A white bird flying in the air in front of grey buildings.
The transformative power of peace through disarmament can uplift our collective health and well-being, explains Duncan Etches. (Photo by Sunguk Kim)

Topics: June 2024, Justice | Society

How global disarmament can improve global health

Fostering peace and justice is as vital to society’s collective well-being as health-care systems


When I was growing up in Richmond, B.C., in the 1950s, the public was encouraged to build bomb shelters, as fear of atomic war was as much an anxiety as the climate crisis is today. In response, organizations like the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Pugwash Conferences — co-founded by philosopher Bertrand Russell in Nova Scotia — and later on, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, were formed to address the lack of political leadership in disarming the world.

These days, however, we have become so inured to the threats of modern warfare by missiles, drones and small arms that we have forgotten how essential it is that we see these objects eliminated. Nine countries currently have access to a total of roughly 13,000 nuclear weapons. A conflagration of even a fraction of these warheads could make the world uninhabitable. A fleet of thousands of drones that carry out their killing using artificial intelligence can lead to a most vicious kind of war, as we have seen glimpses of in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Ukraine and Israel-Palestine. And each year, small arms are accountable for a toll of half a million lives.

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As a young man, I loved the apocalyptic vision expressed in Isaiah 2:4 of people turning their “spears into ploughshares” as an image of the end of war. In the 1970s, I began supporting Project Ploughshares, the peace research institute of the Canadian Council of Churches. It releases reports on the status of the nuclear arms race and the treaties that have attempted to control it, along with tracking Canadian military exports worldwide. Three years ago, I became the United Church’s representative at the organization.

I am resigned to the fact that a world without nuclear weapons is not possible. However, a world where we can curb arms trade and drone technology still is. Each year, small arms generate $95 billion in revenue. To date, 130 states have signed the regulatory Arms Trade Treaty, but the world’s largest exporters — the United States and Russia — have not ratified it, and Canada has violated it in the past.

Drone warfare, meanwhile, marks humanity’s first in- stance where one side of a conflict enjoys near immunity to violence. If stricter measures for these two unjust forms of violence cannot be implemented now, then when?

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Though I am a physician by vocation, I have come to see that our wellness as a species depends much less on our health-care systems, as I had imagined,  and so much more on the degrees of peace and justice in our communities. By and large, Canada is a wealthy country with good social networks to help the vulnerable, but what about places like Afghanistan or Chad? If freedom from war and violence is an essential component of just societies, then global arms prevent this freedom from ever taking root.


Duncan Etches is a family physician in Vancouver and a member of Project Ploughshares.

This story first appeared in Broadview‘s March 2024 issue with the title “A Farewell to Arms.”

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  • says:

    I just looked at the headline and I recall a saying my dad would say, and he was a leader in the local church That I eventually served in. His saying was simple: Pie in the sky." It's when we dream a dream that can never come true. There would be no war if all people were reasonable, intelligent, had a decent level of education, kept their religion to themselves and weren't subject to the human condition of greed and selfishness. The world has enough resources to feed everyone and give people a decent living but, for one thing, religion and the idea of one religion being the true religion or the final religion goes against the idea of rationality. As well, people are selfish and there will always be those who want to wield power. There is no way to stop corruption. It's like a game of "wack-a-mole. Take down one corrupt person or government and another pops up. We need armaments to protect ourselves because, human nature being what it is, we never know what's coming our way.