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Preventing armed conflict, it’s critical work for the health sector

Introduction by Croakey: A former Federal Liberal Health Minister and eminent public health advocate, Emeritus Professor Peter Baume, is among signatories to a recent open letter to the Prime Minister calling for Parliamentary oversight of decisions to take Australia into international armed conflict.

The letter is part of an ongoing campaign by Australians for War Powers Reform to end the current “opaque process” whereby decisions to send Australian troops to war are made by the Prime Minister, either acting alone or with small numbers of Cabinet members.

Other signatories to the letter, released amid widespread concern about senior officials and politicians banging the drums of war with China, include Richard Butler, a former ambassador to the United Nations and Chief UN weapons inspector in Iraq, Dr Helen Caldicott, Founding President of Physicians for Social Responsibility, and Dr Tilman Ruff, Co-President, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.

Dr Sue Wareham, President of the Medical Association for Prevention of War, who also signed the letter, writes below that health professionals and organisations should recognise that working for peace is foundational to preventative health agendas.

And she suggests that the prevention of armed conflict should be explicitly incorporated into medical and other health curricula.


Sue Wareham writes:

Health professionals from every field recognise the obligation to prevent harm, and preserve the health and dignity of all human beings. As some Australians talk up the potential for a major war with China, how can we fulfil our professional responsibilities in the face of the large scale suffering that wars bring?

War directly kills, maims, and terrifies people – disproportionately civilians – and leaves profound and often lifelong psychological damage for combatants and civilians alike.

It can ruin lives on an even greater scale by destroying the things that we all need to survive, such as healthcare, clean water and sanitation, shelter, food, transport and communications, and by affecting the social and political determinants of health – sometimes for generations.

War is therefore a health issue and an issue where health professionals can play a key role.

Conventionally, the role of health workers in war is seen to be to respond – to provide emergency medical treatment, or ameliorate physical and psychological wounds, after a war has begun.

But, here as elsewhere, the age-old adage that prevention is better than cure applies, especially when the likely scale of suffering is immense, and possibly far beyond our capacity to respond. In those instances, there is no “cure”.

Preventing the harms of war, using our most basic professional ethics – service to all, regardless of race, nationality, creed, politics or any other factor – becomes our only option.

And yet lately we’ve heard from Australia’s leaders and others romanticising about past wars, magnified claims that become lies, geo-strategic analysis from war planners, techno-hype about the latest weaponry, but very little about people, our health and what a future war would really mean.

Imagine a “conventional” war (with no weapons of mass destruction) in our region.

Would Australia’s healthcare system cope with attacks on Australian territory? How many civilians and military personnel, on all sides of this future war, would be likely to die, and what sorts of injuries would the survivors suffer? How many people would be displaced, who would look after them, and what would happen to children? What rates of PTSD would be likely, especially as atrocities and grievous human rights violations accompany every war?

And what about the increasing anxiety on the part of Chinese Australians right now about what’s to come, as war talk feeds into xenophobia?

War in the nuclear age between military giants would carry an additional risk – the use of nuclear weapons, and the unprecedented human suffering that would follow.

China has approximately 350 nuclear weapons, and the US has 5,550. There would be no meaningful medical response, in any nation, to the use of these weapons. Despite our training and our advanced equipment, there would be almost nothing we could do in the aftermath of a nuclear attack on our country, or anywhere.

For all these reasons, the drums of war that have been beating recently to prepare us for a possible major war, with Australia assumed to be in our customary position of subservience to the US, become alarm bells – and calls to action – for health professionals.

War is not an inevitable force of human nature, but the result of decisions made.

Preventative measures

Australia could take many concrete measures to promote peace and prevent the harms of war:

  • Properly fund diplomacy

This is our principal means of avoiding armed conflict, and yet Australian funding for diplomacy has plummeted over the past quarter century, as military budgets skyrocket. (See chapter 5 in the 2020 Defence Strategic Review, which sets out plans for an average of $1 billion military spending every week for the rest of this decade).

  • Stop profiting from wars

A nation such as Australia that aims to be a top weapons exporter has little incentive to promote peace. Weapons sales to the Saudi-led coalition that is bombing Yemen are a particularly egregious example of profit trumping health.

  • Beware of “experts” with vested interests

The weapons industry helps fund some of the very institutions whose spokespeople are listened to by government on foreign policy. See, for example, here and here.

  • Practise what we preach – on human rights and on military aggression

While China’s human rights record deserves strong condemnation, Australia’s also has much room for improvement. On military aggression, the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which Australia joined, was one of the most destructive and destabilising acts in recent times. We must put our own house in order.

  • Increase overseas aid

Aid is an effective way to build good international relations, but it was slashed yet again in last week’s budget. Australia’s total foreign aid budget of $4 billion is now less than one tenth of our defence budget of $44.6 billion.

  • Exhaustively scrutinise any proposal for war

The process for a PM to take Australia to war overseas is remarkably easy. Such a monumental decision should be subject to exhaustive scrutiny and debate in our parliament. You can take action here.

  • Join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

The TPNW is the only measure that’s leading us towards a nuclear weapons free world. It’s long since time for Australia to abandon the myth of “deterrence” with these most inhumane of all weapons, and join the Treaty. You can take action here.

Healthy advocacy

There are many things that health professionals can do, such as promoting the above steps to their MPs and urging that Australia talk up, and work for, peace rather than war.

In addition, the prevention of armed conflict between nations should be explicitly incorporated into medical and other health curricula.

Professional organisations have an important role to play, with the Australian Nursery and Midwifery Federation position statement on peace being a very fine example; the Public Health Association of Australia’s recognition of the importance of peace for health is also valuable.

Health organisations’ policies and advocacy for Australia to join the nuclear weapons ban treaty (TPNW) are growing and powerful.

Health professionals’ voices are credible, and can bring about change.

In 2021, The Medical Association for Prevention of War (Australia) marks 40 years of advocacy for peace. Voices for peace such as ours have made huge progress towards getting rid of nuclear weapons, and we’ve kept up the pressure for non-violent approaches to conflicts.

It’s as urgent today as ever that we mobilise to prevent the harms of war, to uphold peace, and preserve humanity. Please join us today.

Dr Sue Wareham OAM, President, Medical Association for Prevention of War (Australia)


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Comments 1

  1. Roger Keyes says:

    Thank you Dr Wareham .. this is a concise and clear exposition of why we must put War right off the Agenda. If it ever was, it is certainly now is no longer able to be contemplated as an option in the solution of international disputes. There is no substitute for Truthfully speaking face to face with The Other, and considering her or his Aspirations and Hopes. We need to rise above our own “National Interests”. The interests of all are worthy of honest consideration. I hope this article will receive wide circulation, Roger Keyes.

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naturopathy
NDIS
NHMRC
non communicable diseases
nurses and nursing
oral health
organ transplants
out of pocket costs
pain
palliative care
paramedics
pathology
Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme
pharmaceutical industry
pharmacy
Pregnancy and childbirth
primary health care
Primary Health Networks
private health insurance
quality and safety of health care
rural and remote health
screening
sexual health
social media and healthcare
suicide
surgery
swine flu
telehealth
tests
TGA
trauma
women's health
youth health
Indigenous health
#CTG10
#NTRC
Acknowledgement
cultural safety
Indigenous education
Lowitja Institute
NT Intervention
social and emotional wellbeing
Uluru Statement
WA community closures
News about Croakey
PIJ Commissions 2021
Public health and population health
#PreventiveHealthStrategy
#UnmetNeedsinPublicHealth
air pollution
alcohol
consumer health matters
COVIDwrap
environmental health
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD)
food and nutrition
gambling
Government 2.0
gun control
health communications
health impact assessment
Health in All Policies
health inequalities
health literacy
human rights
illicit drugs
injuries
legal issues
marriage equality
Media Doctor Australia
media-related issues
nanny state
National Preventive Health Agency
obesity
occupational health
physical activity
plain packaging
prevention
public health
public interest journalism
road safety
sport
sugar tax
tobacco control
transport
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Web 2.0
weight loss products
Royal Commission
Social determinants of health
discrimination
education
housing
justice
Justice Reinvestment
NBN
Newstart
poverty
racism
social policy
Summer reading 2020-2021
Tasmanian election 2021
Testing Croakey News category 1
The Croakey Archives
#cripcroakey
#HealthEquity16
#HealthMatters
#IHMayDay (all years)
#IHMayDay 2014
#IHMayDay15
#IHMayday16
#IHMayDay17
#IHMayDay18
#LoveRural 2014
Croakey Conference News Service 2013 – 2019
2013 conferences
Australian Centre for Health Services Innovation Forum 2013
Australian Health Promotion Association Conference 2013
Closing the Credibility Gap 2013
CRANAplus Conference 2013
FASD Conference 2013
Health Workforce Australia 2013
International Health Literacy Network Conference 2013
NACCHO Summit 2013
National Rural Health Conference 2013
Oceania EcoHealth Symposium 2013
PHAA conference 2013
2014 conferences