delivering the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, rendering the weapons illegal under international humanitarian law. It is the only current global initiative that is heading towards a nuclear weapons free world. The Medical Association for Prevention of War in Australia initiated ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which played a huge role in achieving this result.

Many nations at fault

Despite Putin’s recent threat, which is irresponsible in the extreme, the problem does not finish with Russia. There are over 13,000 nuclear weapons in the world, shared between nine nations, with the vast majority being held by the US and Russia.

Russia, the US, the UK and France all have policies that allow them to be the first to launch a nuclear strike. Australia supports US policies and claims “protection” by US weapons.

Efforts to get rid of these genocidal weapons have consistently been thwarted by the myth of “nuclear deterrence”, the notion that making a nuclear weapons threat keeps nations  safe. However, “deterrence” is a patent failure in preventing wars, the Ukraine war being merely the latest of many examples of populations fighting back against a nuclear-armed adversary.

A joint statement on 1 March, by Mexico, New Zealand, Austria and other nations said, “We condemn all use or threat of use of nuclear weapons by any actor, under any circumstances”.

Australia has consistently refused to condemn the use of nuclear weapons in all circumstances, thus making us ill-placed to decry any nation’s threat to use the weapons.

Why does this matter to health professionals?

It matters because the abolition of nuclear weapons remains one of the greatest unfulfilled preventive health imperatives – on a par with climate action. Nuclear weapons must never be used, no matter the circumstances or provocation. They must be eliminated. For this reason Australia must reject any role for nuclear weapons in our defence, and sign and ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

The situation in Ukraine is already a human catastrophe which must be stopped, and the recent wakeup call to get rid of weapons that threaten the whole globe must be acted on, while we have time.

Dr Sue Wareham OAM is President, Medical Association for Prevention of War (Australia). Her previous articles at Croakey include:
Preventing armed conflict, it’s critical work for the health sector
As the world watches Ukraine, here are some of the global health stakes.


From Twitter


Watch the video with the WHO’s Dr Mike Ryan here.