On Oct. 6, the Geneva office of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) received a call from the Norwegian Nobel Committee: We had won the 2017 Peace Prize for our “work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons” and our “ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons.”
Since its founding in 2007, ICAN has sought to reenergize global advocacy for disarmament. We have jolted governments out of a post-Cold War complacency, which has allowed almost 15,000 nuclear weapons to remain a clear and present danger to the world.
While the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and oft-repeated rhetoric has committed nuclear-armed states to a world free of nuclear weapons, progress towards this goal had stalled.
Over the last decade, we have built a global civil society coalition that, in partnership with states, has changed the game, refocusing global policymakers on the humanitarian, human rights and environmental impacts of nuclear weapons, rather than abstract ideas of deterrence. The result was the negotiation of the legally binding Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).
Prohibiting nuclear weapons
The TPNW’s Preamble declares nuclear weapons “abhorrent to the principles of humanity,” with catastrophic consequences for people and the environment. It is the first nuclear arms control agreement to frame nuclear weapons as threats to international humanitarian and human rights law. It acknowledges the “disproportionate impact of nuclear-weapon activities on indigenous peoples.”
The Preamble is also far-reaching in its acknowledgement of the gendered dimensions of nuclear weapons. It calls attention to the “disproportionate impact on women and girls, including as a result of ionizing radiation,” as well as the crucial importance of women’s “equal, full and effective participation” in “nuclear disarmament” and “the promotion and attainment of sustainable peace and security….”
The centerpiece of the TPNW is a categorical ban on nuclear weapons (Article 1), which makes them illegal under the same type of international law covering other inhumane weapons like chemical and biological weapons, landmines and cluster munitions.
The Treaty’s negotiators were mindful of the “unacceptable suffering of and harm caused to the victims” and the “grave implications for human survival, the environment, socioeconomic development, the global economy, food security and the health of current and future generations.” As a result, the TPNW is not only a ban on nuclear weapons. It also addresses the ongoing harms caused by nuclear weapons use and testing. Articles 6 and 7 obligate governments to aid victims, remediate contaminated environments and provide international cooperation and assistance to affected states.
On July 7, 122 governments voted to adopt the TPNW, which opened for signature on Sept. 20. While the nuclear-armed and -alliance states boycotted the negotiations, we are finding that it is already having a political impact because of its stigmatizing power.
Changing the Discourse
ICAN’s strategy was primarily a discursive one. We aimed to change the way that people talk, think and feel about nuclear weapons, changing their social meaning from symbols of status to outdated, dangerous machines that have repulsive effects.
Representatives of the nuclear-states often marginalize those calling disarmament by dismissing them as deluded. In her protest outside the room where states were negotiating the TPNW, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley chided them, saying “we have to be realistic.” However, ICAN campaigners called attention to the discrepancies between these claims to “realism” and the mystification that surrounded these nuclear weapons.
For example, we showed how the claim that nuclear deterrence has prevented war requires ignoring the poor record these weapons have at preventing conflict. We demonstrated the pervasive harm they have caused to to many people living in areas affected by use and testing, undercutting claims that nuclear weapons provide security.
Instead of turning to traditional mechanisms of nuclear arms control, we found a powerful discursive tool in international humanitarian and human rights law. What we sought was less an instrument of surveillance and sanction than a treaty that casts as pariahs those who continue to deploy, stockpile and defend the persistence of nuclear weapons. Building such stigma has been crucial for the process of working towards the elimination other unacceptable weapons.
Drawing out the tensions inherent in states’ presentation of themselves as responsible actors concerned with the protection of civilians, and their willingness to use the most destructive weapons ever invented on towns and cities, involved opening the conversation about nuclear weapons to voices that have been too often excluded.
Opening the Conversation
To change how nuclear weapons were discussed, we brought nuclear weapons into new arenas where humanitarianism, human rights and environmentalism are regular conversations, and to inject these discourses into traditional nuclear forums.
We demanded from states the meaningful participation of survivors, affected communities, medical professionals, faith leaders, humanitarian agencies, activists and academics in the nuclear conversation. We pointed out when forums and panels excluded women, people from the Global South and those who have experienced nuclear weapons’ effects.
This forced states to reckon with other forms of knowledge and expertise than nuclear-armed states have used to legitimate their arsenals. ICAN ensured that people affected by nuclear weapons use and testing were able to testify to the negotiating conference. In her statement to the conference, Hiroshima atomic bomb survivor Setsuko Thurlow reminded delegates that “72 years have passed since my beloved hometown was utterly destroyed by one atomic bomb.” Thurlow said this experience convinced her “that no human being should ever have to experience the inhumanity and unspeakable suffering of nuclear weapons.”
Sue Coleman, who grew up close to the site of British nuclear testing in South Australia, spoke of devastating humanitarian consequences for Aboriginal people, as well as the environmental impact on “animals and plants,” which cannot “speak for themselves and are ignored.”
In her closing comments following the adoption of the TPNW, the conference chair, Ambassador Elayne Whyte Gomez of Costa Rica paid tribute to ‘‘all of the victims who have shared their personal stories with us…and have been an ongoing inspiration for our work.” She thanked them “for not letting us rest.”
We disseminated detailed scientific data on the ongoing harm, record of accidents and history of close calls of nuclear weapons at the three international conferences on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in Oslo, Nayarit and Vienna from 2013 to 2014. We made it difficult to claim this information was irrelevant to the international nuclear weapons debate. The majority of the world’s states concluded that the prohibition of nuclear weapons is the only morally permissible and legally coherent response to this evidence.
At the core of what we achieved was organizing people and presenting demands to those with the capacity to change law. We cold-called politicians. We pitched stories to journalists. We circulated petitions. We looked at which countries were next on the speakers list at the UN and told them about our talking points. We protested in the streets. There were breakfasts with friendly officials. Lunchtime ‘side event’ panels. Evening receptions. We argued with our opponents. We argued amongst ourselves.
Our approach to the problem of nuclear weapons was often dismissed – but we succeeded in our campaign for a prohibition on nuclear weapons, with or without the initial participation of the nuclear-armed states. Closing a legal loophole (by which nuclear weapons were the only weapons of mass destruction not yet prohibited), and placing prohibitions (such as on assistance with nuclear weapons production, which would cover financing) and positive obligations on states, the treaty can have a normative and practical impact now.
We built strong partnerships between civil society and the states championing the treaty. We drew upon professional networks that had experience banning landmines and cluster munitions and pushing for the Arms Trade Treaty. We leaned on a tight-knit community of humanitarian disarmament advocates who had long-lasting friendships, strong connections to diplomats and well-practiced advocacy tactics.
ICAN’s success in advocacy for the TPNW shows that ordinary people have agency – we can address seemingly intractable problems in the midst of a deeply hostile political environment. Now that we can ban nuclear weapons, we listen with skepticism to those who use “that’ll never work” as an excuse for passivity. The world, as we learned, is what we make of it. We humans made nuclear weapons. We assigned meaning to them. We have the power to change that meaning. We believe a world free of nuclear weapons is possible. The nuclear weapons ban is a crucial step toward that goal.
Image: A press conference by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) at the United Nations on October 9, 2017 in New York City. The organization won the Nobel Peace Prize for its work to abolish weapons of mass destruction. Photo by: Getty/Kevin Hagen