2017 No. 2
Editorial: ICAN, the ban, and the Nobel Peace Prize
9 October 2017
In 2007 in Melbourne, Australia, a group of committed antinuclear activists founded a campaign that they envisioned would span the globe to work at grassroots and diplomatic levels to end the nuclear era. Ten years later, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)—comprised of 468 non-governmental organisations in 101 countries—has won the Nobel Peace Prize.
For most of its existence, the campaign has been working towards the creation of a treaty banning nuclear weapons. Working with partners within governments and international organisations like the International Committee of the Red Cross, ICAN brought back to the fore the humanitarian considerations of nuclear weapons. Most importantly, it demanded—and achieved—real action instead of rhetoric.
Working nationally and internationally, campaigners pushed governments to have the courage to stand up to those whole wield the constant threat of massive nuclear violence, to declare enough is enough, and to take action against the worst weapons of mass destruction human beings have ever created.
On 7 July 2017, 122 governments voted for the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. 122 governments said yes to peace over power, to cooperation over conflict. In adopting the Treaty, “we acted on behalf of a grand coalition of committed activists, survivors, civil society, scholars and politicians,” explained Ambassador Courtenay Rattray of Jamaica on Tuesday. “They were the ones who steadfastly set aside the entreaties of the naysayers—that band of sceptics who at every turn told us we were embarked on a fool’s errand.”
Not that the naysayers have dissipated. The opening of First Committee heard from some of the small group of states opposed to the nuclear ban, as their clamoured to reiterate their tired rebukes of the Treaty and of those who support it. Mainstream media ran opinion pieces like this one describing ICAN as “dangerous practitioners” and—my personal favourite—“tediously bleating”.
It’s easy to laugh off the insults, but it will be harder to laugh off a nuclear war—which is the inevitable result of maintaining the status quo. Rather than a “fool’s errand,” prohibiting nuclear weapons is the only sane option when we’re faced with threats of use of nuclear weapons, threats of more nuclear tests, threats of ending non-proliferation agreements, and threats of abandoning legally-binding commitments to nuclear disarmament.
There must be an alternative to the insanity we face, insanity that is embedded deep within an apparently unwavering belief by some in the magical powers of nuclear weapons to exist in the world but never be used, to deter conflict whilst in reality raising the spectre of conflict—and of ending human civilisation and possibly the planet.
In his welcoming remarks to First Committee on Monday morning, the President of the General Assembly emphasised the importance of the Committee’s work “to the well-being and survival of millions of people around the world.” He urged delegates to focus “on how to save lives; secure lives; and improve lives.”
The best contributions First Committee delegates can make towards this goal is not to tell each other to not support international law against weapons of mass destruction—as the US delegation did on Monday. It’s also not to get into scraps for the last 30-45 minutes of every session, as various combinations of states did every day last week. The best contributions to saving lives that delegates could make is to actively support existing humanitarian disarmament laws and norms, to hold each other to account for violations through proper international political and legal procedures, and—especially for the hypermilitarised—to lead by example by eliminating their own stockpiles of death and destruction and ceasing the bombing and bombardment of other countries.
“If we listened to the tenor of the statements echoed through the Hall of this august organization by our Heads of State and Government just days ago, we would be forced to consider the ominous state of affairs that currently characterizes the world in which we live, including in the field of disarmament and international security, warned the Caribbean Community in its opening address delivered by Ambassador Pennelope Beckles of Trinidad and Tobago. Just weeks after suffering horrific devastation from hurricanes, these countries came to the United Nations to find, as the Secretary-General described it, “a world in pieces”.
But as countless delegates said during the opening week of First Committee, peace and security cannot be based on force or on weapons. “Disarmament is crucial to ending conflicts and preventing the emergence of tensions, generating confidence and stability,” said Ambassador Juan Sandoval Mendiola of Mexico. That is, disarmament is necessary for peace and must continue to be an existential task for the UN that we should not postpone further.”
This year’s Nobel Peace Prize is a testement to that. It is an award to the most diverse and intersectional grassroots antinuclear movement the world has ever seen. It is an award for peace, dialogue, and international law. It is an award to courage. To the survivors of nuclear tests and bombings. To the activists who have poured blood on nuclear missiles or chained themselves together across roads. Who have strategised tirelessly with like-minded governments, and equally tirelessly have engaged with those opposed to our efforts. Who have written letters, folded paper cranes, designed banners, made videos or graphics, or wore costumes to demonstrations. It is also an award to those we have lost along the way—including ICAN co-founder Dr. Bill Williams, who sadly passed away around this time last year but perhaps would have worn his kangaroo costume to the ceremony in Oslo later this year if he had not.
Some may find some sort of comfort in describing ICAN, and the governments that share our vision and commitment, as irresponsible or irrational. But the courage it took for a bunch of activists to pursue an idea through to international law, despite being stripped of funding and at times dignity, and the courage it took for 122 governments to stand up to the power of the bomb wielded by a handful of aggressive, warmongering governments, is what reflects the best of humanity and the most promise for our future as a species.