Hiroshima and the World: Through neutrality, Finland pursues conflict resolution and peace

by Vappu Taipale

Vappu Taipale
Born in Vaasa, Finland in 1940, Dr. Taipale holds an M.D. and Ph.D. in child psychiatry from Helsinki University. She is currently co-president of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). After working as a professor of child psychiatry, she served as Finland’s minister of health and then minister of social affairs. Dr. Taipale has been director general of several research institutes in Finland and has held chairmanships of academic and technological research bodies nationally and within the European Union. She was a member and chair of the United Nations University Council, and actively involved in the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Commission for Social Development.

Through neutrality, Finland pursues conflict resolution and peace

My first visit to Hiroshima was in the year 1986. In 1981, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) was founded and grew rapidly in global significance, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985. IPPNW then swiftly organized a Global Campaign on the Medical Consequences of Nuclear War. A small group of us--co-presidents Bernard Lown and Evgeni Chazov, Dr. Ian Maddocks, and I--travelled from the Soviet Union to China and then on to Japan, holding meetings, seminars, and symposiums. Because of our own experience of war, Finnish physicians have been active in IPPNW from the very beginning.

Hiroshima is well-known in this remote nation on the periphery of the European Union. Ever since 1982, there has been a vibrant tradition of floating “Hiroshima lanterns.” On August 6, people everywhere, in municipalities large and small, quietly lay these paper lanterns into rivers and lakes. I’m very proud of the fact that my husband, Ilkka Taipale, an active member of IPPNW, brought this tradition to Finland after attending the Peace Memorial Ceremony in Hiroshima in 1981.

Several visits by A-bomb survivors (hibakusha) to Finland also sensitized our citizens to the tragic consequences of World War II. In the capital of Helsinki, the annual event commemorating Hiroshima is very well-attended. Among the speakers for this ceremony have been a number of government officials and peace activists, as well as our nation’s current president, Tarja Halonen.

So before I first visited Hiroshima, I had known about it for decades. I had read about it, seen pictures of the city, and met hibakusha and doctors from Hiroshima. Still, I found my experience of the place overwhelming. There I was at ground zero, at the scene of such cruel and unimaginable destruction. No rationalization or denial could override the deep human emotion I felt: this tragedy must never ever be repeated anywhere. Tears ran down my face. I thought of my four children, safely at home.

My second visit to Hiroshima was even more moving. My husband, my youngest son, and I attended the Peace Memorial Ceremony on the 50th anniversary of the bombing. The day was solemn and full of silence. It was like a pilgrimage, the people coming there with a promise to devote themselves to peace throughout their lives.

Large challenges for a small nation

I was born during World War II. My father was killed in the fighting. I can remember the air raids and bombings, the fear and desperation of my family and the small town where I lived. Finland was a war-torn country, poor and underdeveloped. When I started school, Finland was one of the first recipients of aid from UNICEF, after its founding. The Finnish children were in great need and we received food and shoes. I remember how happy we were to get warm shoes for the snowy winter. The winters were really cold back then, even 30 degrees below zero.

Finland is now a Nordic welfare state of five million people inhabiting a large, lightly-populated country. During my lifetime, Finland has developed dramatically, from poverty and ruin to one of the most competitive information societies in the world. Poverty, in fact, taught us how important it is to take care of the whole population: equity and universalism are the cornerstones of our society. Having received international aid has given us reason to think globally and provide support to those in need. From our geopolitical position, we have learned the importance of maintaining friendly and peaceful relations with all the nations of the world.

To Finns, peace is not only the absence of war. It is a concrete phenomenon in our daily lives. Peace means flourishing science and innovation; vibrant international ties; positive interdependence with neighboring countries and the European Union; rich commercial relations; and opportunities to learn, share, and increase knowledge and wisdom in our small world. Although our population is small, only the size of a medium-size city elsewhere in the world, we feel we have global obligations and duties.

Internationally, then, Finland seeks a role that is larger than its share of the world’s population. Crisis management and peacekeeping activities are demanding, but even a small country can develop the needed skills. As a non-allied country, our neutrality, impartiality, and balanced views may be better accepted by adversaries. When our former president, Martti Ahtisaari, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008, he humbly described it as a prize for Finland.

Peace through health

In a global world, citizens have two overriding concerns: health and security. In the information society, the idea of health extends into mental health, too, and also entails social dimensions. Security is realized in the immediate community and involves threats that affect the entire world as well, such as environmental risks and the threat of nuclear war. The global symbol of Hiroshima continuously reminds us of the importance of disarmament as the most important step toward global health and security.

Health professionals have always been active in changing the world and eradicating the roots of ill health. IPPNW was born in the 1980s, amid the immediate threat of global nuclear war. Many other NGOs have the same mission to preserve life. Peace can be cherished in the daily work of health professionals. Peace through health is possible to achieve.

Health is a value shared by all people in both industrial nations and developing countries. Health is more important for human life than economic success or a promising future. From the viewpoint of society, health is a key factor for a productive economic and operational environment.

However, health equity is hard to achieve, even in those countries where it is high on the political agenda. It is a task that involves great intellectual and political challenges, as well as the challenges of research and implementation. Why do the people of social groups who are disadvantaged socially and educationally generally have poorer health? Why do health service systems inadvertently discriminate against these social groups? Social determinants of health are very clear: the poorer you are, the more unhealthy you will be. In times of global recession, the promotion of health will become even more difficult to maintain. Social justice must be put on the global agenda. Growing inequity creates social unrest and conflict. Peace through health will show its dimensions when taken into account.

Peace education for the world

The children of affluent industrialized and information societies view warfare as a sophisticated computer game where their skills are developed to destroy their enemies. In nations not exposed to conflict or warfare, this militarization of children’s minds is not aimed at the potential military use of children, but rather at legitimizing warfare and the arms race. Education for war has a long tradition, compared to the tradition of peace education. There is an evident need, worldwide, to increase both the effort made, as well as the level of ambition, in regard to peace education.

We must develop new methods for peace education, and a new sense of responsibility for all adults. Focusing only on children in peace education efforts is merely a gesture of our own powerlessness and unwillingness to change our global beliefs. This means creating new ways to cooperate with societies and decision-makers.

Hiroshima, a city of global significance, provides a deeply emotional example of the criminal use of terrifying, devastating weapons. We hope humankind will never repeat such a tragedy. As a city of peace with a tragic past, Hiroshima should be a part of peace education everywhere. The cruelty and suffering cannot be forgotten, but the experience of Hiroshima teaches us to stop the arms race. The revival of the city and its blossoming cherry trees heightens hope for a better future.

Let us hope, too, that the tradition of “Hiroshima lanterns” can be transported to every village on the globe, helping to end bloodshed, conflict, and war. No more Hiroshima!

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