Eyes On The Prize

This Sunday, December 10, Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), will ascend the stage at the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony in Oslo to accept the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. It is a stunning achievement.

Fihn first became involved with nuclear weapons when she worked for a Swedish peace organization and was “thrown into... big U.N. meetings where Russia and the U.S. and China debated nuclear weapons,” she says. “I was completely fascinated. Nuclear weapons just don’t make any sense.”

ICAN was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons.” Their hard work on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons convinced 122 states to negotiate and adopt the treaty’s langauge.

“It is the firm conviction of the Norwegian Nobel Committee that ICAN, more than anyone else, has in the past year given the efforts to achieve a world without nuclear weapons a new direction and new vigour,” the official announcement stated. “Through its inspiring and innovative support for the UN negotiations on a treaty banning nuclear weapons, ICAN has played a major part in bringing about what in our day and age is equivalent to an international peace congress.”

“There’s always been this idea that we need to get rid of nuclear arms that even leaders of the nuclear-arms states have sort of supported,” says Fihn. “With the treaty, we wanted to push an agreement. We hope that it will help countries make other choices. We saw, for example, with the Landmines Treaty, that the United States or Russia or China didn’t sign it, but they change their policies and behaviors. This treaty creates a norm that nuclear weapons are bad.”

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons “bans the use, threatened use, production, development, stationing, and testing of nuclear weapons; forbids assistance with all prohibited activities, and requires the provision of assistance to victims and remediation of polluted land from nuclear weapon use and testing.” It opened for signatures in September 2017, but was much debated before that. Fifty-three nations have signed the treaty, and three nations have ratified it. The treaty will need 50 countries to sign and ratify in order to enter into force.

Some critics have disparaged the work of ICAN. Opponents of the treaty argue that it “lacks effective verification and compliance protocols,” and that “all nuclear weapon possessing states are condemned equally under the treaty.” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said that “we have to be realistic. Is there anyone who thinks that North Korea would ban nuclear weapons?” New York Times columnist Bret Stephens complains “the peace prize has nourished the flame of an idea that should have gone out for good 76 years ago -- namely that disarmament, particularly by democracies in the name of setting a good global example, is an essential ingredient of peace.”

The Norwegian Nobel Committee said that ICAN received the prize precisely because “we live in a world where the risk of nuclear weapons being used is greater than it has been for a long time.” At a time when nuclear-armed states are increasing their stockpiles and modernizing their arsenals, the 2017 Peace Prize is “a call upon these [nuclear armed states] to initiate serious negotiations with a view to the gradual, balanced and carefully monitored elimination of the almost 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world.” It recognizes ICAN as “the leading civil society actor in the endeavour to achieve a prohibition of nuclear weapons under international law.”

“This treaty is the beginning of the end for nuclear weapons,” says Setsuko Thurlow, who survived Hiroshima as a 13-year-old and now works with ICAN. “For those of us who have survived the use of nuclear weapons, this treaty gives us hope.”

Pope Francis has come out strongly in favor of the work of ICAN: “The threat of use [of nuclear weapons], as well as their very possession, is to be firmly condemned,” he told a group of clergy, diplomats, NGOs and Nobel laureates in early November. The Holy See was the first country to ratify the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. “Nuclear weapons cannot constitute the basis for peaceful coexistence between members of the human family, which must rather be inspired by an ethic of solidarity.” U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said, “now more than ever we need a world without nuclear weapons.”

The Dalai Lama also praised ICAN, saying that “in these times of great uncertainty and upheaval in many corners of the world, the work of ICAN is of the utmost urgency. It is therefore most fitting that the Nobel Peace Committee has recognised the endeavours of ICAN… I pray that there will be concerted and vigorous efforts to achieve a world without nuclear weapons." E.U. Foreign Affairs Chief Federica Mogherini tweeted: "We share a strong commitment to achieving the objective of a world free from nuclear weapons." The American Friends Service Committee said, “the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to ICAN marks an important moment in the popular and nonviolent struggle for a nuclear weapons-free world, drawing attention to the continuing dangers of nuclear holocaust and the imperative of the complete abolition of nuclear weapons.”

ICAN is a young and diverse coalition of non-governmental organizations in 100 countries. These organizations work on “promoting adherence to and implementation of the United Nations nuclear weapon ban treaty.” ICAN was originally established in Australia, but was launched in Austria in 2007. As Fihn mentioned above, their inspiration spurred from the success of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and its impactful role in negotiations for the Ottawa Treaty, also known as the treaty to ban landmines.

In 2013 and 2014 ICAN acted as the civic coordinator for three conferences on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, after it became a much discussed topic at Nonproliferation Treaty review conferences. The third humanitarian impact conference, held in Vienna, welcomed delegations from the United States, the United Kingdom and India. It was the first time nuclear-armed states had attended any of these conferences.

Ploughshares Fund is a proud supporter of ICAN. Ploughshares Fund President Joe Cirincione went to the Vienna conference and was immediately impressed by the energy and organizing skill of ICAN, writing then that the organizers “are encouraged by their success, excited by their potential, and angry at what they see as the failure of many elected leaders to do anything about the real and present nuclear dangers...They are generating a growing movement that could have a bigger impact on U.S. nuclear policy than many have assumed.” Cirincione will attend the Oslo ceremony on behalf of Ploughshares Fund.

ICAN’s goal for 2018 is to get 50 nations to ratify the treaty in order to bring it into force. Former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry wants them to succeed: “My hope is that this treaty will mark a sea change towards global support for the abolition of nuclear weapons. This global threat requires unified global action.”

-- Rose Blanchard is a research assistant and Meghan McCall a policy associate at Ploughshares Fund.

More resources

--“Beatrice Fihn, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN); interviewed by Michael Crowley, Politico” a video interview by Ploughshares Fund here.

--“UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (full text)” by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons here.

--“The World Should Listen to the Nobel Peace Prize Laureates” by Michael Douglas for Time here.

--“An Open Letter from Scientists in Support of the UN Nuclear Weapons Negotiations” by the Future of Life Institute here.

--“WPSR Press Release on the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize” by Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility here.

--“Ban Brief” by Tim Wright and Ray Acheson for Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists here.

--“Hibakusha, the ban treaty, and future generations” by Masako Toki for Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists here.

--“Fifty States Sign Nuclear Weapons Ban” by Alicia Sanders-Zakre for Arms Control Association here.

--“Historic Treaty Makes Nuclear Weapons Illegal” by Sean Meyer for All Things Nuclear here.

--“The Nobel Peace Prize 2017” by the Norwegian Nobel Committee here.

--“Telephone interview with Executive Director of ICAN Beatrice Fihn” by the Norwegian Nobel Committee here.

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