Oslo, Norway—From the indigenous communities exposed by remote nuclear tests, to activists living in bustling cities across the globe—a new resistance is growing. Peace Organizations worldwide have joined together to stand up to the nine nuclear-armed states in the form of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, known commonly as ICAN. While many have hailed them for revitalizing the nuclear-disarmament movement, their greatest achievement to date is their influence on the creation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. This bold new step in disarmament stands out from previous anti-nuclear movements, because it went after a comprehensive ban. While it won’t as of yet directly eliminate a single nuclear weapon, as none of the current signatories have them, many believe it will significantly alter the nuclear-weapons industry.
The world’s powers remain at a crossroads. According to a recent Pew Poll, one of the few things Americans agree on today is that the nuclear threat coming from North Korea is real and should be taken seriously. On the other hand, the United Nations overwhelmingly voted to adopt a treaty that will prohibit nuclear weapons, and the disarmament movement, it seems, has never been more democratized. That is, ordinary people have never seemed to have such an impact on global affairs. So how can a campaign be awarded for its role in ridding the world of nuclear weapons when nuclear war seems so near?
The Norwegian Nobel Committee acknowledged ICAN’s role in the negotiations as the key factor for awarding it the Nobel Peace Prize for 2017. At this year’s ceremony, Berit Reiss-Andersen, chairman of the Nobel Committee, addressed critics of this movement: “Many people think that the vision of a nuclear weapons free world, global zero, is utopic, or even irresponsible. Similar arguments were once used to oppose treaties banning biological weapons, chemical weapons, cluster munitions and land mines. Nevertheless, the prohibitions became a reality and most of these weapons are far less prevalent as a result. Using them is a taboo.”
The Nobel chairwoman later invoked the words of Ronald Regan, saying, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The only value for our two nations possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will be never used, but then would it not be better to do away with them entirely?”
While many groups have come before them, ICAN is a unique coalition of people and organizations who have influenced governments to fill the crucial legal gap to nuclear disarmament, one they believe will help stigmatize and delegitimize these weapons as a valuable tool in global politics.
This global coalition has taken the reigns of the disarmament movement that has been active since the 1940s. Its approach has engaged activists and diplomats in the global south, from countries that have been exposed to nuclear weapons and rejected them. ICAN democratized nuclear disarmament as an issue for anyone to take part in.
There are too many people in ICAN to profile in one article, so I dug through to find different representatives from different corners of the earth. Each brought their own backgrounds, medical, legal, social, and all came together over a decade ago to lobby for the ban.
In Australia, ICAN began with Felicity Ruby, Dimity Hawkins, Dr. Bill Williams, Dr. Tilman Ruff, and others who launched the global effort with a strong medical and scientific perspective. According to Dr. Kathleen Sullivan, a disarmament educator in the United States, and one of the campaign’s earlier members, “the initial thinking revolved around horror, humor, and hope—to amplify the need for a louder nuclear taboo, to educate the public, reignite the movement fueled more by what we love than what we fear.”
Ray Acheson, director of Reaching Critical Will, the disarmament program at the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), was at the launch of ICAN in 2007 in Vienna, at a side event on the margins of the Non-Proliferation Treaty Preparatory Committee. “Originally the goal was to pursue a multilateral disarmament treaty with the nuclear-armed states’ support,” she explained, “but after these governments failed to implement their disarmament commitments and continued investing billions into nuclear-weapon modernization, our thinking shifted to go after a ban treaty instead.” While the nine nuclear-armed states and the NATO alliance show no signs of support for the treaty, ICAN helped design a treaty that didn’t need them, at least not at first. When Acheson appeared on Democracy Now!, the longtime member of ICAN’s International Steering Group said, “The treaty is actually designed not to include them necessarily. It would have been great if they had have come along, and it would have looked like a very different treaty. But given that they weren’t engaged in the negotiations and that they aren’t interested currently in disarmament, we needed to create something that could attack the system of nuclear weapons indirectly, getting around different economic, political, legal structures of nuclear weapons that keep the practices and policies of nuclear deterrence going currently.”
Tim Wright, director of ICAN Australia, was the very first volunteer back in 2006. Tim has advocated for ICAN in the Asia-Pacific region, and around the globe. According to Acheson, “He personally sat on the phone in New York and Australia and called individual countries to persuade them to join the humanitarian pledge against nuclear weapons, and will now do so for the treaty.” Wright, alongside a team of volunteers, also maintains the digital voice of ICAN, and constantly works to keep campaigners around the world informed and engaged with videos and social-media posts.
ICAN has inspired thousands of people around the world whose countries do not maintain nuclear arsenals to join the struggle for a nuclear-free world. Members like Drs. Peter Mburu and Kelvin Kibet of the International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) have been moved by the devastating effects nuclear war would have on the planet, including in their hometown of Nairobi, Kenya. Mburu admits, “It is true we have bigger problems—extreme poverty, corruption, youth unemployment, but there is a question of justice. A few countries can form a cabal hoarding power under pretenses of global security. The effects of nuclear weapons are well-documented, and even a small detonation would indiscriminately affect far too many people, including people in my part of the world, albeit indirectly. That is unacceptable.”
“Nuclear disarmament is not top priority in many non-nuclear-armed states, let alone in the developing world,” agreed Kibet.”Fighting poverty and disease among others come first. However, if a nuclear war happened, research shows that it’s the developing world that will be hardest hit.”
Lawyers, like Seth Shelden, a Fulbright specialist and a professor of law at CUNY, volunteered their time to ICAN to help ensure that the treaty would be as comprehensive and effective as possible. According to Shelden, “The treaty builds on existing international humanitarian law regarding use and threats of use of nuclear weapons, and goes several steps further by banning actions such as possession, testing, and development, as well as use and threats of use, of nuclear weapons under all circumstances.” It also addresses such issues as environmental remediation, victim assistance, and the illegality of stationing, transferring, and investing in nuclear weapons.
Maral Hassanshahi, a young Iranian physician studying at the University of Maryland–College Park, wanted “to stand up for myself and for others. I have seen women who could not defend themselves and live lives full of fear and regret. I didn’t want to be one of them.” She became a doctor and in her studies and activism learned how she could help the public through the Nobel Prize–winning IPPNW, which maintains an active presence in Iran. “ICAN has campaigned to inform people that the effects of these weapons are horrible, and even a limited use could affect them, too. They know no boundaries,” she says. “My work is mostly to empower and educate youth to work toward a healthier, safer world for everyone. Nuclear weapons are the most dangerous and destructive issue of our time and, together, we need to do something before it is too late.”
Dr. Carlos Umaña, director of IPPNW Costa Rica, also believes that just because his country doesn’t have nuclear weapons doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have a say on nuclear weapons-related issues. “There is really no such thing as a non-nuclear nation, for as long as any state has them, the entire international community lives under the nuclear threat.”
In 1967, Latin American governments created the first international nuclear-weapon-free zone, and have been involved since then in the fight for a nuclear-weapon-free world. However, “The Latin American public,” according to Silesky, “is preoccupied with other issues—such as violence, poverty, and instability. They do not think much about the nuclear threat.” He aims to change to that.
The global campaign convened on the United Nations Headquarters in New York to influence the treaty process. Coordinated by Daniel Högsta, ICAN’s campaigners and advocates encouraged member states to push for language agreed upon in campaigner meetings to ensure that the final draft was an effective document. However, at the heart of the negotiations were the testimony of those who have survived the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the countless others who have been exposed to nuclear tests.
Sue Coleman Haseldine knows all too well the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. She was exposed to the “black mist” fallout from tests held in her native homeland of Maralinga, in the southern Australian outback. Despite being evacuated to an outside compound, she was exposed as a child. She and her granddaughter suffer from thyroid cancer. Her township also has high levels of cancer. Haseldine believes the bombs brought this: “It has changed our genes,” she told her local media. “These diseases weren’t around before the bombs.”
Abacca Anjain Maddison hails from Rongelap, an island that will remain uninhabitable for generations because of radioactive contamination caused by nuclear testing conducted in the Pacific. A former senator of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, she travels the world with ICAN, gives voice to the survivors of the nuclear testing in the South Pacific, and aims to get compensation for the damage done to her land.
The earliest days of Setsuko Thurlow’s activism date back to 1954, when she came to the United States on a scholarship and she spoke out about the atmospheric testing in Bikini Atoll region. Setsuko Thurlow survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima when she was 13 years old. Like most children her age, she was mobilized for the war effort. On August 6 at 8:15 am she found herself buried in a collapsed building when the atomic blast ripped through her city. She told me how she escaped, but the ghostly victims, burned and mangled from the incredible heat still haunt her. “We Hibakusha have always felt that no one should ever allow what happened to us, to ever happen to another human being.”
When Thurlow accepted the Nobel on behalf of ICAN, she decried the use of nuclear weapons and being known as a victim: “We refused to wait for an immediate fiery end or the slow poisoning of our world. We refused to sit idly in terror as the so-called great powers took us past nuclear dusk and brought us recklessly close to nuclear midnight. We rose up. We shared our stories of survival. We said: Humanity and nuclear weapons cannot coexist.”
Members of ICAN refuse to accept the argument that nuclear weapons will never be abolished. Their strategy is to focus on the long term goal of abolishment, rather than short-term politics of who sits in what seat.
According to Acheson, ICAN’s next mission is to reach nuclear “umbrella” states, like those in NATO, and lobby against their practices. “We will work hard to ensure the treaty enters into force as quickly as possible—which means getting as many countries as possible from around the world to sign and ratify the treaty—our national campaigners will be very active in supportive states,” she said. The action plan involves educational programs, direct action, and parliamentary hearings to help reach both civil society and their political leaders.