By Linda Gunter
With the 2017 ICAN Nobel Peace Prize win and UN nuclear weapons ban, we have celebrated the advent of youth to the cause. But we must not forget or dismiss the elders who got us here.
Beatrice Fihn, the executive director of ICAN, whom we profiled earlier, is very much the welcome fresh face of today’s nuclear weapons ban movement. But she is not the ICAN founder. That honor lies with 87-year old Dr. Ron McCoy, a Malaysian physician. (Headline photo of McCoy at the campaigners’ meeting by Xanthe Hall (IPPNW/ICAN).
A retired OB/GYN, McCoy participated in the numerous meetings that were the run-up to the successful negotiation of the UN nuclear weapons ban. His compadres were mostly in their 30s. And he was as much a part of the action, as well as the inspiration, that secured the ban.
This was never more apparent than at a meeting held at a charming little villa in Geneva, used for breakout sessions during the 2016 UN Open Ended Working Group on Disarmament. McCoy’s session took place in a far ante room with only one way out — through the main conference room. In that room, the Hibakusha were relating their moving and powerful stories, once again painfully reliving the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Their testimonies provided the personal, humanitarian narrative that was central to ICAN’s argument for the ban.
When McCoy’s meeting ended, the Hibakusha group was still going. No one wanted to walk through and interrupt their always traumatic and emotional narratives. There was only one other recourse — to climb out of the window. The 30-somethings in the room began gathering chairs to help hoist themselves over the windowsill. But before any of them could begin their escape, McCoy had vaulted over the sill like a gymnast, landing effortlessly on the ground outside.
As the assembled group quickly observed, McCoy embodies both the wisdom of the elders to whose demographic he belongs, and the energy of youth that has thankfully delivered a new generation to the many decades-long nuclear weapons ban fight.
It was John Hersey’s unforgettable and searing book, Hiroshima, that first drew McCoy to the ban the bomb movement. Written in 1946, Hersey’s book personalizes the Hiroshima bombing experience on the ground through the eyes of six survivors and the horrors they witnessed. It stunned McCoy but he felt helpless.
Many decades later he came across the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and quickly joined, eventually becoming its co-president. IPPNW won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985. (As a member of ICAN they can now rightfully claim to have won it twice!)
In 2007, a by then retired McCoy founded ICAN, because, as he told the Straits Times, “if there is a human problem, surely there is a human solution.” The idea germinated in Australia where two ICAN co-founders, Tilman Ruff and Bill Williams, helped draw up the organizational plans. But ICAN was officially launched in Vienna, Austria, also the headquarters of the nuclear power-promoting International Atomic Energy Agency. The ICAN network currently has close to 470 member organizations.
McCoy was inspired to found ICAN due to the failure of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the success of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which later led to the Ottawa Landmine Treaty in 1997. Article VI of the NPT requires the nuclear weapons states to disarm. Specifically, it reads: “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”
But instead, despite numerical missile reductions over the decades, the nuclear super powers are rearming, under the guise of “refurbishment.”
McCoy’s career as an obstetrician brought the nuclear danger home most profoundly. As the Straits Times reported it, “after delivering more than 20,000 babies during his 40 years working as a doctor in Malaysia . . . Dr McCoy could not shake off the feeling of responsibility for children growing up in a world with nuclear weapons.”
Doctors are more acutely aware than many of the truly paralyzing consequences of nuclear war. Even if they themselves survived it, they would be unable to aid the afflicted. Dr. Vinay Jindal, president of Physicians for Global Survival, the Canadian chapter of IPPNW, reminded his membership of this in a recent newsletter. A month into medical school he remembered hearing someone say: “There is no adequate medical response to a nuclear war; prevention is the only way.” He observed that those words “remain with me years later along with the fear of being helpless in the profession I chose.”
While McCoy might be ICAN’s founder, the network very deliberately does not attach a specific face or figurehead to its name. Its website does not mention its founders by name and promotes the organizational steering committee over day-to-day staff. It is very much a collective effort, offering a humanitarian approach from myriad human beings across the planet to counter the most inhumane weapon ever invented — and tragically, also used.
Nevertheless, as the group of youngsters at the Geneva meeting followed their agile, octogenarian mentor over that windowsill, they could not help but feel both inspired and impressed. Recalled one of them, Susi Snyder of PAX, “It was a moment in campaigning that I’ll never forget, a moment that reminded me of the tenacious resilience of the broader anti-nuclear family, as well as our extreme politeness.”
For a completely unrelated but thoroughly enjoyable read, please see The 100-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, a novel by Swedish author, Jonas Jonasson.