June 18, 2013

Earlier this month, SF Bay Area PSR President Dr. Robert Gould and chapter member Patrice Sutton attended the conference Human Target: International Congress on Social and Health Effects of the Global Arms Trade. The conference took place in Villingen-Schwenningen, Germany, where Dr. Helmut Lohrer, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) Board member and key conference organizer, practices medicine. The bucolic surrounds of the Black Forest belied the fact that the region is home to one of the largest arms manufacturers in Europe, Heckler and Koch (H&K). H&K produces much of the arms flooding African countries, of great concern to IPPNW leaders from Africa who daily face the effects of the resultant carnage on the lives of their patients. The conference made a graphic case for how the arms trade largely emanating from the countries of the “North” bears central responsibility for much of the widespread armed violence and destruction found throughout the poor and struggling “South.”

Conference plenaries covered a range of gun violence impacts, from the suffering of individuals described in “one bullet” patient histories to the devastating effects on global health and development. The timing of the conference was opportune, as it immediately preceded the signing of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) at the United Nations on June 3.  Experts such as IPPNW co-President Robert Mtonga of Zambia and Maria Valenti, Director of IPPNW’s Aiming for Prevention campaign spoke about the difficult and decades-long road to achieving the ATT, explaining that on the one hand the ATT represents a major advance of civilization while at the same time it contains many weaknesses and loopholes. They and others spoke to the challenge of achieving ratification in countries such as the United States and efforts to mobilize health professionals in strengthening the treaty over time.

Dr. Gould gave an extremely well-received workshop at the conference entitled “Militarism and the Epidemic of Gun Violence in the U.S.” Utilizing materials generously shared by National and Sacramento PSR board member Dr. Bill Durston and Ms. Valenti, Dr. Gould illustrated the deadly toll of domestic gun violence, which every year in the U.S. kills more than ten times the deaths attributed to terrorist attacks of 9/11, and every day in the U.S. takes the lives of three children. Dr. Gould connected the domestic proliferation of guns to its international manifestation—the massive international global arms trade—80% of which emanates from the U.S. Dr. Gould also described how the National Rifle Association (NRA) has mobilized its membership to oppose the ATT, asserting that it is an alleged attempt of the UN and other international agencies to take guns away from Americans.

The conference was attended by more than 300 people and was surprisingly welcomed by the town leadership and residents, as issues like these typically divide communities over “guns versus jobs.” Lord Mayor Dr. Robert Kubon not only actively participated in the conference, including welcoming IPPNW participants at a special event in the medieval City Hall, but the town also paid for the use of the conference hall. Local and national media provided extensive coverage in newspapers and television, including many interviews with Dr. Lohrer.

Beyond the powerful panels and workshops that typified the conference, Dr. Gould said a highlight for him and Ms. Sutton was the demonstration by conference attendees held in torrential rain outside of the H&K complex in the nearby town of Oberndorf. The demonstration—designed to end the silence locally and nationally about what the outcome of arms produced at H&K mean for human health—featured a local choir singing complex arrangements of hymns and international peace songs that culminated in a particularly moving version of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”

Following the conference, Dr. Gould and Ms. Sutton participated in a special IPPNW “Dialog with Decision-Makers” delegation that met with NATO in Brussels. Focusing on PSR/IPPNW’s opposition to U.S./NATO plans to develop and deploy new, more accurate B-61 class “sub-strategic” nuclear weapons in Europe, delegates encountered the usual tired and pathetic excuses for continuing the nuclear arms race now almost 25 years since the Cold War ended, and just a few years since President Obama announced his vision of a “world without nuclear weapons.” All of the discussion illustrated the prevailing militarism at the heart of U.S. foreign policy, and the persistent reliance on nuclear weapons among NATO member-nations. The delegates were left with clear recognition of the unique and powerful role that IPPNW’s campaign on the “humanitarian consequences” of nuclear weapons can play in mobilizing the strongest opposition to the utter and never-ending madness of “safe and reliable” nuclear weapons.