Abolishing nuclear weapons may seem like an idealistic, even utopian objective.
But so too did banning land mines. And chemical and biological weapons. Yet after campaigns that also seemed quixotic, those weapons are considered barbaric and treated as illegal by the vast majority of nations.
So why not nuclear weapons?
That’s the question behind the quest of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, or ICAN, a self-described coalition of nongovernmental organizations in 100 countries promoting the U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The pact, which was adopted in July 2017, has been signed by 60 countries and, according to ICAN, “once a total of 50 have ratified or acceded to it, it will enter into force.”
For its efforts, ICAN was awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize “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.”
The award “has really brought a huge amount of attention to the issue and to our work and to civil society’s role in changing the world,” Beatrice Fihn, ICAN’s executive director, told an editorial writer. Fihn, who will speak at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum Minneapolis on Saturday at Augsburg University, added that while the goal of nuclear disarmament is widely shared, “the biggest problem is that people feel it isn’t possible to change. A lot of the work on nuclear disarmament has been focused on nuclear-armed states like the U.S. and Russia, which has almost disempowered all other states who feel they don’t have a role in this.”
But they do have a role, and so do citizens in proliferating nations — especially the U.S.
“We have this tacit acceptance that some countries have them and we can’t do anything about that, and we’re trying to change that,” said Fihn. “When the rest of the world says ‘no, it’s unacceptable,’ the pressure on these nine [proliferating] countries is going to increase exponentially.”
Americans can advance this cause by demanding diplomatic methods to curb proliferation. After unproductive bellicose rhetoric led to a heightening of tensions, the Trump administration has taken the correct course with North Korea. But the U.S. took the opposite, and wrong, approach on Iran when it abrogated the multinational pact to keep that country from developing a nuclear weapons program.
Fihn is the first to acknowledge that states won’t unilaterally disarm. And she adds that “we’re not a campaign that thinks we’re going to see the end of the military or the end of all weapons anytime soon. So for us it’s very important that the weapons that come from governments are in line with the laws of war, and that they are not indiscriminate and cause harm to civilians and the environment beyond proportion to conflict.”
In other words, honoring the Geneva Convention and other global protocols, which should not be controversial, but conventional.
It’s not naive, but necessary, to believe citizens can change their future — even at a time of geopolitical strife and during an administration that’s often hostile to international institutions.
Despite long odds, U.S. citizens should take ICAN’s can-do inspiration as an opportunity to press lawmakers to strengthen existing arms-control agreements with Russia, re-engage diplomacy with Iran and, yes, commit to the objective of eventually abolishing nuclear weapons.
“We need to inspire people to still believe in peaceful solutions,” said Fihn. “It’s very important that today, when many people feel powerless and that they have no agency to shape politics, that’s it’s all decisions being made over their heads, to remember that all the big victories that we have in human rights and democracy come from just regular people standing up for something, and that’s what we have to do today on nuclear weapons.”