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.”