Banning Nuclear Weapons with 2017 Nobel Peace Prize Winner ICAN

Dec 7, 2017

Did you know that 122 countries have adopted a treaty to ban nuclear weapons? The organization behind this movement is the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). In this spirited and informative discussion, Ray Acheson and Beatrice Fihn of ICAN take apart the nuclear deterrence myth, expecially in the case of North Korea, and the belief that nukes are "special" and therefore exempt from the ban on targeting civilians.

Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council, and today I am speaking with Beatrice Fihn and Ray Acheson. They are both with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, also known as ICAN, in Geneva. Their organization has just received the Nobel Peace Prize this year.

Congratulations to you two.

BEATRICE FIHN: Thank you very much.

DEVIN STEWART: What does winning the Nobel Peace Prize mean to your organization?

BEATRICE FIHN: A huge honor, of course. It means so much to the people all over the world who work so tirelessly for nuclear disarmament. It is not an issue that often gets acknowledged. It is work that is sometimes mocked and seen as irrelevant or hopeless, so I think it is just such a strong signal to everyone who has worked on this issue that it is meaningful, it is working, we are doing something that will [bring] change.

DEVIN STEWART: How does ICAN go about trying to abolish nuclear weapons?

RAY ACHESON: For the past 10 years or so, we have been working very specifically on one goal, which is a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. We saw this as a step toward elimination that had yet to be taken. The other weapons of mass destruction (WMD)—biological and chemical weapons, as well as landmines and cluster bombs—all of these weapons have been deemed to be indiscriminate and cause immense humanitarian suffering, and so they have been prohibited by international law and then are subject to elimination. It is sort of this big problem that we have had in the international community where nuclear weapons have not been subject to the same law until now, so achieving this ban was a big part of our push for abolition.

DEVIN STEWART: More than a hundred countries have signed on to that ban, is that correct?

BEATRICE FIHN: They adopted the treaty this summer. It just opened for signature.

DEVIN STEWART: One hundred and twenty-two, is it?

BEATRICE FIHN: One hundred and twenty-two adopted it in the summer. This is very new and technical stuff: You adopt a treaty, and then you open it for signature, which we did on the 20th of September, and about 53 states signed it immediately, and more are joining. Then ratification as well, which means domestic approval and making sure that your national legislation is in line with this new treaty, and that is of course quite slow in a way. Parliaments need to debate it and stuff. We have three ratifications so far and are hoping for the fourth one coming through soon. When we get 50 ratifications, the treaty enters into force.

DEVIN STEWART: Who are the three ratifiers?

BEATRICE FIHN: Countries that did not need so much approval, like the Holy See, for example, the pope. He just did it. Thailand and Guyana, countries that are also part of nuclear-free zones. They already have their national legislation prohibiting nuclear weapons.

DEVIN STEWART: I see. One criticism is that no nuclear powers have supported this effort. How do you respond to that? Is this effort going to have any practical consequences?

RAY ACHESON: We never really expected the nuclear-armed states to immediately endorse this initiative or be a constructive part of this process because we have seen in recent years that they have been investing billions of dollars in modernizing their nuclear arsenals and really backtracking on a lot of the commitments that they have previously made to nuclear disarmament. So we did not expect them to be interlocutors in this process.

But what we expect to see is that as states sign and ratify this treaty, as it enters into force and becomes national law for many countries, there will be a lot of economic, political, legal, and social effects around nuclear weapons, stigmatizing these weapons, denormalizing them in the security and legal spheres, leading to economic disinvestments, so withdrawal of funds by banks and pension funds from nuclear weapon-producing companies, which could have real material impacts on the continued existence of nuclear weapons. Over time that will hopefully change the game around nuclear weapons and will help facilitate nuclear disarmament.

BEATRICE FIHN: I think we have seen on chemical weapons, biological weapons, landmines, and cluster munitions that even states that do not sign the treaty initially, it impressed them. It makes them change behavior. In particular, for example, the United States, Russia, and China when it comes to landmines, it is 20 years exactly—I think yesterday was the 20th anniversary of that treaty—it really changed how these countries, despite not signing it, behave around this weapon. It has cut off the market for the weapon.

We see similar trends now with cluster munitions. Just last year, Textron, the last American cluster munitions producer, despite the United States not being a part of the treaty, stopped producing these weapons. Because of the growing international stigma, it is not profitable for companies to invest in weapons that the rest of the world is prohibiting.

DEVIN STEWART: The landmine effort that you mentioned, that was Jody Williams, who also won a Nobel Prize. What lessons do you draw from her campaign? What are the similarities and differences between the two campaigns?

RAY ACHESON: We drew directly on lessons from the landmines and also the cluster munitions prohibition campaigns. One of the things we learned there was that the first step toward prohibiting these weapons really has to be about changing the discourse on them toward a humanitarian analysis, so looking at the ways in which these weapons were previously described as being necessary for security. With landmines and cluster bombs militaries were saying: "We need these weapons. They're really important to our military strategies in conflict."

Those campaigns really turned that on its head and looked at the impacts on human beings, on the environment, and of course over generations with land contamination. Changing that discourse led a number of governments that previously supported these weapons to change their policies on the weapons and come in line with the approach to ban them and eliminate them.

DEVIN STEWART: What are the differences? So landmines are quite indiscriminate and can be around forever and there does not really seem to be a specific target with them, nuclear weapons are seen as special in the arena of weapons because they are oftentimes deployed by civilians rather than military. There are political calculations at play. They are also sometimes described as "defensive." Do you see those differences as instrumental?

BEATRICE FIHN: I think one of the problems with nuclear weapons is that we made them different, we see them different. The impact is, of course, bigger, but it is still a weapon. When you use this weapon in reality, the facts are that the impact is indiscriminate and inhumane. It would violate the laws of war, for example. We have agreed as an international community that civilians should not be targets. Leveling entire cities is not acceptable in warfare. The laws of war say that.

It is sort of bizarre that we treat nuclear weapons like something else, that no rules apply to these weapons, and that is really what we are trying to change. Bring nuclear weapons in line with the development of international law and the international system that has happened since 1945.

DEVIN STEWART: In 1985 an organization called the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) also won the Nobel Peace Prize. My understanding is that that organization was involved with helping start your coalition. What do you make of the comments by some people in the media that this year's Peace Prize is a rebuke or kind of a smack to your organization to get to work and try to achieve more?

RAY ACHESON: I think it is more a recognition of what we have achieved so far than a rebuke to do more, actually, because it is in recognition of this change of discourse, raising awareness about the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, and also about the achievement of the treaty to ban nuclear weapons adopted in July. I think that made some splash in the news media when it happened but really not a significant amount, and most people still do not know that we actually did abolish nuclear weapons just a few months ago.

So I think that the Nobel Peace Prize really elevates that message and will do a lot to help governments feel more confident about signing and ratifying the treaty, that this is a legitimate piece of international law that is now being discussed in living rooms around the world. And I think it will really spark a lot of public discourse in some countries that do believe that nuclear weapons provide some form of security. I think this is going to be exactly the initiative or the spur that we need to elevate those discussions.

BEATRICE FIHN: We cannot deny that also things have changed these last few years. We have seen a huge modernization of nuclear programs, tensions increasing between nuclear-armed states, and just in this last year, of course, very open hostile rhetoric to use nuclear weapons between North Korea and the United States. So the risk is very present right now, and we are in a very dangerous situation in the world, and people need to act because if we do not act, nuclear weapons will be used one day.

I think that also the Nobel committee wanted to give a boost to something positive that has happened and something that could be the way forward, the way out of this.

DEVIN STEWART: The countries that come to mind that are threats to world peace include North Korea, obviously, as you just mentioned, other countries as well that maybe we could talk about later. What about the question of if rogue states have nukes, then high-minded campaigns like yours might not have any bearing on their thinking about how they possess or don't possess nuclear weapons, and you will just have states that are ethical and humanitarian-minded trying to reduce their nuclear arsenals, and yet the threat will still be there from rogue states.

BEATRICE FIHN: I think nuclear-armed states like the United States, like the United Kingdom, democratic states, have spent the last 70 years arguing that nuclear weapons equal security. Weak and fragile states like North Korea are going to pick up on that, and they are going to listen. That is the only way to be heard, that is the only way to be respected in the international community. We have given nuclear weapons this role, and of course they are going to listen.

We are not going to be able to prevent other states from having these weapons unless we address the weapons themselves. It is not about who has them, it is the weapons. These are weapons that will indiscriminately slaughter civilians, and that will be the case if North Korea uses them, if the United States uses them, if the NATO forces in Europe use them. It is not about who has them, there are no right hands for these weapons. It is the weapon itself that is indiscriminate and targets civilians, and we should no longer accept that.

DEVIN STEWART: You are also quoted in the Japanese press in The Asahi Shimbun urging Japan to join the anti-nuke treaty that you mentioned earlier. You also seem to criticize Japan and I suppose other countries—maybe South Korea—for being under the American nuclear umbrella.

What would you like countries that are being threatened by North Korea to do? What would be the ideal, and how about the intense anxiety that Japanese and Koreans feel about the North Korean threat?

BEATRICE FIHN: The fear is real, and the threat is there, of course, but it is unacceptable to threaten to indiscriminately slaughter civilians with nuclear weapons. That is of course what North Korea threatens them with, and that is also what the United States and indirectly these other states are also threatening back. We heard the U.S. president in the General Assembly saying he would totally destroy North Korea. It is about trying to change that behavior.

Japan knows very well what using nuclear weapons means. We have to stop saying that we are just under extended nuclear deterrence for security reasons. Extended nuclear deterrence means you are prepared and engaged in plans to slaughter civilians, massive amounts of civilian. I think that is what states that are under the nuclear umbrella have to admit. When we can admit that, we can also change that behavior.

RAY ACHESON: I think also more broadly when we consider this concept of nuclear deterrence we need to really think about what it is that we are suggesting, and that is that a weapon is supposed to prevent war. That on its face just seems absurd, because a weapon is designed as a tool to be used in a war. So how can something designed for that purpose actually prevent what it is supposed to be used for? I think that is an important piece of this puzzle. Although, of course, people are living with this fear and with these threats, the answer is not more weapons or making more threats, it is reducing the tensions, and a big part of reducing tensions is going to be through disarmament.

The conversation usually goes the other way among states that possess these weapons. They want security first, they want peace first, they want some sort of guarantee that the world will never engage in another conflict again before they will think of giving up their weapons. Whereas the vast majority of the world has now made it clear that they actually think we can achieve better peace, better security, and more sustainable and lasting cooperation in the world through a process of disarmament.

BEATRICE FIHN: That is a really great point. Just to add on that is that we talk about nuclear weapons as providing security, but they don't. That is just lies. Look at the situation between North Korea, South Korea, Japan, and the United States today. It does not feel like peace, it does not feel like security. And that is because of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are fueling that conflict, making it even more uncertain. I think that is really the key here. We somehow have bought into the fact that these will keep us safe, when actually they are just increasing the risk and keeping us unsafe.

DEVIN STEWART: Certainly there is a risk, but couldn't you argue that the presence of nuclear weapons has prevented an actual act of war on the Korean Peninsula or in Northeast Asia in general? You have China as well, remember.

Another question to provoke you a little bit—it is an important issue and we need to have a lot of questions here—can you give us an example of nuclear states that have gone to war?

RAY ACHESON: Nuclear states have certainly been actively engaged in proxy wars around the world since the end of World War II. We have seen a lot of conflict. I think asking civilians of many countries across the world if they think that there has been peace since World War II or if nuclear weapons have somehow prevented armed conflict, I think they will resoundingly tell you no, they have not felt the effects of peace brought about by any weapon. So I think that is one piece of it.

I also think that we can look to other variables that have been involved since the end of World War II in preventing, say, a major direct conflict between the United States and Russia or amongst the states of Northeast Asia, and we need to look at economic integration of countries, we need to look at cooperation across Europe that has developed since the end of World War II. So I think there are also other factors that have maybe prevented a breakout of war that nuclear weapons really have nothing to do with and are in fact the antithesis of.

BEATRICE FIHN: I think really we have been very close—the Cuban Missile Crisis and also at other times during the Cold War. Now, 20-30 years afterward, researchers are starting to access documents. We also realize how many accidents, how many near-misses, misunderstandings, weather satellites that have been misinterpreted as missiles, where we had one person thinking, I'm going to disobey orders and not fire because this doesn't seem right to me. That is just madness to think that one Russian missile person saved us all in a way. And that has happened many times.

We have survived nuclear weapons, not because they are magic effects but from good fortune really. We have been lucky. The risks for nuclear weapons to be used, either by accident, intent, or miscalculation, is always greater than zero. At times like this, the risk is higher, and at other times when tensions are less, they might be lower, but it is always greater than zero, which means that if we have them forever, they will be used. That is just fact, that is just statistically a fact.

So then we have to talk about the consequences. What happens when nuclear weapons are used? Who is going to save the survivors? Who is going to clean up? What are you going to do with the dead bodies? How many radiation treatment centers exist in South Korea, for example? What would you do with the bodies? It is all these kind of bizarre questions that if you argue that we need nuclear weapons, you are going to have to have a plan for that, and they don't.

DEVIN STEWART: As you know, according to some intel Japan is a huge target of North Korean nuclear weapons, partly because North Korea would not want to take over Japan. So there is this real threat in Japan. Then in South Korea there is the worry about political blackmail. If North Korea is the one in the catbird's seat and the one who is in charge and can call the shots, then North Koreans can call the terms and dictate what a unified Korea would look like. How do you respond to the argument that the only way to prevent nuclear blackmail is to have nuclear weapons?

RAY ACHESON: When we talk about nuclear weapons being able to prevent anything, I think we really have to seriously look at precedents for what nuclear weapons have actually prevented. Did nuclear weapons prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons? There is this idea that by having nuclear weapons it will somehow prevent against proliferation, but we have not seen that to be the case.

In other cases of proliferation risk or concern, it has been a diplomatic initiative that has—with the case of Iran, that has solved that situation, not threats of use of nuclear weapons or any actual use of nuclear weapons. So I think we need to really think carefully about whether nuclear weapons prevent anything.

In the case of use against Japan, as Beatrice was talking about earlier in terms of the humanitarian impacts of these weapons, using these weapons in your own neighborhood on countries that are in your backyard, North Korea is going to suffer from that, too. Any exchange of nuclear weapons or even use of a single nuclear weapon will have global ramifications that we may not be able to recover from in terms of economics or environmentally. There have been studies about famine that can be caused by an exchange of nuclear weapons that exacerbate climate change that we are already seeing.

We have to remember that these weapons do have effects that spread across borders. They are not contained in the site where you use them. They will decimate a city where you use it, and the broader intergenerational effects of radiation poisoning will go on for decades and will affect all neighboring countries and oceans.

BEATRICE FIHN: What we are seeing right now with North Korea and with responses from the United States is really an undermining of this idea that we still have that we shouldn't really use nuclear weapons. I think that is an extremely dangerous situation where we are seeing much more straightforward threats to use these, which is also going to start making people think that it is possible that we can do this. Obviously, the military is responding. They are raising their alert levels.

DEVIN STEWART: The American military?

BEATRICE FIHN: And North Korean and, of course, other militaries around the world as well, which in turn increases the accidents. So I think that this is really the moment where we strengthen the norms, that we use this treaty to call out that behavior. It is unacceptable. Threatening to use nuclear weapons is unacceptable. Using nuclear weapons is unacceptable. Having nuclear weapons is unacceptable.

DEVIN STEWART: Let's talk about what you are going to do with this prize. You have used the news about receiving the Nobel Peace Prize to shine a light on this issue and bring attention, which is great. We all know that receiving the Peace Prize can also be a double-edged sword, right? Aung San Suu Kyi is the famous recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize who is now rightly or wrongly criticized and sometimes accused that she should hand her prize back because of the Rohingya crisis in Rakhine State in Burma. Are you at all worried that receiving this prestigious prize could come back to haunt you and have a sort of paradoxical effect on your work?

BEATRICE FIHN: The pressure on us obviously increases.


BEATRICE FIHN: We need to deliver in order to justify this. But I think that actually it is not a problem for the campaign. We have delivered a treaty, we are working on verifications, we are working on entering it into force. Nuclear disarmament of course is not an issue that has super-fast progress, it is long-term work. But we are going to use this new momentum to really push as much as possible because I think that there is really a unique moment right now.

We have a situation where people are much more aware of nuclear weapons, more so than since the end of the Cold War, I think. People are starting to think about it. Also, a new generation that grew up after the Cold War is for the first time confronted with the threat of nuclear weapons being used, and that is scary, but also gives us an opportunity. We see historically after the Cuban Missile Crisis and the tensions in the 1980s big progress happening. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) was created after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the nuclear freeze movement in the 1980s.

We have a treaty. We have a way out of this situation. And with this prize, we are going to use it as much as we can and try to inspire also people to get engaged right now. That is something I think people really need.

It is difficult times, not just on nuclear weapons, but on all issues. We see states regressing into nationalistic behavior with much more military sorts of solutions to things, and regular people feel disempowered, that they cannot do anything. I really hope that this prize serves as inspiration for people.

We are just a bunch of regular people, and we did a treaty that prohibits nuclear weapons against really harsh opposition from the nuclear-armed states. The most powerful, militarily strong states in the world tried to stop this, and a bunch of people just did it anyway.

I think that is really key to remember, that all great progress in the world has come from people organizing, mobilizing, and pushing for change. So I really hope that this is a moment where we can realize that the threat is real, but we can do something about it.

RAY ACHESON: I think that is the main message that I would want to come out of winning this Nobel Peace Prize. So much of social organizing for change does go unrecognized. Most people never have such honor bestowed upon them for their work. In that, I think we have a great responsibility to organizers across a range of social justice issues that are really up against it right now.

As Beatrice said, the world can sometimes feel extremely dark and overwhelming, especially right now, and so showing people that it is possible to stand up to power, to stand up to a very entrenched, militarized, patriarchal, racist power structure that does exist when it comes to nuclear weapons or to a variety of other issues, that working with like-minded governments across a diverse, transnational, global campaign to make change is really significant. We have never purported that this is going to be an easy road from here, that now that we have this treaty it will just be a matter of getting states to sign on and we will eliminate nuclear weapons—no. It is going to be another big push, more work, more courage necessary to get through this. But I think what we have shown is that it is possible, and if we come together, we can do it.

DEVIN STEWART: Beatrice Fihn is executive director, and Ray Acheson is an advisor to ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons in Geneva. Thank you so much for coming today, and I wish you luck.

BEATRICE FIHN: Thank you very much.

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