Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom
Ray Acheson is director of Reaching Critical Will, the disarmament program of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and one of the world’s oldest feminist peace organizations. She has been involved with intergovernmental disarmament processes since 2005, providing reporting and analysis on nuclear weapons, the international arms trade, and more. She holds a master’s in politics from the New School for Social Research, and a Bachelor of Arts with honors in peace and conflict studies from the University of Toronto.
What was the process from the 2010 to 2017 to achieving the Ban Treaty?
The 2010 NPT review conference looked, for the first time, at the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, and that was really the initiative of the Swiss and Norwegian governments that pushed for the inclusion of that in the review conference, and once that was included in that document, that there were humanitarian impacts and that everybody was obliged to comply with international humanitarian law in this context, that really opened up space for an examination of the humanitarian effects of nuclear weapons once again.
And so this took off with a series of conferences hosted by Norway, Mexico and Austria over 2013 and 2014, and they used that as a launching point to educate a new generation of diplomats and government officials, as well as activists, on the humanitarian costs of nuclear weapons.
So looking at the effects of an explosion, what this does to human bodies, what this does to cities, but also what it does to our economies and our way of life, looking at the connections between the impacts and also the risks that we currently face, both in terms of intentional use of nuclear weapons, but also the risks from failures and command and control structures or accidental use of nuclear weapons.
And so it was a very broad way to examine the issue, and what it helped us do was take back some of the language and create a new narrative around nuclear weapons.
In the 1960s and in the 1980s we had had a lot of focus particularly from activists on nuclear famine, nuclear winter, there was a widespread knowledge-sharing amongst citizens of the world that nuclear weapons would have grave impacts on our lives, and a lot of that has disappeared since the end of the Cold War.
So the humanitarian initiative was really a way to reopen that and to challenge the mainstream security discourse that treat these as tools of international security, the language of deterrence, treating these weapons as something that prevents conflict, instead of actually examining them for what they are.
So we wanted to bring reality back to this conversation and look at nuclear weapons as weapons once again, that do very grave harm.
And so this is the motivation in the background really for the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. This is what re-energized so many governments, particularly in the global South, to take this issue up again, the idea that nuclear weapons do not respect borders, that even a single detonation would affect everyone everywhere, was something that was very significant to these countries that have security interests when it comes to nuclear weapons.
How did we get from the Austrian Pledge to the treaty negotiations?
So after the Austrian pledge which was announced in December of 2014, the next step was the next review conference of the non-proliferation treaty and that was in 2015. In between those two things the Austrian pledge actually morphed into what became known as the humanitarian pledge and so the Austrians opened it up for other countries to endorse, so that everyone was sharing that goal of wanting to work towards the prohibition, elimination of nuclear weapons through new law.
And it wasn’t really specific at that point about what that new law would look like but just the understanding that we needed to fill the legal gap in order to deal with these weapons, and so during that phase we had over well over 100 countries sign on even before the NPT review conference, and when that conference failed to produce an outcome document, that inspired even more countries to endorse the humanitarian pledge which led then countries at the UN the following October to adopt a resolution to start an international process to look at what kind of law we would need to deal with nuclear weapons through a legally binding treaty.
And so that led to the establishment of an open-ended working group on nuclear disarmament and that met in Geneva throughout 2016, and that’s really where for the first time we had countries going on the record to say that they wanted to negotiate a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons even if it meant the nuclear-armed States would not join the treaty.
And the nuclear-armed States boycotted that meeting in Geneva, many of their allies did come, for example North Atlantic Treaty Organization States came, Australia, Japan, South Korea, these are all countries that say they rely on US nuclear weapons for their security but they did participate in these talks.
They were not supportive of a prohibition treaty approach, but the overwhelming majority of countries were, and so by the end of this meeting in 2016 we had well over a hundred countries going on the record saying that they wanted the General Assembly to negotiate a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons.
How did ICAN learn from humanitarian initiatives around landmines and cluster munitions?
We learned a lot from the campaigns to Ban Landmines and Cluster Munitions. First of all we learned a lot about process, so the ways in which like-minded governments can work closely with civil society activists, campaigners to take a process, even when it’s opposed by some of the most powerful states in the world, states that are using or producing these weapons, and how we can make progress on these issues by really working together, strategizing together about how to make that work.
We also learned lessons in terms of the effects of stigmatizing weapon systems and the normative impacts that can have. So that was really helpful when it came to nuclear weapons in the context of the humanitarian effects, because we could look at how these weapons are indiscriminate, how they cause harm to civilians, how they should be made illegal on the basis of their humanitarian impact, and we also learned that the stigmatizing effect goes beyond law, so it helps us set up a process to establish new law in these weapons, but it also can have economic impacts which are extremely powerful when we dealing with the production and sale of weapon systems.
And so in the context of cluster munitions, for example, the process to ban cluster munitions also inspired an economic divestment process in which banks and pension funds were withdrawing money from companies that produce cluster bombs, and we saw that this had an impact even in the countries that did not support the treaty.
So for example in the United States, the very last company that was producing cluster munitions announced, in 2016, that it would no longer do so, because it no longer had an economic incentive, because of the divestment process and so of course when it comes to nuclear weapons with nuclear weapons being manufactured, designed by corporations, the nuclear weapon laboratories in the United States are all run by private corporations, we can see how there could be a similar effect.
And when we talk to our banks and pension funds, even those ones that had divested from land mines or cluster bombs, we asked them why they hadn’t yet divested from nuclear weapons, and this was a few years ago, and they said, “Well, nuclear weapons aren’t illegal.” And so we could see the direct connection between having a treaty that prohibited these weapons and encouraging financial institutions to withdraw their money. And we’re starting already to see the impacts of that.
The role of women in peace the disproportionate effects of nuclear weapons on women.
So women have always been at the forefront of anti-war activism, and the Women’s International League for peace and freedom was actually founded in 1915 during a war, during World War I, and it was founded by women from all over the world, countries that were at war with each other, in neutral countries, managed to organize, before the internet existed, to come together in The Hague in the Netherlands, and they developed a peace plan to end World War I, and actually several points from that plan were, in the end, used in the peace plan between the warring nations
And WILPF has been a strong advocate for peace, nonviolence, disarmament, civil rights, women’s rights, women’s right to vote, all through our history, and we’ve always combined the goals of peace and reconciliation, non-violence approaches to conflict, together with our anti-racism work, our women’s rights work, our environmental justice work.
So seeing an interconnection between all of these facets of social justice, we’ve also been part of the anti-nuclear movement since the Atomic Age began, and women in general have been in the forefront of the anti-nuclear movement as well.
Women were instrumental in the 1960’s campaigning for a nuclear weapon test ban treaty, collecting baby teeth to show the effects that atmospheric nuclear testing was having on the environment, and on children and on citizens throughout the world.
Women were also at the forefront of the nuclear freeze movement in the 1980’s. One of the leaders of that movement was Randy Forsberg who drafted the call for the nuclear freeze between the Soviet Union and the United States.
And this wasn’t a freeze in the sense of let’s freeze armaments where they are, because at that point there was about 70,000 nuclear weapons in the world, but it was a call to stop the arms race, to stop building these weapons and then to disarm together and to abolish nuclear weapons completely.
And part of that vision for her was really about the abolition of war and looking at how the drawdown of armaments, the stigmatization of this type of violence, of massive nuclear violence, could help us also critique war in general. And so again, women bringing the bigger picture to bear on the nuclear weapons issue.
In the course of the humanitarian initiative and the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons again women have been instrumental. We had several women diplomats that were leaders for their countries. We had some all women delegations also participating in the negotiations. We had women that were very active in the international campaign to abolish nuclear weapons.
We also had a lot of queer representation in this process and renewed interest also from people of colour, from those from the global South, from young people. So I think where we’ve grown the anti-nuclear movement is really to pay attention to issues related to intersectionality of identity, to the importance of diversity and the importance of making the anti-nuclear issue really relevant for people’s lives, and other interests that they’re working on in the context of social justice.
So the ways in which women are disproportionately affected by conflict isn’t necessarily that women are the main victims, direct victims of conflict-related violence, in fact men are the ones that kill each other the most often, but this plays out in a number of ways that affects women.
So for one thing conflict and violence don’t just take place on a battlefield in a conflict situation if there is war. If there is conflict this usually is taken back to the households where women can experience a disproportionate amount of violence, particularly where there’s widespread access to small arms and light weapons as well.
We also see the ways in which displacement can affect women differently in terms of the risk of sexual violence, forced trafficking and the ways in which society in general is reshaped by conflicts. The violence that comes out, the discrimination that comes out as societies is affected at large by conflict.
In the context of nuclear weapons, women are physically affected differently by nuclear weapons, our bodies are more susceptible to the ionizing radiation from nuclear weapons which means in cases where nuclear weapons are being tested or used and in the aftermath of that, women face disproportionate harm including when it comes to maternal health and again, in terms of conflict overall, the displacement that would be caused by use of nuclear weapons and the long term intergenerational effects of radiation would have an impact on women that is different from men.
What is the importance of the Ban Treaty?
So the importance of this treaty really lies in the normative effect that it’s already had on the way that we talk about nuclear weapons. So we’ve really been able to challenge the mainstream deterrence theory, this idea that nuclear weapons create security, stability, prevent war.
We’ve had so many governments and activists and the international community of the Red Cross speak out against this narrative and highlight how nuclear weapons actually undermine security and create risk for all of us. So I think that’s one of the main normative impacts that this has had.
I also think it’s really shown the power of civil society and governments working together. We stood up to some of the most powerful, most heavily militarized countries on this planet and did something that they were forbidding us to do.
For more than 70 years they have maintained control over the narrative around this issue, around the politics over this issue, and they’ve really prevented any progressive action. They have created this space in which they are able to invest billions of dollars in nuclear weapons. They have not complied with their legal obligation to eliminate these weapons, and at the same time they actually blame other countries for not creating the conditions for them to disarm.
They’ve blamed countries that don’t have nuclear weapons for them still retaining nuclear weapons. So it’s just been such a frustrating environment to work in on so many levels, and this just felt like a real breakthrough, that we were able to collectively stand up to that and mount a very effective challenge using international law, but also just relying on each other and the moral arguments to present a different case to the world, that there is a way to deal with these weapons, that we can stand up to these countries.
What can ordinary people do to help eliminate nuclear weapons?
So I think one of the ways that I think will be very significant for ordinary people to engage in nuclear disarmament is the economic divestment angle. Everyone can call their bank to ask if they’re investing in nuclear weapons, why they’re doing that and ask them to stop. Or if you have a pension fund you can also do the same thing. If you have investments in a financial institution you can do the same thing.
We can withdraw our money, even if it’s not very much money, we can withdraw it, and we can make the case to our financial institution about why we’re withdrawing it. There’s plenty of good options of where to put your money Don’tBankOnTheBomb.com has all of those resources that you can use. And I think that’s a great way to make the public case for nuclear disarmament, to keep the conversation going.
I also think that for anyone thinking that they can’t make a difference, this treaty is a great example of ordinary people coming together to make this difference. You know we were activists, and we had the ability to engage with governments at the UN, but so much of the campaign has been in public back at the national level, at the local level, working with city councillors, for example, to create resolutions encouraging the federal government to support the treaty, and now that we have the treaty, to join the treaty.
So there’s a lot of local work that can be done and it’s just about talking about nuclear weapons as weapons that harm us, weapons that undermine our security and weapons that waste our resources. We have so many big struggles that we need to deal with; climate change, poverty, inequality. We can’t be wasting billions of dollars on nuclear weapons. It’s inconceivable and it’s immoral, and I think that’s really a conversation that can resonate across communities and across so many different issues that you might be working on.
And it only takes a few people to organize with City Council. It only takes a few people to organize an event at your local library, or a church, or a school to have a conversation and to make a difference to policy, because all of this trickles up to policymaking.
Why work in nuclear disarmament?
Working on nuclear disarmament is definitely a passion for me. It is my heart and soul, I think. Well the whole project of abolishing war, of challenging violence.
And it really comes from a place of believing that it is possible to change the world that we’re living in, and I remember from a young age being very frustrated by this view that was largely perpetuated by a very elite, upper class white, straight, male perspective, that this is the way the world is, this is the way the world has to be.
And I didn’t agree with that. I saw that there was people in so many other contexts around the world organizing for something different and making change. We’ve seen throughout history that making change has been the result of people coming together collectively to challenge the status quo, to challenge the dominant narratives, whether that’s been the civil rights movement or women’s rights right to vote, or ending slavery, or ending apartheid, it’s all been collective people’s action that has changed the world.
And I really believe that that is where my energy is best placed to help out in this any way I can, and I’ve been very fortunate to have the Women’s International League for peace and freedom be a home for that.
It’s hard to find even a low-paying job that will sustain you in this type of work, so it’s really incredible that there has been these opportunities and these campaigns, like the international campaign to abolish nuclear weapons, like the campaign to stop killer robots, like the International Action Network on small arms. These are coalitions of different groups of people coming from all kinds of different backgrounds to really work on something together, and I think that that’s the most significant role for me, so I’m going to stick at it as long as I can.