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Friday, 19. July 2024

April 9th, 2024

Nuclear weapons must back on the political agenda

Autor: Willem de Haan

Autor: Willem de Haan

“Recently there has been more attention to the dangers of nuclear weapons, the subject has made a comeback. Neighbors and former patients talk to me about it. The challenge is to get the subject back on the political agenda.” This is what retired dentist Willem Hubregtse, treasurer of the NVMP, the Dutch Association for Medical Polemology, says.
2023 marked a clear highlight for Hubregtse (72): more than 100 leading medical journals worldwide simultaneously published the same commentary urging urgent steps to reduce the increasing risk of nuclear war and achieve the elimination of nuclear armament.


An international political breakthrough came in 2021 when the UN-TPNW treaty came into force: the Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. According to that treaty, to possess, threat and use of nuclear weapons is prohibited. At first glance, the treaty seems to put an end to nuclear armament, but, says Hubregtse: “The catch is that not a single NATO country has ratified that treaty, including the Netherlands. The Netherlands is hiding behind the US, and by not signing you don't have to worry about it as a country.” Ninety-three other countries have now signed the treaty, and more countries are being added every month.

In 2019, the NVMP organized a major conference under the name 'The Hague peace palace appeal' for a nuclear weapons-free world, opened by Minister of Foreign Affairs Stef Blok. A 'spin-off' of that conference is renewed contact between the NVMP and Foreign Affairs officials and members of the parliamentary standing committee on Defense. Hubregtse is happy with this: “Our concerns are shared by many officials, but there is no political space to do anything about, for example, the American nuclear weapons at Volkel-airbase. The Netherlands is a so-called "nuclear sharing state": a country that does not have its own nuclear weapons, but houses American nuclear weapons. Just like Belgium, Germany, Italy and Turkey. If the Netherlands wanted to get rid of them, it would have to cancel the contract with the US. And that is politically unfeasible, we are told, the US would not accept that.” Attention to the subject has also disappeared in the House of Representatives. “The government statement of the penultimate Rutte cabinet (Rutte III, ed.) literally was: “This cabinet is actively committed to a nuclear weapons-free world, within the framework of  NATO-alliance obligations.” But in Rutte III, that passage was replaced by: “Within the NATO-alliance obligations, we contribute to a nuclear weapons-free world.” Hubregtse: “Actively committed is different from contributing.” Politically, the situation is not exactly favorable: “We have read all the political party programs for these elections, only the Socialist Party and the Party for the Animals still make a comment about nuclear weapons. We previously had good contacts with MPs Sjoerdsma (D'66) and van Dijk (SP), but they are both leaving Parliament.”


In the run-up to the November 2023 elections, the NVMP again made recommendations to Dutch politicians, including signing the treaty against nuclear weapons and calling for the establishment of demilitarized zones around nuclear power stations. “These recommendations are now on the table of the forming parties.”
In addition to lobbying and talking, Hubregtse can also be found on the streets when necessary: last August he demonstrated at Volkel air base where they staged a sitdown action during 78 minutes in front of the gate, because it was 78 years ago that the atomic attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki took place. The action resulted in a large article in the Brabants Dagblad and a report on radio 1.

Socialist nest

Hubregtse joined the NVMP in 1980 after he was invited to a lecture by a doctor friend from Tilburg. During that lecture he realized that the use of nuclear weapons is at odds with the Hippocratic oath to promote healthcare. “In the event of a nuclear attack, medical care is impossible because doctors themselves are dead or injured and hospitals can no longer function, partly due to the deadly radiation and the destruction of hospitals. That is why nuclear weapons are out of the question for me.” Shortly before, Hubregtse had completed his military service after his appeal to the conscientious objection law was rejected. He was assigned to the navy, the Marine Corps and spent a while in the barracks in Amsterdam. “I come from a socialist background and the army thing didn't appeal to me at all.” It was a time of many conflicts and irritations “it was all misery.” During his first years at the NVMP, he sometimes drove around Woensdrecht air base in his car with a fellow internist. “We turned off our lights and checked whether the security was a bit alert. A little bit of glanding, a little bit of resistance, that's not what they expected from an internist and a dentist.”


The NVMP, founded in 1969 by Jo Verdoorn, joined the then newly established IPPNW in 1980, the international association of doctors against nuclear war, founded by two cardiologists, one from the US and one from the Soviet Union. Annual international conferences followed. “In 1985 I attended the annual conference in Moscow. There were hundreds of doctors from all over the world. The Cold War was still going on, the Berlin Wall was still standing, but change was in the air. At the conference, studies were discussed on the consequences of nuclear wars, the inability to provide medical care, the fall out, the nuclear winter, crop failure, the development of genetic abnormalities, the explosive growth of cancer. The Russians had exactly the same concerns as we did, and also the same concerns that those consequences would be downplayed by politicians.” In 1985, the IPPNW (International Physicists for the Prevention of Nuclear War) won the Nobel Peace Prize. Hubregtse: “To some extent, the award reflected a bit on our association, we were very proud of it.”

It's all in your head

Despite the seriousness of the subject and the increasing threat, it remains difficult to bring the nuclear weapons-subject to the attention of young colleagues. “We have 500 NVMP-members,” says Hubregtse, “but our group is aging. We offer teaching programs, but students are busy, there are at most a few dozen who register.” A summer school sometimes is a success, for which the NVMP provides the teaching packages. “Interest in the medical consequences of a nuclear attack, that's where it starts. A 10 kiloton nuclear bomb on Rotterdam, what are the consequences? What effects does that have? That is often an eye opener for students, but I also notice it during lectures: people have no idea. They think: after three weeks I can leave the shelter again. But they don't realize that there is of course very little space in there. And that you will die of radiation when you get out. And there is no more food. I don't want to scare people, but you have to realize that these weapons are here and it can happen every day to you."


Recent developments worry Hubregtse as well. “Two months after the Russian invasion, Putin was already threatening to use nuclear weapons. I really had sleepless nights because of that. Now the nuclear weapons in Belarus are said to be on alert. That is horrifying.” In the meantime, American nuclear weapons have been or are being replaced and modernized in the Netherlands. “The new nuclear weapons, B 61-12 are smaller and more precise. These can be dropped with accuracy up to 30 meters by the new F-35 (also known as the JSF, ed). The threshold for using them is getting lower and lower. We should not be misled by small smart nuclear weapons that are very accurate. We are really in a life-threatening period, and the government does not realize this, or realizes it too little.”


How do you get attention for this subject again? That is the million dollar question: “My sons, aged 32 and 33, are not newspaper readers, but they do share my concern. They're just busy with other things. They say: we don't lose sleep over it because you already do that for us. It is also not a pleasant topic at Christmas dinner, but where I see an opportunity I will bring it up.” This year, the NVMP will come up with a new policy plan that will also address the climate. “Because nuclear weapons and climate are the two existential crises that threaten us. No Nukes, No War, No Warming. If I were a member of parliament,” says Hubregtse, “I would end every speech with: “By the way, I am of the opinion that all nuclear weapons should be eradicated from the world. Nuclear weapons belong in a museum.”


Dirk Hoogenkamp (27), a geriatric medicine specialist in training, is one of the younger members of the NVMP. His interest was aroused during a lecture by the medical student association in Amsterdam. “There was an American doctor who said: “In addition to the climate crisis, nuclear weapons are another inheritance that you are given without you asking for them.” He registered with the NVMP shortly afterwards. “I notice that many young colleagues are busy with studies and careers. When they do become active, it is more likely to be about the climate than about nuclear weapons. They wrongly regard that as something from the past.” Hoogenkamp visits conferences, writes opinion pieces and carries out actions at military bases in Belgium, Germany and Volkel where nuclear weapons are located. He will also soon be giving lectures. “The latter has yet to happen.”