Helping small states have a big say in nuclear disarmament

ICAN campaigners from around the world meet in Geneva in 2018. Ari Besser.

Only five more ratifications are needed to bring the UN Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty into force, in large part thanks to the work of the Geneva-headquartered International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). Swapping a narrative of “state security” to one of “human security” is helping make that happen.

On 21 September, Malta became the 45th country to ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), and the world inched closer to nuclear weapons abolition. With only five ratifications left to reach the 50 necessary for the treaty to enter into force, the Geneva-headquartered International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) is confident that will happen by the end of the year.

States like Malta, traditionally excluded from the nuclear weapons debate, and without a permanent seat on the Security Council, have become some of the treaty’s strongest negotiators. Nuclear states like the United States, the United Kingdom and France have indicated they have no intention of ever becoming party to the treaty; it’s been the smaller countries who have most readily signed and ratified. They may be less powerful, less resourced, but their votes under international law are equal to the richest, most powerful states. “Malta just ratified and their vote counts as 1, the same as the United States vote. It’s brilliant,” Beatrice Fihn, ICAN’s executive director told the New Humanitarian in a conversation with ICAN staff.  

“Nuclear weapons aren’t limited to the state in which they’re used,” Seth Shelden, ICAN’s UN liaison, said. He says countries who may not hold nuclear weapons, but will be affected by their use, are affirming, “we do have a seat at the table, we do have a lot to say. And if nuclear armed states aren’t going to lead to disarmament on their own, then we need to step up and do that.”

Some countries with the world’s fastest growing populations – Bangladesh, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico and Nigeria – are also on board. “These countries are not looking to dominate with nuclear weapons, and it’s something we should celebrate,” Fihn said. “Former colonies are taking this step to ban the favourite power tool of the richest and most militarily strong countries, the tool they use to sit there and claim that power. [The treaty] is an expression of a changing world. Those few countries can no longer dictate what the rules should be.”

Finding parallels with the current #BlackLivesMatter movement, Fihn also points out the inherent racism in nuclear testing, done on Indigenous and Aboriginal communities, and in former colonies. She likens it to the dynamic with police departments in the United States.  “The powerful say, ‘This is to protect you, don’t worry about it.’,” she says. “But it’s harming people today; it’s actually killing you. Who gets to decide what protects us?”

Changing the world, one petition at a time. Launched in 2007, ICAN is a coalition of non-governmental organizations around the globe, collectively working towards adherence to and implementation of the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty. “We’re like the conductor of an orchestra,” Fihn said, “with all of the instruments playing their role.” Whether it’s faith-based organizations, peace activists, groups of doctors, legal experts, or civil society actors, each brings its own perspective, identity, and constituency to the cause, she said. Today, that orchestra – ICAN’s membership – is made up of 597 partners in 106 countries.

In 2017, a few months after 122 countries voted to adopt the global agreement, ICAN won the Nobel Peace Prize for drawing attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, and for working towards a treaty-based prohibition.

The moment offered a “feeling of triumph”, Finn says, a recognition not only of ICAN but of all the many groups they work with, and their indirect, arduous, and often unacknowledged path towards progress.  “When it comes to big treaties and agreements, usually credit goes to the two men who sign it, as if they are the ones who made it happen,” she says. “That’s not the reality. It’s the people who did it – the millions marching, the emails that no one answers, the petitions and seminars that no one shows up for. That’s what changes the world.”

Putting a human face on nuclear weapons. Prior to the treaty’s adoption, nuclear weapons were the only weapons of mass destruction not subject to a comprehensive ban, despite their catastrophic humanitarian and environmental impacts. ICAN has sought to recast the nuclear weapons discourse away from state security and toward human security. “The debate has historically been framed by political leaders and defense experts,” explains Shelden. After three intergovernmental conferences between 2013 and 2014 on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear munitions, the humanitarian focus has become widely accepted.  So, he asks,  “who are the experts now?”

The Hibakusha – the Japanese word for survivors of the 1945  Hiroshima or Nagasaki atomic bombs – are definitive authorities on the human toll that nuclear weapons take. Their moving accounts of both the day of the bombings and of living through the aftermath feature centrally in ICAN’s advocacy. A few are personally involved in the campaign, telling their stories at conferences and negotiations, lobbying embassies in Tokyo, testifying in front of foreign ministries, and holding public lectures to raise awareness.

Children during the 1945 bombings, the Hibakusha are all now over the age of 75. “We only have them for a short period longer, unfortunately,” Shelden says. “That is motivation for the campaign to work urgently while they can still lead the discussion.”

Scientists, historians, and survivors from nuclear testing in the Pacific and elsewhere are also helping to deepen awareness of the humanitarian toll. “You can identify with them,” Fihn says. “It’s not just the structures and institutions and warheads. It’s people.”

What’s  next? Once the treaty enters into force, states parties must not only adhere to the prohibitions, but are also obliged to provide assistance to victims of nuclear use and testing, and to remediate contaminated environments. “These are ground-breaking provisions that will have a clear-cut impact,” says Alicia Sanders-Zakre, ICAN’s policy and research coordinator.

ICAN also expects a broader normative impact of the TPNW, like that seen after the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) entered into force in 2010, and the Mine Ban Treaty (MBT) in 1999. Some companies in non-states parties halted production of the weapons, financial institutions divested in companies that did, and countries that hadn’t joined the ban changed policies on their use and transfer.

When TPNW enters into force, it will be a “really big deal”, Fihn says, but “it won’t magically change everything.” ICAN’s work will continue, she says. “We’ve been very lucky not to see a nuclear war since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but we’re not going to be so lucky forever.” To Fihn, it’s important to keep a long-term perspective and focus on the future. “For the past 75 years it has been okay for the five countries who sit in the Security Council to have these weapons. It’s about undoing the brainwashing since 1945 that says, this is what you do when you are powerful. What kind of world do we want in the next 75 years?”