Beatrice Fihn on leading the fight against nuclear weapons

Beatrice Fihn at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo, December 2017. (Jo Straube)

As Beatrice Fihn prepares to step down from her role as head of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (Ican) in a few days, we spoke to her about what it’s been like to lead the nuclear disarmament fight for nearly a decade.

Within a matter of years, Beatrice Fihn became one of the most recognisable faces of the movement to rid the world of nuclear weapons. The Swedish lawyer and activist was propelled into the global spotlight in 2017 when she accepted the Nobel peace prize on behalf of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (Ican), which she has helmed as executive director since 2014.

Under her leadership, the Geneva-based NGO has grown to consist of more than 650 partner organisations in 110 countries. It was awarded the Nobel prize for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons and to establish the landmark Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, known as the TPNW, which was adopted at the United Nations in New York in July 2017.

The treaty, which entered into force two years ago, is the first legally binding agreement to ban and eliminate nuclear weapons and all associated activities. Hailed as the greatest achievement in the nuclear disarmament movement since the 1960s, the TPNW has so far been signed by 92 countries and ratified by 68.

As she prepares to leave her role at Ican on 31 January, there is no doubt that 40-year-old Fihn has achieved far more in the past decade than many would dream of in a lifetime. This is particularly impressive from someone who found themselves in the nuclear disarmament world “very much by accident”.

“I kind of fell into this field without planning to,” she tells me when we meet at Ican’s headquarters two weeks before her term ends. After completing an undergraduate degree in International Relations at the University of Stockholm, she was offered an internship with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (Wilpf) in Geneva in 2006.

At the time, she hoped to pursue a career in human rights. But at the last minute, Wilpf offered her a year-long, paid position in their nuclear disarmament branch. “Nuclear disarmament,” she says, feigning a grimace. “I really didn’t think it sounded very interesting. It seemed very old fashioned.”

But soon after taking up the position, she was hooked. “I became completely fascinated with the issue, because once I sort of got over the nuclear weapons part I recognised that it was about equality, justice, humanitarian issues, something that was almost forgotten,” she says. “It’s the ultimate symbol of oppressive power.”

The more Fihn learned about the subject, the more she was struck by the horror and injustice of a world with nuclear weapons. “It’s bizarre,” she says. “You have all these countries that have prohibited cluster bombs because they can blow off a child’s leg, but then wiping out a whole city with a nuclear bomb is totally fine.”

She was also struck by the concentration of nuclear power. “There are [essentially] nine people who really have the possibility to end the world as we know it in 30 minutes if they wanted to, right now,” she says. The United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France and China – known as the P5 – alongside India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea, all have the ability to produce and deploy nuclear weapons.

Leading the fight against nuclear weapons

Fihn joined Ican as executive director in 2014, then just 31 years old and six months pregnant with her second child. Three years later, on 7 July 2017, she and her colleagues were at the UN General Assembly Hall in New York as 122 countries voted to adopt the TPNW.

Although Fihn acknowledges it was a “massive achievement” for the movement, it was tempered slightly at the time by the ensuing media reaction. The P5 had voiced strong opposition to the TPNW and boycotted the treaty negotiations, leading to questions on whether the treaty carried any real weight.

“Because the US, Russia, and China weren’t there, the overall narrative in the media was that it was insignificant,” she says. “Like over 120 countries don’t matter.”

But when she received a call a few months later telling her that Ican had been awarded the Nobel peace prize, it felt like a long-awaited moment of recognition that her organisation and others in the field were truly making a difference.

“It was a massive boost of confidence for everyone and showed that people actually noticed what we did – that it is important and meaningful, and it is having an impact,” says Fihn.  “We’ve faced so much pressure from [the biggest military powers] and it’s so hard to work against that kind of interest and influence, so the Nobel prize was extremely important for us.”

The prize was also an important celebration of all the vital work done by civil society, according to Fihn. “It wasn’t just two world leaders who got together to negotiate something and then were awarded the Nobel prize for it, it was just regular people doing grassroots activism work,” she says. “We were just a bunch of random people – no celebrities, no big budget or fancy PR strategies, but just doctors, lawyers, students all doing small things.”

Fihn accepted the prize alongside Setsuko Thurlow, a Hiroshima survivor and one of Ican’s leading campaigners. In her Nobel peace prize lecture delivered in Oslo in December 2017, Thurlow recounted her experience at just 13 years old, when the US dropped the first atomic bomb that “obliterated” her city. She gave a harrowing account of watching the body of her four-year-old nephew, Eiji, “transformed into an unrecognisable chunk of flesh”.

“To me, he came to represent all the innocent children of the world, threatened as they are at this very moment by nuclear weapons,” Thurlow said. “Every second of every day, nuclear weapons endanger everyone we love and everything we hold dear.”

Beatrice Fihn accepting the Nobel peace prize alongside Hiroshima survivor Setsuko Thurlow. (Jo Straube)
Since its foundation in 2007, Ican has always put the voices of survivors front and centre in the fight against nuclear weapons. Fihn explains their devastating impact on humans is often overlooked in the debate, which instead centres around theoretical conversations about “nuclear deterrents” or “military strategy”.

“I think we’re dehumanising nuclear weapons and the idea of them being used, and when we remove humanity from issues that’s when people do the worst things to human beings,” she says. “So for me, it's really important that decision makers understand that when they say they believe in nuclear deterrence, that means they believe in threatening to mass-murder civilians.”

Pushing for change

With a palpable passion for her work, Fihn evidently has few qualms speaking uncomfortable truths to power. A tactic she often employed in her countless meetings with politicians and government ministers over the past decade was to begin the conversation by describing what would happen if a nuclear weapon was used.

“We often talk about it in such abstracts, but for me, it’s about grounding the issue in reality by talking about the consequences, but also about not allowing nuclear weapons to be this desensitised, dehumanised, structural issue because it’s actually a human issue,” she says.

“When you talk about how it vaporises bodies, how it wipes out a whole city, the burns, the firestorms, the radiation, and how even for survivors it will cause cancers, miscarriages, stillborn babies, for years afterwards, you really cannot emphasise enough how impossible it is to use these weapons in line with international humanitarian law, and that this is a weapon that is not a strategic military tool.”

But Fihn admits she has recently found it harder to talk candidly about what would happen in a nuclear attack. Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February last year, the possibility of such a scenario seems more real than it has in decades.

Russian president Vladimir Putin’s repeated threats to use nuclear weapons have been a chilling reminder to the world that the prospect of nuclear war is not confined to the past. The issue is “much more real for a whole new generation, including myself”, says Fihn.

Last week, the Doomsday Clock was set 90 seconds to midnight – the closest it has ever been. The countdown is a metaphor for global catastrophe agreed on by world-renowned experts at the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, who said Russia’s “thinly veiled threats to use nuclear weapons remind the world that escalation of the conflict – by accident, intention or miscalculation – is a terrible risk”.

But Fihn does not think the world is doomed. Quite the opposite, she is optimistic that these dark times could be the moment for real change.

“This is a really dangerous time, but when things are shifting they can shift for the worse or they can shift for the better,” she says. “The biggest breakthroughs on the nuclear weapons issue that have happened happened after these big crises.”

She gives the example of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Four years later, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) came into force, with nearly all countries in the world agreeing not to develop nuclear weapons. “That was a really massive achievement that came very quickly after a crisis,” says Fihn.

Under the NPT, five countries were legally permitted to have nuclear weapons; the US, the UK, Russia, France and China. In joining the treaty, these countries committed to making progress towards complete disarmament, while non-nuclear armed states agreed to never acquire nuclear weapons.

Since its adoption, a total of 191 countries have signed the NPT. They do not however include India and Pakistan, which have both publicly declared their nuclear arsenals, and Israel, believed to have nuclear weapons though it has always remained ambiguous on the subject. North Korea withdrew in 2003.

The moment the TPNW was adopted at the UN in New York in July 2017. (Clare Conboy)
The NPT has been widely viewed as a success. In the half a century since it was created, the global tally of nuclear weapons has dropped from more than 60,000 to around 12,000 today, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Russia and the US together possess around 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons.

Unlike the NPT, none of the nine nuclear-armed states have yet joined the prohibition treaty. Nor have any NATO members, some of which host US weapons despite not having their own. But Fihn disagrees with critics who claim the TPNW is weakened by their absence.

“I think the TPNW is such a useful tool no matter what the nuclear armed states say about it,” she explains. “It has made people believe in something and made people feel connected to the issue and feel like they can do something about it, and that is worth a huge amount.”

Fihn argues that one of the most important elements of the treaty is that it has shifted the norm from nuclear weapons being viewed as acceptable to something that is condemned. It also gives states a way to express their opposition to weapons that could have catastrophic consequences for every country in the world if they were used.

Fihn compares the TPNW to other international treaties such as the Ottawa Treaty on the prohibition of landmines or the Convention on Cluster Munitions. “We've seen from other treaties how much norms actually shift, and norms matter,” she says. “Even if not all countries agree to them, we have seen in the past that they really shift behaviour. They also put a lot of pressure on countries to behave in a certain way.”

The way forward

Fihn’s belief that everyone in the world is a stakeholder in the debate on nuclear weapons and should be able to have a say is central to Ican’s ethos.

“This isn’t a foregone conclusion that [a nuclear attack] is going to happen. We can actually stop it and everyone has the possibility to do something,” she says. “It’s not just Putin or Biden that can do something here, regular people can also do something.”

She compares it to climate change: another global crisis threatening our world that can feel insurmountable, with the actions of normal people seeming powerless against the negligence of those in power. But like with the climate change movement, a new generation of  activists are giving the fight to rid the world of nuclear weapons fresh momentum.

As a mother of two young children, Fihn says young people not only deserve a say in their future, but it is actually helpful for them to get involved and feel like they can make a difference.

“There’s a new generation that is growing up right now with access to all the information but it’s not very organised, and sometimes they feel powerless. I've talked to a lot of young people today that know everything about the world, but they are very cynical and anxious and don’t know how to change it,” she says.

Fihn takes part in a working group on nuclear disarmament at the United Nations. (Ican)
She references a fellow Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg, who has spoken openly about the anxiety she feels regarding the climate crisis. “She says it helps to get involved, because as soon as you see the power structure you start to understand that it isn’t just this mystical, invisible thing, there are people making these decisions,” she says. “Everyone who is involved in this issue thinks that it is solvable, whereas people who are not think it’s never going to happen.”

Fihn was surrounded by youth activists and civil society organisations from across the world last summer in Vienna, at the first meeting of signatories to the TPNW. It was there when she first started thinking about stepping down.

“There were so many people, some who had been in the campaign for 20 years, some who had just come on board a week before, and youth groups from all over the world,” she says.“This is what I fantasised that Ican would look like five or six years ago, when we were promoting ourselves as a very youth-driven campaign, and we’re here. We’ve done the things we set out to do.”

It hasn’t been an easy decision to leave, Fihn says, particularly at a moment when the issue of nuclear weapons is getting more attention than it has in decades. But she feels it’s time that someone else took the spotlight and that, in many ways, now might be the perfect time for a change.

“Right now is such a big moment, and I have [asked myself] how can I step away when suddenly nuclear weapons are everywhere?” she says. “But also I feel like maybe this is a great moment for someone else to come in and get to use this surge of interest.”

Fihn says she will still be involved in Ican, but “just not centre stage”. She wants to take a step back to focus on the bigger nuclear disarmament picture after years of moving at breakneck speed. “We’ve tried to sprint a marathon and move very fast and intensively, and it’s been extremely hard work,” she says.

She is also fiercely passionate about civil society, and wants to spend time helping other organisations working in fields such as climate change or global health with lessons learned from Ican that apply to all the biggest challenges facing our world.

“The mistake that people often make is to think that things just happen,” she says. “But there are people making these decisions, and they could make different decisions. So let’s ask them to make different decisions.”