It has been just 10 years since ICAN first launched its astonishing campaign to ban nuclear weapons.
In Oslo on December 10, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and was accepted on behalf of the Campaign by its executive director, Beatrice Fihn, and by Setsuko Thurlow, an ICAN campaigner and survivor of the 1945 Hiroshima bombing. Both spoke for the thousands of campaigners in over 400 organizations and more than 100 countries around the world who succeeded this fall in working with friendly governments to move a majority of states at the United Nations to adopt a treaty to prohibit to ban nuclear weapons, making their possession, use, or threat of use unlawful.
The ceremony opened with a piercing fanfare by four trumpeters, their horns hung with crimson banners, from a stone balcony high up in the sunlit-filled, mosaic-covered Oslo City Hall over a distinguished crowd below that included a former Peace Prize laureate; ambassadors and other government officials, including the prime minister of Norway and the mayor of Hiroshima; movie stars and rock stars; as well as several hundred grassroots ICAN campaigners from every corner of the globe. As the trumpets sounded, the king and queen of Norway and the crown prince and princess strode down the red-carpeted aisle, followed by members of the Nobel Committee and the two ICAN speakers.
It has been just 10 years since ICAN first launched its astonishing campaign to ban nuclear weapons, just as chemical and biological weapons have been banned as well as land mines and cluster bombs. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has now closed a legal gap in the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that only requires “good faith efforts for nuclear disarmament” by the then-five existing nuclear weapons states—the United States, Russia, UK, France, China. ICAN organized a series of three major conferences in Norway, Mexico, and Austria together with government leaders, scientists, lawyers, and other experts, including representatives from the International Red Cross, a critical actor in this journey to ban the bomb. It was the International Red Cross who contributed a unique statement about the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons in 2000 that changed the global conversation about these devastating instruments of mass destruction.
Instead of nuclear weapons’ being described in abstract terms, with references to strategic security needs and deterrence policies, a conversation dominated by the nuclear-weapons states and by US nuclear allies in NATO, as well as Japan, Australia, and South Korea (none of whom support the new treaty), there has been a shift in how nuclear weapons are discussed. There is a a growing realization that these military and security concepts fail to acknowledge the catastrophic humanitarian consequences that would result from any use of a nuclear weapon. The new conversation was given a great boost by the Vatican, which participated in the UN negotiations and held a subsequent nuclear-disarmament conference this month to discuss its newly announced policy change from one that supported the concept of “deterrence” for the use of nuclear weapons in “self-defense” to a new policy declaring that nuclear weapons must never be used under any circumstances.
Despite the nearly 50-year-old NPT promise by the nuclear-weapons states for nuclear disarmament, ICAN Executive Director Fihn, in her acceptance speech, reminded us that “at dozens of locations around the world—in missile silos buried in our earth, on submarines navigating through our oceans, and aboard planes flying high in our sky—lie 15,000 objects of humankind’s destruction,” adding that “it is insanity to allow ourselves to be ruled by these weapons.”
Fihn went on to note that critics of ICAN’s success in closing the legal gap in the NPT with the new ban treaty describe its campaigners as “the irrational ones, idealists with no grounding in reality. That the nuclear-armed states will never give up their weapons.”
But we represent the only rational choice. We represent those who refuse to accept nuclear weapons as a fixture in our world, those who refuse to have their fates bound up in a few lines of launch code. Ours is the only reality that is possible. The alternative is unthinkable. The story of nuclear weapons will have an ending, and it is up to us what that ending will be. Will it be the end of nuclear weapons, or will it be the end of us? One of these things will happen. The only rational course of action is to cease living under the conditions where our mutual destruction is only one impulsive tantrum away.
Fihn also exclaimed, to enthusiastic applause, “Man—not woman!—made nuclear weapons to control others, but instead we are controlled.”
They made us false promises. That by making the consequences of using these weapons so unthinkable it would make any conflict unpalatable. That it would keep us free from war. But far from preventing war, these weapons brought us to the brink multiple times throughout the Cold War. And in this century, these weapons continue to escalate us towards war and conflict. In Iraq, in Iran, in Kashmir, in North Korea. Their existence propels others to join the nuclear race. They don’t keep us safe, they cause conflict…. But they are just weapons. They are just tools. And just as they were created by geopolitical context, they can just as easily be destroyed by placing them in a humanitarian context. That is the task ICAN has set.
Fihn called on all nations and each of the nine nuclear weapons states individually to join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, saying,
The United States, choose freedom over fear. Russia, choose disarmament over destruction. Britain, choose the rule of law over oppression. France, choose human rights over terror. China, choose reason over irrationality. India, choose sense over senselessness. Pakistan, choose logic over Armageddon. Israel, choose common sense over obliteration. North Korea, choose wisdom over ruin.