Learning lessons and making peace

As a General Practitioner in the medical field, Dr Sue Wareham has long held compassion for her fellow human beings. When she began learning of the effects and scale of global nuclear weapons in the late 70s and early 80s, she became passionate about ridding the world of them.

Since then, she has worked tirelessly to campaign for the abolishment of nuclear weapons through the Medical Association for Prevention of War (MAPW) and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). Sue has been awarded an Order of Australia, and last year, ICAN was recognised with a Nobel Peace Prize.

Dr Sue Wareham will be one of the speakers at the upcoming conference, ‘Making Peace: exploring the practice of peace in today’s world’, held from Saturday 10 to Sunday 11 November, at St George’s Cathedral, Perth. The conference is organised by the Social Justice Commission of the Uniting Church WA, and will be held over the centenary of the Armistice of the First World War.

Sue has been involved with MAPW since its foundation in 1981. She said the aim of the association is to draw attention to the health implications of warfare and armed conflict.

“We draw attention particularly to the health impact on civilians, partly because civilians form the majority of the victims of war these days,” Sue said. “When we go to war, modern warfare is often  an attack on civil society itself. So it’s absolutely imperative to find other ways to resolve conflicts.”

One of the main functions of the MAPW is to abolish nuclear weapons.

“If nuclear weapons are used again, there’s very little that any humanitarian or aid organisation would be able to do to help survivors, because the impacts would be so catastrophic and on such a disastrous scale.

“So that’s a key message for us as health professionals working for peace.”

To drive home this campaign, MAPW launched ICAN in Melbourne in 2007. ICAN works with governments and civil society around the world to raise awareness of the effects of nuclear weapons and to campaign to ban them. ICAN was successful in helping create a nuclear weapons ban treaty – the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons – which has now been signed by 60 countries, ratified by 15.

Sue explained that at the height of the Cold War, there were around 70 000 nuclear weapons globally. Currently, there are around 15 000 nuclear weapons, owned by nine countries globally. While it’s great that this number has come down, Sue said that she won’t rest until this number is zero. Although Australia doesn’t currently own nuclear weapons, as a nation we are heavily involved in the issue. For a start, Australia is a major global supplier of uranium – a component of nuclear energy and weapons – and while our government says Australian uranium is not used for weapons  there is no way we could really know that for sure.

“But setting aside the uranium problem,” Sue said, “we are deeply implicated in this problem because the Australian government gives strong support to the nuclear weapons policies of the United States (US). And the Australian government states quite explicitly that we need ‘protection’ by US nuclear weapons.

“These weapons don’t protect us, they make us vulnerable.”

The US military facility, Pine Gap, near Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, also implicates Australia into US policies around nuclear weapons.

“Australia supports the very policies which are at the heart of the problem,” Sue said. “The Australian Government has refused to state that nuclear weapons should never be used again. A large number of countries have said that because these weapons are so inhumane and catastrophic, they must never be used again. The Australian Government has refused to endorse that statement. So, clearly our Government believes that there are some instances where it’s justifiable.

“Australia is really deeply implicated in this and it’s a pretty shameful position for us to be in.”

From injuries, deaths and other health implications to environmental impacts, the effects of war are extremely vast. Sue reminds us that war also displaces millions of refugees around the world.

“On the issue of the human impacts, we shouldn’t forget the link with refugees and the fact that there are 65 million people around the world displaced by war and persecution at the moment,”  she said.

“Australia’s policy towards [refugees and asylum seekers] is so harsh it makes one cringe, but we see just a tiny, tiny, tip of the iceberg here in Australia. Remnants of war, such as landmines and cluster bombs, are less of a problem these days than they used to be, both are still present from warfare carried out decades ago. These kinds of weapons make the land they’re on almost unusable in terms of farming, development or revegetation, for fear of setting one off.

Depleted uranium from weapons also leaves low level radioactivity wherever it’s used, which Sue said is almost impossible to clean up. And while atmospheric nuclear testing is no longer carried out, there’s still radioactivity present from these tests being performed in the 50s and 60s in Australia.

Even the amount of fossil fuel that is used to generate energy for military equipment, aircraft, tanks and other machinery during armed conflict is huge. Added to this, is the economic impact of going to, or preparing for, war. Sue explained that Australia spends about $99m on this every single day – money that could be well spent in other areas such as healthcare, education, welfare or international aid.

“I’m not arguing a pacifist stance where we don’t have an armed force, but we could readily use some of those funds to put more effort into building good relationships, diplomacy and conflict  resolution, which currently Australia does very little of,” Sue said. “If you look at any area of our healthcare, education or other areas of our civilian life that need extra funding, then some of that  $99m a day could go a long way. Our international aid could go a long way to building up good relationships and reducing tension between nations, which is what we really need to do.” Sue believes that our current tactic of preparing ourselves for war is actually making Australia more vulnerable, rather than protecting us.

“The more strongly we align ourselves with policies that are unjust and illegitimate, for example US policy whereby they seek to dominate and to invade, then the more we’re going to have other  countries resenting us and wanting some revenge.

“I’m not arguing to cease the alliance with the US, but Australia needs to have a much more independent stance. And we need to decide for ourselves what’s in our interest, and what’s in the global interest and not just what the United States wants us to do.

But, Sue also believes that there is a way to peace.

She said that a big step towards global peace would be to stop funding the arms trade and she would like to see Australia take a moral stand on our exports. Instead of exporting materials that can be made into weapons, we could be known for exporting solar panels or other positive things that build up the world for the better, rather than for violence. She also believes we need to learn from our past.

“Australia has spent a huge amount of money on the commemoration of World War I, but we’ve actually, as a country, refused to learn any of the lessons from World War I,” Sue said.

“The parallels that we’re seeing now are really quite frightening. We’re building up all these weapons and thinking these weapons will keep us safe, and it’s almost exactly what happened a bit over 100 years ago. So, one of the lessons is that when weapons are built up pretty aggressively, sooner or later they’re going to be used.

“One of the other lessons is that it can take a very small trigger to cause the outbreak of a war that really spirals out of control. Nobody in 1914 thought that the war would go on for four years with the horrendous toll that it had. So, we need to learn the lesson that war can be pretty easy to start, but very hard to stop.

“If we’re really going to honour those who died in such horrific circumstances, then we’ve got to learn some lessons. If we just go on to make the same mistakes again and again, then we’re really dishonouring those people.”

Through her work with ICAN and MAPW, Sue and her colleagues have been making some major achievements in spreading a message of peace.

“It’s only when joining our voices together that we do make a difference. And in Australia we’ve certainly had an impact,” Sue said.


Find out more about the Medical Association for Prevention of War at mapw.org.au

Find out more about the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons and the treaty at icanw.org/au

Hear Dr Sue Wareham speak at the ‘Making Peace: exploring the practice of peace in today’s world’ conference to be held from Saturday 10 to Sunday 11 November at St George’s Cathedral, Perth. Rev Dr Chris Walker will also be a keynote speaker.

To book, click here or for more information, find the event on Facebook or contact Geoff Bice at Geoffrey.bice@wa.uca.org.au or 9260 9800.


Heather Dowling

Top image: Dr Sue Wareham, in May this year, delivering postcards from Margaret River locals calling on the Australian Government to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and thanking those MP who supported that goal.

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