Banning the Bomb

an interview with Beatrice Fihn on Press the Button

Since this recent recording, on October 24, 2020, Honduras became the 50th nation to ratify the UN Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons, triggering entry into force on January 22, 2021. 

For the first time since their invention, nuclear weapons are prohibited by a global treaty. On BBC, Daryl Kimball, executive director of Arms Control Association called this, "a turning point in the history of the effort to reduce nuclear risks and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons." We are proud to have supported International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) in this successful campaign.

Learn more about what this means from Beatrice Fihn, executive dirctor of ICAN in this interview on Press the Button, the Ploughshares Fund podcast. The Interview starts at 11:20. Or listen to the whole episodeYou can also read the transcript of the interview below. 

An engaging podcast on nuclear policy and national security, Press the Button is co-hosted by defense experts Tom Collina and Michelle Dover of Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation. This weekly podcast features top officials and experts discussing the latest developments on Iran, North Korea, nuclear weapons, military budgets and foreign policy. Press the Button offers diverse views on one of the most important issues of our time: preventing nuclear war.


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Tom: Welcome. We have an exciting guest with us today. Beatrice Finn is no stranger to the Ploughshares Fund community. She is the executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, otherwise known as ICAN. This, of course, is the coalition that worked tirelessly to promote the ban treaty. ICAN won the 2017 Nobel peace prize for its work, and Beatrice accepted the prize and delivered the Nobel lecture in Oslo on behalf of the campaign. It's so great to have you here. Thanks for being here.

Beatrice: Thank you Tom. It's really nice to be here.

Tom: It's great to have you back. Because of course it has been three years now, a quick three years. Well it depends on how you experienced it I guess, but three years since the pack was negotiated in 2017. And now there are just five ratifications shy of the 50 needed to take effect. Am I right on that number? Five to go?

Beatrice: Okay. Yeah exactly. We got Malta just this past week. So, we're getting very, very close now. [On October 24, 2020, Honduras became the 50th nation to ratify the UN Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons, triggering entry into force on January 22, 2021.. – Ed.]

Tom: So, five to go. And as people will remember delegates from 122 countries, nearly two thirds of the UN membership, participated in the negotiations for the treaty. 84 nations signed it. 45 have ratified. So, five to go to the magic number 50.

In an effort to close that gap ICAN just released a letter with 56 former Prime Ministers, Presidents, Foreign Ministers, and Defense Ministers from 20 NATO countries, as well as Japan and South Korea.

I found this letter fascinating. The letter supports the treaty and points to the coronavirus pandemic which the UN has called the greatest challenge in its history. And the letter states quote “we must not sleepwalk into a crisis of even greater proportions than the one we have experienced this year.”

Two of the signers are former Secretary General’s of NATO, and five of the countries represented on the letter – Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey – host American nuclear weapons on their territory and would therefore be required to remove them if they joined the treaty.

So, I really want to explore with you this NATO angle that you're taking because of course the letter focuses on the umbrella states – the states with US nuclear security and the states that actually host US nuclear weapons.

So, give us a sense of why you focused on these states, the unique role these states play, and how you were approaching them now.

Beatrice: Well, I think, you know, we're so used to talking about the nuclear armed states – you know the nine countries with nuclear weapons. And we forget that there is a whole group of countries around them kind of protecting and upholding nuclear weapons. Those are the countries that are endorsing nuclear weapons. They might not have them themselves, but they are part of the exercises, part of being prepared to request these weapons to be used, and they play an extremely important role in legitimizing nuclear weapons and encouraging the nuclear armed states to have nuclear weapons.

I think we've seen that in the past where, for example, during the Obama administration, when they were talking about no first use policies and things like that there was some of these allies who actually stopped that or discouraged that from happening. So, I think that these countries play an enormously important role in our efforts to achieve the elimination of nuclear weapons. And we wanted to focus on them because we, for example in our work in ICAN, in our partner organizations in these countries, we know that the public supports the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The public doesn't like having nuclear weapons in particular in the countries that host them – Germany, Belgium, Turkey, Netherlands and Italy.

But the leadership, the politicians, have so far not rejected these weapons and continue to kind of argue that they are necessary. But at the same time also being a little bit ashamed of it. We can see in public messaging that they're not really comfortable with admitting that they are prepared to participate in the use of weapons of mass destruction on civilian populations. It doesn't really rhyme with their national identity.

So, really the idea of the letter was just to kind of show that this is not just the public. This is also former leaders that have been in that position of power that know very well with nuclear weapons are that know what it means to support a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons and know what the security guarantees that nuclear weapons cost you know really means. And they are willing to support this treaty. They are identifying the current situation with the risk of nuclear use as extremely dangerous and a security threat. They're seeing the crises that we're facing, climate change the corona crisis as real threats that cannot be solved with nuclear weapons. And they are encouraging their governments to join this treaty.

And I think that's a really important sign. And now obviously these are former politicians and I'm not going to hide that it's very easy for former politicians to say the right things. We have a lot of those that do that all the time. And I would obviously prefer that they would say the right things when they're in power, but I think it's a sign that even two former secretary generals of NATO are supporting this treaty yet at this point ,and it's a sign that things are changing

Tom: Indeed. Now the ban treaty itself would prohibit nuclear hosting, correct? But it would not prohibit US nuclear security guarantees. Is that correct? 

Beatrice: Well, it prohibits assistance and encouragement with the use, development, and threat to use to nuclear weapons. So, it would be prohibited to, sort of, actively engage in nuclear weapons it's sort of upholding nuclear weapons and threatening to use nuclear weapons. And the way that we interpreted that, a country that joins this treaty does not have to leave NATO. It can be an ally to the United States. It can participate in military operations but should not be involved in using nuclear weapons. It should not be involved in threatening to use nuclear weapons and it should not request nuclear weapons to be used on its behalf.

And this is the conversation we've had with leaders in these countries, that we would require these countries to say that they don't have to say that the US should get rid of its nuclear weapons, but they need to say that we will not request nuclear weapons to be used on our behalf. We will not have nuclear weapons on our territory. We will not be involved in it.

Tom: So, could a country like Germany sign the ban treaty, stay in NATO, and renounce or refuse to host nuclear weapons even though the NATO Alliance is a nuclear alliance?

Beatrice: Yeah. If Germany on the national level does not involve itself and its military in nuclear weapons related operations. And, of course, this is a treaty. And the treaty is quite explicit in these terms, "assistance" "encouragement." It has meaning under the chemical weapons convention, biological weapons convention, these are sort of legal terms. So, you have definitions of that, but it still would be implemented on a national level.

So, it's also up to the government to look at these terms: how they've been related, how they've been used in treaties, and look at its own activities and define which activities are okay and which are not okay.

Tom: Now when you look at the NATO states which ones do you feel you might have the earliest - you know this is a long-term struggle of course - but which ones do you feel you might have the earliest success or there's the most potential to get on the ban treaty?

Beatrice: I think there's several countries that have a very long tradition of being leaders on disarmament treaties. Obviously, a country like Germany for example plays a very fundamental role on that in Europe. It's been, you know, a country that was also very threatened by nuclear weapons during the Cold War. These kinds of exercises where the US and Soviets went to nuclear war. You can see those maps, historical maps, or how they were planning to play out those wars, Germany is basically gone.

hat was in large part why you know Europe, European countries like Germany, has been so strong on it's just like the INF Treaty. It was meant to protect European cities and European countries. So, Germany is a country with a strong tradition of support for nuclear disarmament. We see very consistent polling amongst the public and we see a lot of politicians they're very supportive of it. And you also have a country like Netherlands which was the only NATO country that participated in the negotiations of the TPNW (Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons) because their parliament instructed them to participate in these negotiations.

We've seen in Belgium, we had a vote earlier, I think it was - it feels like ages ago. I think it was January 2020. It could have been two years ago who were (what do I know? It feels like another lifetime!) where there was a vote in the Belgian parliament about removing the nuclear weapons from Belgian territory and joining the Ban Treaty. And it was very narrowly defeated. We were actually surprised about the level of support. We did not think that we would get that close actually. So I think that was very positive. We also see in Spain when the Social Democrats and the left-wing party negotiated a government agreement, they agreed to join the treaty.

And you know in the turmoil domestically that that government agreement fell through within a couple of months and a new election was called. So, it never played out. But there's a lot of support there as well in in Spain. You have a country like Norway. Norway was part of the humanitarian initiative during a labor government and set up the first conference that led to the ban treaty. And you know since then a conservative government has ruled for over for eight years now, but we are very hopeful and expecting that a change in government there could also have a very kind of progressive policy on disarmament, humanitarian disarmament that's their tradition.

You have a country like Iceland for example that also has a prime minister that's an outspoken supporter of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. It’s again a coalition government as in many European governments which makes it always part of negotiations.

But I think that there's a lot of potential and in several NATO States. What we do know is that the even the leadership of some of these are very closely watching each other and seeing what others are doing, and I think it might you know, in life, it might be scary to be the first one, and we would even need someone very brave, or a group of them together.

Tom: Now of course you don't need NATO states to get to the magic number of 50. The five additional ratifications could come from anywhere. How - not to put you on the spot - but how soon do you expect that to happen, to get to 50?

Beatrice: You know what it can happen quite soon. we know that there are several countries that are extremely close to ratifying the treaty, but again, when they say extremely close it might not mean the same thing to them as to ICAN. Governments work on different timelines than we do.

I think that we can see definitely a speeding up of the last five and we're hoping to actually get a group of them together to bring this treaty into force as a group in the coming two months really, we're hoping. Obviously, there's no guarantees and we'll see how the corona crisis plays out in terms of shutdowns, in terms of what the governments need to prioritize. It's not always easy to get them to focus on this issue. But we have definitely seen an increasing excitement throughout the summer with the 75th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And we know that they are at least 10 governments that say that they want to be the 51st and are trying to sort of race through their national processes and get all of the bureaucracy in place in order to be part of that group.

Tom: So, possibly entering into force this calendar year.

Beatrice: Well, we'll reach the 50 this year. According to the treaty the entering into force is 90 days after the 50th verification formally. So that will hopefully be early 2021 and that way in the first quarter of 2021, but yeah, the decision to get it entered the course will hopefully come this year.

Tom: Now once the treaty comes into force, whenever that may happen, how does that change things from your perspective? How does that change the importance of the treaty, the impact of the treaty, and how does it change your strategy going forward?

Beatrice: There will be an international treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. And for anyone no matter if they like the ban treaty or not who wants nuclear weapons to be eliminated eventually you know there has to be a prohibition and that's coming now, Whether you like it or not, there's not going to be another ban on nuclear weapons. This is it. It's going to be part of the international legal framework. It's going to sit next to the prohibitions on chemical and biological weapons, kind of completing the trio of bans on weapons of mass destruction.

So, it's a hugely important event. And the fact that, you know if you look at how the world power kind of is structured, the way we structured it since World War II, with five permanent members in the security council they all have nuclear weapons - it's sort of their favorite power tool of you know establishing the current world order. The rest of the world is banning that now. I mean it's a really big deal. And in particularly that you know a lot of these countries are former colonies countries that have been sort of, in many ways, oppressed by those countries.

At the same time, of course, international law doesn't just, there's nothing magic that will happen on that day. this is thing you know treaties and international norms are extremely long-term issues and they change behavior over time not instantly. So, you know while it's extremely important, and we are so excited, I think it's also important that we don't overstate the kind of dramatic impact that will happen. It won't be a sudden shift in countries outside of the treaty either. Even though we obviously want to see that, but this is really you know if you think about from the first use of chemical weapons in World War 1 it took I think 81 or 82 years for the treaty that bans chemical weapons and eliminates them to enter the into force.

And now we have 75 years since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These are long processes and we know that the elimination is still far off from nuclear weapons but for us this is really marking the starting point of shifting our perspective on nuclear weapons and making this a weapon that is actually banned by international law and starting to unpack that sort of 75 year of brainwashing that these weapons are legitimate that makes sense and are completely rational.

There's a lot of practical impacts of the countries in the treaty and you know things like the legal obligations under the treaty, both in terms of declaration and national implementation. We are going to do a lot of work on victim assistance, environmental remediation, which is a legally binding obligation in this treaty. Then we're hoping that it will have direct impact on things like parliamentarian support - the support that we have from local governments, such as cities, we're really hoping to focus a lot on the divestment side, we see a lot of banks and pension funds reacting to the treaty by putting in place policies that stop them from investing in nuclear weapons-producing companies.

We're working with American universities, for example, to sort of showcase that what they are doing now, some American universities and research around developing nuclear weapons, is now going to be prohibited by international law and that's a reputational damage.

So, I think it has a lot of these kinds of possibilities for changing behavior and influencing things.

Tom: Now of course I'm sitting here in the United States, and not to be too egocentric about it, but what role do you see the ban treaty playing in potential future US decision making?

Beatrice: Well, I mean I think that if we see an election now coming up in the US and, you know, without overstating it I guess you know all of us were hoping for a new president come end of January. and that president will enter a world where nuclear weapons have been banned by international law and a world where the US itself has unraveled a lot of treaties and multilateralism and the rest of the world is moving on in other directions.

So, I do think that there will have to be a readjustment from a new US administration. I think that we're really aiming to shift public opinion with this treaty as well in the US, to use it as a tool to question investments in nuclear weapons the spending the government spending on nuclear weapons.

I think we have a huge opportunity now with the current health crisis to really reevaluate what national security is and not just with the corona crisis but also with the Black Lives Matter campaign whose security are we talking about? Who gets to decide what protects us and who gets to raise awareness of what actually harms us? So, I do hope that this treaty can contribute to a conversation where you see really positive momentum in other parts of the world. And you see this kind of new emergence of a conversation with nuclear weapons are unacceptable and de-legitimized and stigmatized and that that can really encourage some more progressive US decision-making.

We have no, kind of, naive hopes that a US position on this issue would change rapidly. But I think that with, for example, a Biden administration, we know that there will be more interest in collaboration, international law, and more interest in multilateralism and looking at reductions, maybe, and returning to an arms control agreement. And if this treaty can then kind of set a higher pace and increase the expectations on that I think that will be really a positive impact

Tom: Now there's also the prospect here that the treaty could potentially be enforced before the next review conference, the 50th anniversary of the Nonproliferation Treaty. What effect do you think that the ban treaty might have on that gathering next year?

Beatrice: We don't really know yet when it will be held. It's proposed for January but also we hear from a lot of governments that they absolutely want to meet in person and not online which you know will complicate things.

So, then we'll have to wait and see when it happens. But in either case no matter when it happens, I think it's clear that the NPT is, you know, a really essential treaty that has the support of almost all governments in the world. Its implementation, I know a lot of people love to talk about how the NPT is in constant crisis and it's really in danger but it's an extremely successful treaty. it has really curbed proliferation. No treaty is flawless, no treaty works perfectly, but I think as a whole if you look at where the world was before the treaty and where it was heading and where it is now in terms of proliferation, I think has been extremely successful.

The treaty has as an objective: the elimination of nuclear weapons and that governments should – not just the nuclear weapons states but all governments in the NPT – should negotiate multilateral nuclear disarmament. And that's basically what the TPNW is. It's an implementation of that. And I think we're living in such a multipolar world where we cannot expect, you know, 190 governments to move at the same time. So, right now we have 45 governments that are moving faster than others and in implementing their NPT commitments. And that's great. And one country at a time we hope to bring them up to that level or joining the TPNW. And you know, it shouldn't be seen as undermining the NPT or distorting anything.

I think if you don't want proliferation of nuclear weapons-having countries committing to banning them forever under no circumstances having them. That's a good thing. That it has to be a good thing.

In many ways I think that you know the way we talk about this it's a little bit like if you think about the Paris agreement and climate change. The NPT is a little bit like that the Paris agreement. It sets the goal. It's there we're going to do this. We don't really know how, but we have this objective.

And the TPNW is really like a way to kind of operationalize that and implement it in the same way as we need something on climate change to really get to the core of the problem is what are we actually going to do to reach this goal?

So, that's how we see it as something that could be helpful. The main challenge facing the NPT for the review conference it's not the TPNW, it's the fact that the five new nuclear armed states are modernizing and upgrading their arsenals are unraveling their kind of existing measures that we have to cap the nuclear arsenals and are you know increasingly, you know, threatful rhetoric around nuclear weapons and have not implemented their NPT commitments.

Tom: Agree with you a hundred percent on that. And last question if I might: ICAN and your partner groups have been organizing around the world seeking additional support and ratifications.

How has the pandemic affected your work? 

Beatrice: Well, I think as everyone you know as it hit here in Europe and here in Geneva in particular, we're very close to Northern Italy. It's across on the other side of the city, almost here. You know it really became apparent in early March that this was going to be very bad and really impact our work hugely. And of course everything was shut down pretty much.

And I think we all, I mean, everyone who worked on nuclear weapons issues I think felt a little bit, you know, how do we how do we continue working now? Right? Like the world is in a pandemic. You know I felt personally really lost it at moments and just sort of like, is there even at any point of working right now? Like what do we do? How is the world going to look like in six months?

But I think by the mid and end of April, you know people, human nature is to also adjust to almost anything and we also saw, of course, immediately governments shutting down,  no one was returning phone calls or emails. And then after like two months, people find ways of doing the work anyway. There's obviously been a huge amount of Zoom calls and online conferences, but I think it's really, you know, people have discovered new ways of working and trying to come up with solutions to continue moving forward. You know life has to go on and you see that in any kind of crisis situation is that somehow life continues and you kind of have to adjust to it.

And I think one of the really unique things about this current moment is that it really hits home some of the points that I feel like we've been making from the beginning, how you cannot use weapons to fight today's urgent threats, how we are extremely connected and using threats will not stop at borders. We cannot stop them from spreading across the whole world. And what one country does on the other side of the world, the healthcare system one country has, it has a direct impact on my security and my health and my safety.

I feel also like this has been this big moment in the world where we I think for the first time ever all kind of experience the same thing at the same time. I think that has some things that we should take advantage of, this kind of outpouring of empathy and support. I mean obviously also very negative things. I mean a huge economic crisis. We see a massive kind of conspiracy theory, false information being spread, but I also think that people have really, you know, I can see a huge moment where people understand that we need to be taking care of each other and the best way or protecting each other is through prevention through kind of caretaking not through threatening and bullying.

And I don't think it's a coincidence to see that the countries that have been quite unsuccessful in dealing with this pandemic are also leaders that these, kind of, macho leaders that show "no" weakness, and I'm doing quotation marks when I say no. Instead, the leaders that have succeeded are the ones that care for their people. I think that it's been obvious that healthcare is a security issue. and with climate change that is just going to increase. So, you know we really do need global solutions.

I do think about this a little bit in the way that you know World War II drastically changed our world in terms of the institutions we built, the laws that we built. And maybe this pandemic you know if we if we take it, you know, if we really decide to, we can make this one of those turning points in the world where we have a huge crisis and then we build institutions and mechanisms to get through that. So, it's obviously a really worrying time and extremely stressful. And so many lives have been lost and such drastic economic crises, but I also think that it's a you know we can it really brings home you know ICAN was funded by doctors that you know we need to protect people not power structures.

Tom: Beatrice thank you so much. I could keep talking to you for hours but unfortunately our time is up. I think I can speak on behalf of Ploughshares in saying that we see the ban treaty as a ray of hope in an otherwise really bleak year.

So, thank you so much for your tireless efforts in moving this issue forward to a point now where we really are on the verge of having the treaty come into force, which is just so exciting. Beatrice thank you so much for being here. Thank you for all of your work. And I really wish you the best. 

Beatrice: Thank you so much.


Lightly edited for clarity. 

Photo: Beatrice Fihn at Ploughshares Fund Nuclear Policy Conference 2017 in Washington, DC. Allison Shelley