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.