Beatrice Fihn, Sweden

Executive Director, ICAN

Beatrice Fihn, Executive Director, ICAN

Beatrice Fihn is the Executive Director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize-winning campaign coalition that works to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons. She accepted the Nobel Peace Prize and delivered the Nobel Lecture in Oslo on behalf of the campaign.


History of ICAN

ICAN was launched in April 2007. So we’re about 11 years old now and it was very much inspired by the Campaign to Ban Landmines and the Cluster Munitions coalition so this idea that we need to organize all the organizations working on nuclear weapons, and not just in a loose network, but in a focused way as well.  People been working on nuclear disarmament since 1945, but in many different ways with many different kind of aims some work on nuclear tests, some work on bilateral negotiations between the US and Russia. It was very focused on the US, Russia, the UK, a very Western focus as well, and it lacked a coherent strategy that everyone could feed into, in a way.  

So, first there’s always been a treaty and imagining a treaty but the idea of banning nuclear weapons even without the nuclear-armed States and the humanitarian initiative that came a few years into the campaign around 2010. And that happened not just from ICAN’s side. ICAN was a part of developing that strategy, but also in cooperation with governments and international organizations.  Again very much inspired by the just recently finished negotiations on the Cluster Munitions Convention.  This sort of tight group of organizations and governments and international organizations that had worked to ban weapons before, and they would do that no matter what the US and Russia said, or China, and I think that that sort of fed into ICAN’s model of working.  And the rest is history.

In 2010 there is a document talking about humanitarian consequences

So in 2010, this came very much from actually the ICRC and the Red Cross movement who had started looking into what emergency responders would do if a nuclear detonation happened.  And they did research and came to the conclusion: Nothing, we will pull our people out, the radioactive material is so dangerous to our employees that we have the responsibility to protect them so we would pull them out, we would leave people, you know, they’re on their own.  And that kind of triggered this idea of the humanitarian consequences.  You had governments like Norway and Switzerland that took up this issue very strongly at the review conference.  So you got this reference and I don’t think that the nuclear-armed States knew what they were doing.  They were very focused on the action plan and these concrete steps, watering them down, and then you have this reference that raised concerns about the catastrophic humanitarian consequences and that really became the launching pad for the whole movement, in a way, learning lessons from the landmines and cluster munitions, making the humanitarian (aspect) the real focus, the human suffering.  And we, our Norwegian campaign, worked very closely with the government and politicians in Norway. We got the prime minister and the foreign minister to agree to host the conference, the humanitarian initiative starting point, and at the same time there started these joint statements at the UN.  16 governments got together to acknowledge the catastrophic humanitarian consequences, saying that any use of nuclear weapons would have this, and under no circumstances should nuclear weapons be used.  And this was quite radical but slowly, quite silently changing the narrative. 

The Norwegian government hosted the first conference in Oslo in 2013 which was really a remarkable conference. It was the first time that you’d even organized something that the P5 didn’t support, that you dared to do something. And just a week before they decided to boycott the meeting and we were quite nervous in ICAN at how we would respond. Will people be disappointed?  There were some who said, “Oh, this is a waste of time if they don’t come!”

How will governments react?  Would they would just be there?

We’d never done a conference like that. We didn’t even know how it would go and I remember the moment when it clicked for me, that the bad treaty was going to work. Because I wasn’t convinced in the beginning, I thought it was an interesting idea.  Let’s see how it works, but you know I didn’t see how it was going to work without the nuclear weapon states, but we had the ICAN civil society forum on the eve of this big conference and we had then state secretary of Norway, Gry Larsen, this amazing politician in Norway, who came, and in front of 600 ICAN people in the audience, she talked about the boycott.

“Well they’ve been very angry, the p5, they came and they démarched us, and said, ‘this is a distraction’.” And she just sort of shrugged her shoulders and said, “Well you know, their arguments weren’t very convincing.”  And the whole audience laughed, and it was the first time we laughed at the P5.  And you know right there it just clicked, like oh my god this is all about changing power dynamics, and this is all about controlling the narrative, and we’re doing something and they’re on the outside.  We’re laughing at them, thinking that they are the silly ones, and it just really suddenly fell into place for me, how this is going to work, and then the conference was a huge success.  Nobody cared if they were there or not.  It was really focused on the humanitarian consequences. Mexico stood up at the end of the conference and said “we’re going to host the next conference.” And then we were off on this process, in a way, and we were very clear that we wanted to ban nuclear weapons.

The governments did not say it then.  We worked with them behind the scenes.  We knew they wanted to ban nuclear weapons.  We knew they were convinced, many of them, but they didn’t dare to say it out loud.  And they wanted to wait for the right moment, and we kept pushing and pushing.

We came into Nayarit, and they also added a conversation about risk, and trying to increase this sense of urgency.  And Austria then announced that they would hold a third conference that then also looked into the legal framework around weapons, in general, and nuclear weapon specifically.  And the conclusion was that there was a legal gap, there was no prohibition in place on nuclear weapons, and that was a problem, and Austria pledged to work to fill the legal gap.

And everyone knew we sort of meant the Ban Treaty but it wasn’t really clearly outlined but that sort of got this process.  And we worked to get governments to commit to this pledge which then led to the negotiations

What was ICAN’s role in the Open-Ended Working Group?

We took the humanitarian pledges, as we call this Austrian commitment, and we pushed very hard that this means we have to negotiate something, this means a new process, a legal process for a new treaty and I think that the first government that ever said publicly that they were prepared to ban nuclear weapons even without the nuclear states on board was Kenya in the autumn of 2013, after the Oslo conference.  And then there was one or two other countries.  Some of them blurred it with the Nuclear Weapons Convention.  It wasn’t really clear what they meant, but at the Open-Ended Working Group, we had pushed, and we had done all the work, and we have been reaching out to governments, and we had held regional meetings, we’d been talking to parliamentarians and we’d been nagging, nagging, nagging for like three years.  And at the Open-Ended Working Group it’s almost like you pulled out a plug and the support just came out from everyone.  We had this working paper from nuclear weapon-free zone regions, and they just put in we need to negotiate a treaty now.  We need to negotiate a treaty now, and the support just came tumbling almost. 

And I think that that’s really a sign of how this advocacy work works it’s no, no, no, no, no, no, no and then it’s just yes from everyone suddenly, and you have that kind of moment where people just change their mind or dare to say what they actually want to say.

So you have to be able to stick through the noes in many cases. We’d been very frustrated the year before, because we knew that they wanted to do it, but they just didn’t say it

What’s the role of women in nuclear disarmament?

Well, all the decisions around nuclear weapons have traditionally been taken by men.  And when I say all I don’t mean every single one, of course there are women involved, but the majority of people from the civil society side up to, you know, the military and the prime minister, president side, and everything in between (is) very male-dominated.  And not just men, but also these masculine traits: power and forcefulness and taking what you want with force.  So I don’t believe that women are more peaceful than men, inherently but I think that women play certain roles in society.  They have certain professions, certain roles in families that means that they have a different perspective.

If your main perspective is feeding people, providing health care to people, education to children, that’s going to be your perspective on decisions to go to war and to use certain types of weapons. How is this going to impact the educational system?  How this will in turn impact the provision of food in in our society, and rebuild communities afterwards and health care?  So you have to have those perspectives in the decision-making, and from the lowest level, from activism, to the president.

How did it feel in ICAN to get the treaty?

I mean it was really amazing/stressful and nervous.  Just looking back at all of these moments in the campaign, when you’re in them you don’t enjoy them that much, unfortunately.  It’s just afterwards we thought, wow, we did that.  There was the moment when the text was adopted and we all applauded and people cried, and the survivors cried, and the president of the negotiations cried and we hugged, that was really, really amazing but it lasts for two three minutes and then it’s back to work.

Press release needs to go out and we need to tweet. What should we tweet about this? And, just keep going.  And I think you need to really love the process.  It’s not about the victories, it’s about the road.   It’s very cliché in a way, but it really is, and also the resistance. Like you never actually win because even when you win, and you get what they said, “You can’t do this, you’re never going to get a treaty,” people said.  “It’s impossible. Give up.”  And then we got it, and they just shift positions.  “Well, it’s not going to matter. It’s insignificant, you’re never going to get the important States on board. It’s never going to enter into force,” they say now.

We’re going to do that, we know we’re going to get it and then they just, “well, it’s never going to have an impact.”  You had people saying things like that about the Landmines Treaty as well.  You never get the recognition from the opposition until maybe hundreds of years later, but never really while you’re doing it.  So you have to also learn to celebrate and enjoy that.  The work goes on it never finishes.

What does the treaty do exactly?

The treaty comprehensively prohibits nuclear weapons.  It prohibits using them, developing them, possessing them.  It prohibits stationing them on others’ territory.  So you can’t really do anything with nuclear weapons.  And you can’t assist with those acts either.  So you can’t help someone else to use them, or help someone else to possess them.  

But then it also demands that you help survivors of nuclear detonations and help to clean up the environment after detonation.  And I think that’s really important language.

So this is not just prohibiting countries from doing, it also requires something from them and we have a joint responsibility as an international community to address the suffering of people that have been exposed to nuclear weapons.

It also has quite progressive language on gender both encouraging participation of women in all decision-making around weapons, and also recognizes the gendered impact of nuclear weapons.  Women are much more susceptible to radiation than men are, and particularly girls.  The younger you are and if you’re female sex, the more likely you are to develop cancers and different diseases from radiation

So that has to be factored in and we know for example from Hiroshima and Nagasaki that so many young teenage girls, ten years after the bomb, died from leukaemia and cancer and very painful deaths and tragic, a long time after the war was over, because they were young girls at the time, young female babies at the time of the detonation.

Tell us about the stigmatisation effects of the treaty.

For about 70 years we had an international legal system that accepted the five countries have them.  It didn’t reject nuclear weapons.  It did say that we should work towards disarmament, but it also acknowledged that these countries have them so far, and they are kind of important for security for them. And that’s just not good enough for law.  You can’t have an apartheid law that treats people or countries differently.  You have to have the same rules for everyone otherwise it’s inconsistent and it’s not going to work.

So the treaty really revolutionized that by treating all countries. No one should have nuclear weapons and that’s going to put a lot of pressure on the nuclear-armed States. If the law says you’re wrong, you’re doing something wrong, it’s going to be much harder for them to (not) stop it.  And the nuclear-armed States know this.  That’s why they opposed it.  If this treaty was insignificant, if it didn’t mean anything, why were they fighting it?  Why are they putting resources and time into stopping small Pacific Island countries from joining it?  Because they know that every country that joins it is going to chip away at the legitimacy of nuclear weapons.  Deterrence is not going to be as effective if nobody is impressed and scared and intimidated by nuclear weapons.  

Assad doesn’t rule the world because he has chemical weapons.  The ability to kill massive amounts of people and inflict suffering and pain on civilians is not a sign of power and prestige.  It’s what dictators do, it’s what human rights violators do, not respectable countries that want to have a good standing in the international community.

So it’s about shifting the burden of proof, in a way.  For so long we’re the ones who’ve had to defend our position and say, “Well, this is why we should disarm,” and now it’s their turn to be on the outside.  They’re going to have to justify why they want weapons of mass destruction, why they think threatening to mass murder civilians or end us all, collective suicide, is a reasonable security strategy.

What’s the real purpose of nuclear weapons?

Power. It’s such a power symbol.  It’s not a practical weapon.  It’s not a weapon that has a lot of military utility.  It has extremely narrow reasons for using them, even for the countries that do consider them usable.  It costs a lot of money.  It’s not like helicopters or ammunition that can be used in different combat situations.  It’s basically just a big symbol.

And I think that’s why the treaty is so effective because you fight symbols with other symbols, in a way.  And a lot of people are always saying, “It’s so impossible to get rid of nuclear weapons.”  I think it could be really easy.  It’s not like landmines that were actually in use and the militaries were using them daily.  It’s just a symbol and in a way it can go away very, very quickly.  

I mean just imagine how quickly the world has changed its mind on other things like gay marriage.  That was very controversial and unacceptable to many and then very quickly it just changed and now you’re completely outdated, and it’s bizarre to see politicians being against gay marriage for, example.  Or the smoking ban, I mean I know it’s not the same thing as weapons but just imagine that it was completely acceptable to just sit inside here and smoke, and how strange it would be if I took up a cigarette and did that.  I mean and that went so fast that within a year of the law, imagining smoking inside is now: “What are you doing? Why are you doing that?” And I think it can be the same thing with nuclear weapons, that it’s just like, “Oh my god, remember when we did that? Remember when we had these crazy suicide bombs?” And like we just thought that it was normal.

What drives you? What’s your motivation?

You know, I don’t know really, and some days it’s really hard to motivate yourself, and I think everyone who works on heavy issues like this really struggles. “I’m too tired.  I can’t do it.  Why do I have to do it?  Why can’t I just do something shallow?  But we can all do a little bit, and in one way I feel extremely fortunate that I come from a privileged background, and it’s an issue that isn’t threatening my personal security if I work with it in the way that people that work on human rights, or on democracy, free speech in non-democratic countries for example do.  

I don’t have to put myself at risk to do this work.  So if me who has grown up in a safe country, with free education, free health care, I have what I need in life, if I can’t do this job, then who’s going to do this job?  And who’s going to be doing these things.  But I’m very passionate about people. We don’t have to devote our entire life to this, I don’t think we need to put that high bar for people to do something.  People can just do a little bit.  I mean my dream is that people go on with their lives and then just do a little bit.

I like to think of it like, we demand of our countries that we put 2% of GDP to development, and we should all think like. Maybe donate two percent of our salaries. It’s not that much, we can manage that. Give two percent of our time, just a little bit, send an email here and there, sign up for something there, tell well done to the people that do a lot more work.  That would change hugely the work that is done, and that would impact so many people, and improve things so much.  If just everyone did a little bit.  

So I think that it’s trying to get people to understand that it’s not that hard.  You don’t have to give up the comfortable life either, that you maybe enjoy.  You don’t have to go full hundred-percent fighting every cause.  You can also pick one out of all the many, many things in life that needs to be worked on. It’s kind of weird.  I like winning, and maybe this is an odd thing to choose then, but I feel like we are winning a lot, and I think that’s really a lot of fun.