How a Malaysian birthed an anti-nuclear arms campaign that won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize

Ronald McCoy speaks to reporters during an interview in Petaling Jaya on October 11, 2017. ― Picture by Miera Zulyana
Ronald McCoy speaks to reporters during an interview in Petaling Jaya on October 11, 2017. ― Picture by Miera Zulyana

PETALING JAYA, Oct 12 — Shortly after the failed 2005 review of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Datuk Dr Ronald McCoy, who is the former co-president of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), emailed his colleagues in the global federation his idea to build a grassroots movement to advocate a ban on nuclear weapons.

That movement was inspired by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines that eventually led to the 1997 anti-landmine Ottawa treaty.

“We can call it an International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, with the acronym ICAN. Let’s startworking on this right now,” the Malaysian obstetrician had written in his open letter.

Ten years after ICAN’s 2007 launch, the UN adopted last July 7 a new treaty that imposed a total ban on nuclear arms called the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, hailed as a significant milestone in the seven decades’ effort to prevent a nuclear war since the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 during World War II.

None of the nine states with nuclear bombs — including the US, United Kingdom, China and Russia — had participated in the negotiations.

Last Friday, ICAN unexpectedly won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, with the Norwegian Nobel Committee reportedly saying that the risk of nuclear weapons being used now was greater than it has been for a long time.

“We’re all very elated at this recognition of years of work, although ICAN has only been in existence for 10 years. There’s still a long way to go, obviously,” Dr McCoy told Malay Mail Online in an interview at his home yesterday.

According to Dr McCoy, ICAN comprises 468 non-governmental organisations from about 100 countries. The campaign began in Australia and was officially launched in Vienna, Austria.

Dr McCoy said ICAN had the support of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, which allowed the campaign to highlight the humanitarian consequences of nuclear detonations so that disarmament was not seen as purely a security issue.

“It’s going to take a lot more work and a lot more time obviously.”

When pointed out that all nine nuclear powers — China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the UK and the US — had boycotted negotiations on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, Dr McCoy said it was up to residents in those countries to highlight that their governments were in possession of “illegal” nuclear weapons.

“So we now have that political and moral pressure to rid the world of nuclear weapons,” said the 87-year-old.

The treaty bans nuclear weapons use, threat to use, development, testing, production, possession, stockpiling, transfer, and stationing in another country. For countries that own nuclear weapons who want to sign, the agreement details a process for the destruction of the arms “as soon as possible” in a “legally binding time-bound plan.”  

The 1968 NPT, on the other hand, merely states that countries “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.”

Most nuclear-armed countries, however, have reportedly been modernising their arsenals instead of pursuing disarmament.

Dr McCoy, who quit his practice in Kuala Lumpur in 1996 to devote himself fully to campaigning against nuclear weapons, rubbished proponents’ stand that it was necessary to possess nuclear arms to deter others from using those same weapons.

“During the Cold War, deterrence almost failed on several occasions. And you know we came so close to a nuclear holocaust more than once during the Cold War,” he said.

The US, UK and France said in a joint statement issued on July 7 that they did not intend to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, claiming that the policy of nuclear deterrence “has been essential to keeping the peace in Europe and North Asia for over 70 years.”

“This treaty offers no solution to the grave threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear programme, nor does it address other security challenges that make nuclear deterrence necessary,” they said.

After North Korea’s recent nuclear and missiles tests, US president Donald Trump told the UN General Assembly last month that if the US was forced to defend itself or its allies, it would “have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”

Dr McCoy, however, said North Korea was merely reacting to the US’ threat of using nuclear weapons against it.

“They’re not the bad guys. The bad guys are the United States of America and the other nuclear weapon states,” he said.

“The United States is not a democracy, good heavens. The United States has been wielding its nuclear weapons to protect its unfettered capitalist system.”

Dr McCoy stressed that nuclear arms are not weapons of war, but weapons that would wreak “total global destruction”, claiming that should India and Pakistan engage in a nuclear war, the impact would not be limited to South Asia.

“There will be a swift destruction and the black soot from these explosions will go into the atmosphere, block out the sun and we would have what is called a nuclear winter. All the crops will perish and we will die of starvation,” he said.

More than 50 countries have signed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, including Malaysia. The Malaysia Nuclear Power Corporation, however, reportedly said last May that Malaysia may have its own nuclear power plant by 2030.

Dr McCoy cautioned the government against developing nuclear energy and said Malaysia should focus on renewable energy instead as an alternative to fossil fuels.

“How can it be clean if you have radioactive waste for generations?” he said. “To say it is not expensive and [that it is] safe is nonsense.”

Dr McCoy was among the University of Malaya’s first batch of students when the varsity was founded in Singapore in 1949. Dr McCoy said he was born in Seremban but has lived in Kuala Lumpur all his life.

“I’m 200 per cent Malaysian,” Dr McCoy proudly declared.

The 2017 Nobel Peace Prize will be awarded on December 10 in Oslo, Norway.

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