One doctor’s vision inspires thousands around the world

Helsinki 2006: Around 300 health professionals from around the world gathered for the 17th Congress of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). Australian delegates presented a novel proposal ─ for a new International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). And to seal the deal, they had brought with them the irresistible “ICAN garoo”.

At the time, I wondered if we could get a sizable toy kangaroo to aid our campaigning!

ICANgaroo campaign materials from the Helsinki conference. Image credit: ICAN

The birth and historic role of the medical anti- nuclear movement

In the early 1980s, the fear of a major nuclear conflict was all-pervading. Local scenarios of the devastation following a nuclear blast caused nightmares, and the choice was to either give way to fear and bury our heads in the sand, or to do something.

MCANW – Treatment Not Trident campaign 1988

And then a small item in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) about the formation of an organisation called the Medical Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons (MCANW) provided a way forward to campaign on the issue.

MCANW was one of two UK affiliates of the IPPNW, which was formed in 1981 by Bernard Lown and Eugene Chazov, and in 1985 received the Nobel Peace Prize. Dr Ron McCoy, consultant obstetrician in Malaysia, read of this award in the BMJ, and, knowing the accounts of what had happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was first able to join the IPPNW through MCANW before going on to form a Malaysian affiliate.

With discussion on further reductions in nuclear arsenals stagnating on the international stage, and smaller states ignored by those in possession, Dr McCoy had a ‘lightbulb moment’ of seeing a way forward based on emphasising the effects of nuclear conflict on people and planet. Remembering the process that resulted in the international treaty banning landmines, he proposed a new way to work towards a similar legally-binding treaty on nuclear weapons. It would be called the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

This was enthusiastically taken up by IPPNW’s Australian affiliate, who developed the strategy that spread ICAN across the world through IPPNW.

And so, when UK Medact members returned from Helsinki, ICAN UK was born. Representatives of organisations including WILPF, CND and SGR were invited to a meeting at Medact’s office in the Grayston Centre, and for years Medact played a crucial role in ICAN UK’s activities.2

How to take in the enormity of the Nuclear Ban Treaty?

On the one hand, none of the acknowledged or covert nuclear weapon states have signed the Treaty, and some have actively manoeuvred against it. But on the other hand, it provides a detailed framework and a very welcome change to enable more states and organisations to negotiate and to sign up.

IPPNW receiving the Nobel Peace Prize

This gives some hope for the future; however, we must not slacken our efforts to encourage all nations to move toward the total elimination of nuclear weapons.

Above all, I feel a sense of deep gratitude to Ron for his inspiration and leadership, to MAPW and IPPNW, and to the countless individuals, some of whom have given all their free time to this cause. I am also thankful to the organisations who came on board, to those brave governments who have assisted the process, and signed and ratified the Treaty despite pressure not to do so.

We celebrate the co-operation and shared endeavour that has brought us to this moment. And, of course, I remember those who sadly left us too soon, and would have dearly loved to be here to see this day, especially Gill Reeve of Medact and Dr Bill Williams (and his kangaroo), co-founder of ICAN.


1 MCANW was a founding campaigner of the ban on landmines that is signed and ratified by the United Kingdom
2 The acronyms stand for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Scientists for Global Responsibility, respectively.