October 7, 2017
2017 Nobel Peace Prize Goes to ICAN–Congratulations
by Robin Wright
The dreamers won. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) is still so green that, when the call came from the Norwegian Nobel Committee, the group initially thought it was a prank. But, in the middle of two brewing crises over nuclear weapons, the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded on Friday to a global coalition of young activists who defied the United States and the eight other nuclear powers this summer to win support at the United Nations for the first treaty to ban the world’s deadliest weapon.
With dogged determination, ICAN, which was formed just a decade ago, generated support from more than a hundred and twenty countries for the landmark accord. Fifty-three nations have signed it since the formal process began, on September 20th.
The Trump Administration led a boycott of talks on the ICAN initiative at the United Nations last spring. “There is nothing I want more for my family than a world with no nuclear weapons,” Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., told reporters. “But we have to be realistic. Is there anyone who thinks that North Korea would ban nuclear weapons?”
The Nobel committee cited ICAN, which is based in Geneva, for “its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its groundbreaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons.”
Arms-control advocates were jubilant on Friday. “A stunning achievement with profound impact on global efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons,” Joseph Cirincione, the President of the Ploughshares Fund, told me. “No one but the members of ICAN thought they could succeed. They are dreamers in the best sense, people with a big vision and a big plan to match. Think John Lennon.” The Nobel committee’s message is clear, he said. “All nine nuclear-armed states are building more and newer nuclear weapons. The risk of nuclear war is at its highest level since the early nineteen-eighties, with impulsive, unstable leaders elevating the role of nuclear weapons in their strategies and playing nuclear chicken in Northeast Asia. The committee hopes that if the great nations won’t eliminate the one weapon that can destroy humanity, then the people themselves must force them to do so.”
In a statement, ICAN described the prize as “a tribute to the tireless efforts of many millions of campaigners and concerned citizens worldwide who, ever since the dawn of the atomic age, have loudly protested nuclear weapons, insisting that they can serve no legitimate purpose and must be forever banished from the face of our earth.”
In a video, Beatrice Fihn, ICAN’s Executive Director (pic above), described how she thought the call from the Nobel committee was a joke. “You just get so nervous that it’s not real. So, it wasn’t until the actual broadcast, when she spoke the name ICAN, that we really understood that it was real,” she said, shortly after the news broke. Asked if she thought the treaty or the Nobel Prize would change the minds of the world’s nuclear powers, she said, “It doesn’t work like that. The treaty is meant to make it harder to justify nuclear weapons, to make it uncomfortable for states to continue with the status quo, to put more pressure on them. That isn’t going to happen overnight, of course. But it is a huge boost to all the people who worked on this issue for a very long time, the new generations who are mobilizing around this issue, through our campaign and other work. It’s a huge signal that this is worthy to work on and this is needed and appreciated.”
Beatrice Fihn, left, Executive Director of the International campaign to abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), and Actor and UN Messenger of Peace Michael Douglas, right.
The Nobel decision comes amid growing tensions between the United States and North Korea, which this year has tested both a nuclear bomb and new missile-delivery systems. President Trump has repeatedly vowed that North Korea cannot be allowed to keep its advanced-weaponry program. Last month, he warned Kim Jong Un, whom Trump nicknamed “little Rocket Man,” that the military option is on the table to contain Pyongyang’s ambitions.
The Trump Administration will also unveil its strategy next week regarding the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, negotiated between Iran and the world’s six major powers. President Trump is expected to announce that Tehran is not fully conforming to the “spirit” of the accord, even though the U.N.’s nuclear-watchdog agency has repeatedly reported that Iran has fully complied with the deal’s restrictions. The move would endanger the deal but not automatically kill it. It would open the way for Congress to re-impose the economic sanctions lifted as part of the agreement—and put Washington and Tehran on a collision course.
The Nobel Prize was not a message to the Trump Administration, Berit Reiss-Andersen, the chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, told reporters on Friday. “We’re not kicking anyone in the legs with this prize,” she said. Instead, it was to offer “encouragement” to all parties engaged in disarmament initiatives. The Nobel committee also recognized that a formal ban—enshrined in the treaty promoted by ICAN—would “not in itself eliminate a single nuclear weapon, and that so far neither the states that already have nuclear weapons nor their closest allies support the nuclear-ban treaty.”
Yet ICAN has generated growing support among non-governmental groups—now totaling four hundred and sixty-eight disarmament, humanitarian, and environment organizations worldwide—since it was founded on a shoestring in 2007. The movement began in Australia but formally launched in Vienna.
Fihn, who is Swedish, said the movement was inspired by a similar coalition that mobilized support for a treaty to ban land mines. The U.S.-based International Campaign to Ban Landmines, and its American coördinator, Jody Williams, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. The land-mine treaty has been signed by the vast majority of U.N. members, although the big three—the United States, Russia, and China—have spurned it. Campaigns by civil society and grassroots movements have a growing profile on global issues—from the environment and human rights to the regulation or elimination of other weapons of mass destruction, despite pushback from major powers.
The new Treaty of the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which was voted on in July, prohibits nations from “developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, transferring, possessing, stockpiling, using or threatening to use nuclear weapons.” It also prohibits assisting, encouraging, or inducing any country to engage in these activities.
Any country that commits to destroy its nuclear weapons—in a legally binding and time-bound plan—is eligible to join. All nine nuclear powers—the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, Israeli, India, Pakistan, and North Korea—have directly or implicitly rejected the treaty, which will not take force until fifty countries ratify it, the step after signing it.
“The ceremony to open signatures on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons came a day after Donald Trump vowed to totally destroy North Korea if they attacked, which was followed by additional nuclear threats from North Korea,” Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, in Washington, told me. “At a time when nuclear dangers and tensions are rising, ICAN’s call to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons — and the Nobel Prize itself—is the appropriate rejoinder to those governments and leaders who continue to promote the role and potential use of these mass-terror weapons in the twenty-first century.”