Dear Friends and Family,
Yesterday was my second day attending the United Nations New York convention for a treaty banning nuclear weapons. I hope the news of the US shooting down Syrian jets and the Russians buzzing US military aircraft, our navy practicing attacks on North Korea right off shore, and Kim Jong Un threatening to nuke Seoul and Tokyo is enough to make you believe this is not a trivial matter. Remember Russia can have nukes in every major American city in the next hour if they so choose. Our security needs to based on something safer than the constant threat of nuclear holocaust.
I am here in the company of hundreds of representatives of various NGOs supporting over a hundred international delegations to the United Nations conference to “negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons”. As a representative of the Security Committee of Physicians for Social Responsibility, I work closely with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, a coalition of over 400 NGOs in 60 countries. The energy and optimism that the work here will result in a treaty is impressive. ICAN is run by very smart young people who have been working for a decade to get the UN to this point. There are also many old timers like myself who have been involved in one way or another for many decades. The sheer collective knowledge base among us is inspiring. I can get an answer to almost any technical or practical question I imagine.
Furthermore, present are Hibakusha from Hiroshima and Nagasaki as you might guess, but also victims from the British nuclear tests in Australia in the 1950s and French tests in the Pacific in the 1960s. Most surprising was meeting a woman from Erwin, Tennessee, not too far from where I used to live in Southwest Virginia, telling of victims from “nuclear Appalachia” where uranium processing is still being carried out apart from the Oak Ridge operation, that has devastated communities through contamination and cancer. All these remind me that the strategic decision to continue to produce nuclear weapons comes with human medical costs not counted by those who decide how to spend our taxes.
My job is to observe proceedings and provide technical advice when the need arises. My niche is the medical effects of nuclear weapons, and the degree to which my profession will be able to respond in a disaster. In addition, I have been assigned to lobby the missions of 9 nations who supported the negotiations but have not yet taken part, to do so. If anyone knows someone in the governments of Angola, Azerbaijan, Belize, Kyrgystan, Lesotho, Nauru, Nicaragua, or Somalia, let me know.
As far as the treaty negotiations are going, I am being introduced to the political process inherent to 125 nations giving their opinions about each of the 20 articles in the treaty, paragraph by paragraph. A very patient and diplomatic ambassador from Costa Rica, the elected president of the convention, guides the long reading, commentary, and suggested amendments to the text. I am impressed at how fluent the delegates seem with the language of the treaty texts.
That the majority of the nations of the world are at least willing to talk about banning nuclear weapons over the objections of the nuclear weapons states and their subjects is most heartening. This has given me renewed hope since feeling badly about the lack of awareness in common American culture of this existential threat. Even here, last Saturday, a “Women’s March to Ban the Bomb” drew only a few hundred people (a drenching rain did not help the numbers), compared to when I was here with close to a million people for a similar event in 1982. It seems that there is almost a news blackout about nuclear weapons issues in general and this event in particular. The only local news I have seen was when a handful of protesters were arrested yesterday for blocking the US mission entrance. Have any of you seen anything about this historic UN convention in the news? On the other hand, a Canadian colleague and I were interviewed Monday by a Japanese newspaper reporter.
None of the nuclear weapons states are participating in the conference, leading us Americans to try to get a meeting with US Ambassador Nikki Haley. So far no audience has been granted. No members of NATO, who claim to be protected by the US nuclear “umbrella” are participating, except for the Netherlands, which has a delegate and a member of parliament on site. The UK also has member of Parliament here, despite their Prime Minister opposing the negotiations. Wouldn’t it be great if a US Congress person were brave enough to attend, or at least send a staffer?
Of all the benefits of being here, the best is meeting people who recognize that we can change the world for the better and are willing to dedicate their lives to that end. I found one kindred spirit whose work spans the spectrum of my own interests – the former director of the Nonviolent Peaceforce, which explores the cutting edge technology of nonviolent action, and yet knowledgeable enough about nuclear weapons to write a new edition of his book on their strategic use just in time for the occasion of this conference. This evening at a party for young activists I met a lawyer who has defended peace activists and upheld the rule of law for 40 years; we have come to many of the same conclusions about nuclear weapons and human nature, while at the same time giving each other a few new insights.
If, at this point you are asking what can do, I would say the greatest need is publicity. The best thing is to write a letter to the editor or call your local news outlet about the treaty negotiations and ask for coverage, and spread the word on social media. This is a very historic moment, with a lot more youthful energy and potential to inspire others than I had imagined before seeing it. Let’s get the word out.
Your thoughts and prayers are welcome.
John Reuwer, MD
PJC Member and Collaborator, and representative of Physicians for Social Responsibility