The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) is a coalition of non-governmental organizations in one hundred countries promoting adherence to and implementation of the United Nations nuclear weapon ban treaty. This landmark global agreement was adopted in New York on July 7, 2017.
The treaty opened for signatures on September 20, 2017. It will need to be ratified by 50 states before entering into international law. ICAN is a Ploughshares Fund grantee and Beatrice Fihn is ICAN’s executive director. We took this opportunity to ask her a few questions about the Treaty and what it means for nonproliferation, disarmament, and abolition.
Q. Austria, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, and New Zealand led the initiative, which was approved by 122 votes. It is not hard to understand the fear, practical concerns and policy inertia of the nuclear-armed states and most NATO members, who voted against the Treaty, but can you speak to why you think these particular countries are leading the charge to abolish nuclear weapons?
A. I actually do find it hard to understand some states that are opposing this treaty. All these states have committed to a goal of a world free of nuclear weapons, so when they keep insisting that the use and possession of nuclear weapons must remain legal, it goes against that aim.
But in terms of some of the main drivers, supporters have a very strong commitment against nuclear weapons and in favor of humanitarian disarmament. For example, you have a country like Ireland, the first state to ratify the NPT, who’s been a leader of nuclear disarmament since then, or a country like South Africa, the only state that has unilaterally given up its nuclear weapons, and now are working to ensure that all nuclear weapons are prohibited.
And these states have been leaders in other recent processes to prohibit weapons due to their indiscriminate and inhumane impact, such as landmines and cluster munitions. It’s a part of their foreign policy strategy, a way for these states to enhance security and stability in the world.
Q. The president of the UN conference, Elayne Whyte Gómez, told The Guardian that the agreement, “is a very clear statement that the international community wants to move to a completely different security paradigm that does not include nuclear weapons.” Can you speak a little about what you think that new security paradigm might look like?
I’m not sure I agree with that. I don’t think a world without nuclear weapons will look much different than our current world, just as a world without biological or chemical weapons is pretty similar to one with. The vast majority of states have already ruled out using weapons of mass destructions as acceptable, so I don’t think it would make the world drastically different once the few ones that still do think using weapons of mass destruction is acceptable change their policies and start eliminating these weapons.
The main difference would be the reduction of the risk of a catastrophic humanitarian disaster due to an accident, miscalculation or intentional detonation of a weapon of mass destruction. I don’t think there would be any real change in how the world looks, we all just would be safer from the consequences of a nuclear weapons detonation.
Q. In vocally opposing the Treaty, some prominent members of the international community, including the UN ambassadors for the US, Britain, and France, cite North Korea as an example of a problem that requires a nuclear deterrent and robust implementation of the NPT to solve. What are your thoughts on that argument?
A. The Treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons isn’t solving the North Korean crisis, but neither have 15,000 existing nuclear weapons or on-going threats to “totally destroy” North Korea.
In vocally opposing the Treaty, the nuclear armed states and nuclear alliance states are emphasizing how threatening to use nuclear weapons against civilians is an acceptable and necessary way for states to ensure their protection – they say that without nuclear weapons they’d be less secure. So they are basically showing North Korea that in order to be secure, you need nuclear weapons.
The solution of the North Korean crisis must be diplomacy and a return to the full implementation of the NPT, including the legally binding commitment nuclear weapon states have made to get rid of their nuclear arsenals. Joining and implementing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons would be to fully implement the NPT.
Q. The banning of nuclear weapons is a welcome development, as it may improve the legal landscape for reducing nuclear threats. At the same time, the Treaty also stigmatizes nuclear weapons, supporting a worldwide evolution in norms. One day possession of nuclear weapons may be almost universally seen as inexcusable. What historical precedent do you see for this possibility? And how much time might be necessary to achieve such a change?
A. We’ve seen states change position on weapons very rapidly before. Chemical weapons were the aspirational modern weapon of choice for many countries a century ago. And then their use was outlawed through the Geneva Conventions and later the possession was outlawed through the Chemical Weapons Convention. Landmines and cluster munitions were acceptable weapons to use until the impact on civilians was put in focus, and treaties prohibiting these weapons negotiated. We’ve seen a huge drop in production and use of these weapons since the treaties, and significant efforts to clear affected areas and help survivors.
It’s hard to know how long this will take for nuclear weapons and it will depend on many other factors, such as how strong the ban treaty becomes, how states outside it engage with it, how public pressure develops. There’s a lot of work ahead of us to make this treaty and the norms it’s meant to create strong and have an impact.
Q. What brought you to this movement?
A. I’ve always been interested in political movements and how to make progress on big issues related to justice and equality. I got involved in nuclear weapons kind of by accident through an internship when I was studying at university. But I immediately got fascinated by the absurdity of these weapons and the inconsistency of the arguments around maintaining nuclear weapons. It’s not an easy issue to work on (people tend to back away from you slowly at parties after they’ve asked what you work with) because progress is so slow, but at the same time it’s really cool when progress does happen.
Q. Can you suggest resources for people interested in becoming more engaged with this important cause, the abolition of nuclear weapons?
A. We have a great website about the nuclear weapons, the impact of a nuclear detonation and the treaty prohibiting these weapons on www.nuclearban.org
Thank you for your time, and all you do to create a safer future, free from the threat of nuclear weapons.