Treaty Coordinator, ICAN
Tim Wright is the Treaty Coordinator of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). For over a decade, he has represented the campaign at review meetings of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the First Committee of the UN General Assembly. He helped coordinate ICAN’s participation in the three conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons in 2013 and 2014, and in the UN open-ended working group on nuclear disarmament in 2016. He has degrees in law and arts (international relations) from the University of Melbourne and also studied at Sciences Po in Paris.
On the development of ICAN
So we established this campaign around 2006 and formally launched it in 2007, and back then we I guess had a bold plan to establish a global movement against nuclear weapons.
We were concerned that the anti-nuclear movement was languishing and needed to be re-energized, and we felt that the specific objective needed to be a treaty that outlawed nuclear weapons completely.
There were already treaties banning chemical and biological weapons as well as landmines. There was a process underway at that stage for the ban on cluster munitions. And we thought, why not a ban on nuclear weapons? These are the worst of all weapons. Surely they should be subject to a total prohibition, and the fact that we were in Australia at the bottom of the world certainly didn’t stop us from taking on this task of building this global network.
And everyone that we approached around the world really embraced the idea and very quickly we built a coalition of a few hundred organizations. The idea of a global ban on nuclear weapons really did resonate, and it was an exciting time for me. I was a university student, and I was studying international law, and the idea of being kind of part of a movement that would create new international law to address one of the biggest challenges that we face as humanity was really quite thrilling.
And it was the first time that I had visited the United Nations back in 2007 when we had one of the official launches of the campaign, and kind of seeing the governments in the room and realizing that they weren’t really doing what they needed to do, was a wake-up call for me, and demonstrated the importance of this global civil society movement.
We couldn’t just leave it to governments alone to do the right thing, and I remember being told by one of the ambassadors whom we met that nothing will ever change unless there’s another nuclear attack.
Basically we needed to see the incineration of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people before governments would finally and muster the political will to address this problem of nuclear weapons.
And to me that was just so horrifying and upsetting, and it really made me determined to succeed, and I think that there were so many people who shared that objective of really changing the diplomatic debate and also raising global public awareness of the threat that we face.
How did ICAN develop from those days in Australia?
From the beginning we wanted to engage organizations that weren’t necessarily involved in nuclear disarmament work already but which were involved in work that was direct or in some way related to what we were trying to achieve.
And so we reached out to trade unions, we reached out to churches, we reached out to environment groups, humanitarian groups and said this is an issue that will profoundly affect the work that you’re doing, that if we all work together can really make meaningful progress towards a nuclear weapon-free world.
And the only way we’re going to achieve elimination is by building a global movement and we can’t deal with the consequences of a nuclear war, our only option is to prevent that.
And so we of course wrote to organizations and made use of existing networks, but we also travelled around the world and informed people about this new campaign that we were launching and asked them to be involved and worked out ways that they could contribute to this global effort.
We spoke at the United Nations, we spoke in national parliaments, we spoke to the media, we briefed journalists, we did everything that we could to publicize the fact that ICAN existed and a ban on nuclear weapons was an idea whose time had come.
How did ICAN get so successful with young people?
I think one of the common criticisms of the anti-nuclear movement is that it’s primarily old people, and we certainly didn’t want to create a campaign which would just be of a particular generation, and so we worked hard to engage many high school students, university students, and I think one of the strengths of ICAN is that we do have people of all generations involved, and we have 90 year olds working very well alongside people in their teens, and I think we’ve always tried to include all of those voices.
We don’t treat anyone’s opinion as more worthy than anyone else’s, because I think we all bring to this campaign our own experiences and perspectives which have been essential to the success of what we’ve done so far.
History of nuclear weapons in the Oceania region.
So in the 1950s and 1960s nuclear weapons were tested in Australia by the British government with the full support of the Australian government and this has had a profound impact particularly on the indigenous communities that live nearby.
We’ve also had testing in our neighbourhood, in the Pacific Islands, particularly in the Marshall Islands, and what is now Kiribati and French Polynesia.
This is testing by the US government, by the French government and by the British government with very little concern for the health and welfare of the Pacific Islanders, and even though the tests stopped more than two decades ago, the consequences are still being felt today.
And the voices of those who have suffered as a result of nuclear testing, both in Australia, and the Pacific, have been so important in demonstrating why we need this total ban on nuclear weapons and really heightening global public awareness of the catastrophic consequences of their use.
And of course the effects are felt over generations and over wide areas because of the dispersal of radiation, and this new treaty, the nuclear weapon ban treaty, not only prohibits the wartime use of nuclear weapons, but also prohibits nuclear testing.
And we hope that we’ll never see a nuclear weapon tested again.
What are the most important elements of the Treaty?
So the adoption of the nuclear weapon ban treaty in 2017 was such a huge breakthrough for the international community, for global civil society. The United Nations had been working to address the threat of nuclear weapons since its foundation. The very first resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly was for the total elimination of all weapons adaptable to mass destruction and yet it took all that time to finally put in place a total ban on the weapons.
And it of course does not yet have universal support, but it does have the support of around two-thirds of the international community, and I think we’re going to see that support grow over time as more and more countries accept that there can be no legitimate role whatsoever for these truly horrific weapons.
The treaty includes a broad range of prohibitions; a prohibition of course on the use of nuclear weapons, as well as the threatened use of nuclear weapons, a prohibition on testing and production of nuclear weapons, and indeed a prohibition on the possession of nuclear weapons.
It also says that a country cannot assist another country to engage in any of these kinds of activities, and this is a really important element of the treaty, because while we have only nine nuclear-armed countries, we have a few dozen more countries that are very much part of this global problem because they’re in some way encouraging the possession of nuclear weapons, or assisting another state to prepare for the potential use of nuclear weapons.
And this treaty says that that behaviour too is absolutely unacceptable.
So I think that when we can bring some of those countries on board with this treaty, when we can bring some of the nuclear-armed States on board, we’re going to see a very radical shift and rapid movement towards total nuclear disarmament.
The treaty also includes provisions for assisting victims of the use of nuclear weapons and the testing of nuclear weapons, and this is modelled on similar provisions in the treaties that ban landmines and cluster munitions.
And there’s a provision for the remediation of environments that have been contaminated from nuclear testing. So I think that this, even in the short term, can have a really significant impact on the lives of ordinary people in areas that have suffered from these terrible weapons.
And the treaty will enter into force once 50 countries have signed and ratified it.
When will the treaty come into force?
So we hope that this treaty will enter into force in 2019 or 2020. We’ve made good progress already towards achieving the entry into force, and we know that many countries are well underway with their ratification processes, and in fact the pace of ratification has been generally faster than the pace for other treaties related to weapons of mass destruction.
So we’re quite encouraged by the progress so far, and we know that for the overwhelming majority of the world’s countries this is a very simple question. Of course they support the total elimination of nuclear weapons. Of course, they believe that these weapons should never be used again, and so signing and ratifying the treaty is such an obvious choice from a humanitarian perspective, from an international law perspective. They just want nothing whatsoever to do with nuclear weapons.
What is the importance of the Ban Treaty and its future impacts?
I think that this is one of the most important achievements of the United Nations, and we might not recognize that now, or when the treaty was adopted. Many media outlets around the world ignored it, but I think in years to come we will look back on this as a milestone in the history of the UN and indeed the history of humanity when we said, “no, these weapons are not acceptable and need to be totally eliminated.”
And we’ve had this kind of mind-set ever since the Cold War that the weapons somehow bring security for certain countries, and they’re creating stability and so on.
Well there’s not much stability in the world today, and there’s a risk at any moment that these weapons will be used again, whether deliberately or by accident, and I think that more and more countries are coming to realize that, and we’re seeing as a result of this treaty a fundamental shift in the discourse.
No one’s saying that chemical or biological weapons are okay for certain countries, but not others and no one’s saying that it’s okay to be sheltering under a chemical weapon umbrella or a biological weapon umbrella. And yet their attitude towards nuclear weapons has been different.
I think we will move to a point where the taboo against nuclear weapons is as strong as the taboo against other weapons of mass destruction.
I think that this treaty will have very practical impacts, even in the short term. We have already seen a number of financial institutions around the world divest from companies that produce nuclear weapons, and they’ve done that because nuclear weapons are now illegal under international law, and previously they would exclude other types of controversial weapons, and yet not the most destructive weapons of all, and they’ve realized that that was an error, and so they’re correcting that error, and millions, potentially billions of dollars are being taken away from the nuclear weapon producing companies.
This is a huge blow to their business and will make it harder and harder for nuclear-armed States to continue modernizing their nuclear arsenals. And the harder that that is, the more that they will consider disarmament as a real option.
I also think that countries like the United States have relied so much on the support of their allies in in terms of maintaining their nuclear war fighting capacity, and if that support ceased to exist the United States will become much more serious about disarmament, and if they’re serious about disarmament I think we will see Russia change its attitude we’ll see other NATO countries like the United Kingdom and France change their positions.
They will also then be pushing India and Pakistan and others to join.
So you can see how these small changes now could have a huge effect over time.
We never said that this treaty would eliminate nuclear weapons overnight. We know that there is a path, a long path ahead of us, that there are huge challenges in getting to zero nuclear weapons, but we would not have been able to get there without a total prohibition, without a treaty that clearly states that these weapons are illegitimate for all countries.
That is the essential foundation for a nuclear weapon-free world, that’s what’s going to get us on the path to that goal.
What is your motivation?
This has been such a rewarding campaign to be part of. To have the opportunity to work with such talented and passionate people, to be part of a historic process that will have implications for the security and welfare of future generations is a great privilege and honour.
And I just feel so lucky to be part of ICAN, to have been able to work with this this amazing team, and every day I feel as if we’re making a little bit of progress towards our ultimate goal of eliminating nuclear weapons.
And it’s those small achievements that are what keep me motivated, and we have a very concrete task and that is to get the treaty entered into force and ultimately get every country in the world to join it.
And so each new signature and ratification of this treaty is a step towards that goal and that makes this task of eliminating nuclear weapons feel more achievable and tangible.
And I couldn’t think of anything else that I would prefer to be doing.