NOBEL PRIZE. During some of the Cold War’s frostiest years, he was involved in creating the organization Doctors Against Nuclear Weapons (the Swedish arm of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War; IPPNW). Since then, Gunnar Westberg has traveled the world and worked to promote disarmament. Now he is one of the doctors to receive Nobel Peace Prize – for the second time.
At the start of the 1980s, the threat of nuclear war was constantly hanging over our heads. After a period of thawing between the east and west, the arms race stepped up a gear, and mid-range rockets with nuclear warheads were placed in Europe. Gunnar Westberg from Sundsvall worked as a doctor at Sahlgrenska and had just become a father for the third time.
“I was hit by the thought that my tiny child perhaps would never grow up before humankind made itself extinct.”
He wasn’t the only one among the medical profession who was concerned about the global political situation. In 1981, an American and a Soviet cardiac doctor who met at a conference, created IPPNW, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Gunnar Westberg joined in that same year and founded the Swedish member organization, Svenska läkare mot kärnvapen [Doctors Against Nuclear Weapons].
“It was something of a wake-up call among doctors. After only two years, we had 8,000 members. At the time, that was about a third of the entire medical profession,” recalls Gunnar.
A medical issue
Svenska läkare mot kärnvapen, SLMK, currently has around 2,500 members who are either doctors or medical students. Gunnar Westberg, born in 1938 and professor emeritus since 2004, is still just as active within the movement with both national and international board positions. He has previously been chairman for both SLMK and the IPPNW. He also feels that it’s a natural and obvious link for doctors to be against nuclear weapons.
“It’s largely a medical issue. Even a ‘small’ bomb could – besides all the immediate deaths – mean tens of thousands of people need care for major burns, as well as hospitals being overcrowded. Us doctors can neither cure nor lessen the effects of a nuclear war, so we have to try to prevent one.”
Aside from his professional specialist role in renal medicine, Gunnar Westberg has traveled the world for almost 40 years to inform people about the risks of nuclear weapons, which is one of the organization’s primary objectives. One of IPPNW’s first projects was to make a scientific compilation of the medical consequences of the bombs released over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The images of burns from those events often make for difficult viewing. A long line of presidents, ministers and military leaders have been visited by Gunnar Westberg and his colleagues over the years, and the majority listened with genuine interest and attention, he says.
“It’s a huge advantage that we’re considered as politically and nationally independent. We don’t represent any particular country or interest. We usually tell the people we meet, that we represent all patients, just like themselves.”
Controversal in 1985
In 1985, IPPNW received the Nobel Peace Prize for its work with raising awareness of the catastrophic consequences of atomic weapons. The choice of recipient then was considered controversial, and NATO wanted the prize to be given back. Six years later, the Cold War had ended, but the medical organization had continued to work for disarmament, against test detonations, and against the development of new nuclear weapons.
Now Gunnar Westberg can feel happy at yet another Nobel Prize. This time it is Ican, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which has been honored. The initiative, which today includes around 450 organizations around the world, was founded by IPPNW when Gunnar Westberg was one of the association’s two chairmen. SLMK is also a driving force within ICAN and is a member of the board. The prize will be accepted by ICAN’s Executive DirectorBeatrice Fihn from Gothenburg and Setsuko Thurlow, a Hiroshima survivor. Gunnar Westberg will also be present for the ceremony in Oslo.
“It’s going to be great fun! But it actually wasn’t entirely unexpected that we won the prize, following the major international successes we’ve had over the year,” he says.
Gunnar Westberg points out that ICAN was the driving force behind the agreement on the ban on nuclear weapons, voted through in the UN last summer. If the convention is ratified by 50 countries, it will then come into force. At the same time, the risk of nuclear war has once again become a palpable concern.
“Of course, we’ve got the tensions between the USA and North Korea, but also that both NATO and Russia are arming their nuclear weapons in Europe, which is naturally turning our thoughts to the situation we had in the 80s,” says Gunnar Westberg.
Nowadays he has the future of his 4 grandchildren to worry about, but he is not as concerned as he was in 1981.
“The risk of a terror attack using nuclear weapons is greater now than back then, and the danger of a geographically-limited nuclear war has increased in recent years. However, the risk of a new world war is less today than it was during the Cold War – but the risk is sadly still not entirely at zero.
TEXT AND PORTRAIT PHOTO: MALIN AVENIUS