Special series: ICAN wins the Nobel Peace Prize, Part 1

by Kyosuke Mizukawa, Staff Writer

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) has won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. The youthful members of the organization worked together with A-bomb survivors and organizations from many nations, conveying persuasive messages from civil society which contributed significantly toward the historic adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons at the United Nations in July. This special series covers ICAN’s activities and struggles, and the thoughts of the A-bomb survivors who have been working with ICAN.

Providing support for smaller nations

On September 20, the signing ceremony for the nuclear weapons ban treaty took place at United Nations headquarters in New York. Following remarks made by the U.N. secretary general and others, Beatrice Fihn, the executive director of ICAN, spoke to the participants and celebrated the more than 40 pro-treaty nations and territories attending the ceremony. She said, “This treaty represents the determination of the survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and nuclear testing around the world. You are the states that are showing moral leadership.”

The first international treaty that completely prohibits nuclear weapons was adopted with 122 non-nuclear nations and territories voting in favor at the U.N. talks on July 7. The adoption of the treaty was led by small and medium-sized nations with a fewer number of diplomats, compared to the nuclear weapons states and Japan, which boycotted the negotiations. ICAN provided the underlying support for the nations backing the agreement, from various angles. Both inside and outside the venue for the talks, ICAN members doggedly made suggestions for the treaty so that the proposals put forth by the participants of the treaty negotiations would reflect these ideas.

ICAN’s efforts were particularly influential during the second round of the U.N. negotiations, which began on June 15 and reached an important phase of discussion on the draft of the treaty. Multinational ICAN members from the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, the Netherlands, and other nations held a team meeting in the lounge near the negotiations chamber each morning. With the aim of adding the acts that should be clearly prohibited in the treaty, such as the threat to use nuclear weapons and funding for nuclear development, they spoke directly with the diplomats from the participating nations. They also distributed papers which summarized the discussion points from the previous day and the provisions for the treaty that they felt were required.

Because Elayne Whyte Gómez, the chair of the negotiations, had said that civil society would play an important role in the proceedings, and the nations demonstrated their understanding of ICAN’s activities, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were allowed to take part in most aspects of the talks. After hearing ICAN’s stance on prohibiting the threat of using nuclear weapons, nations in Central America, South America, and Southeast Asia agreed to the idea, which resulted in a clearly stated ban on the threat to use nuclear weapons in the final draft. The treaty also included provisions which curtail the financing of nuclear development activities.

On the day the treaty was adopted, Ray Acheson, 35, one of the members of ICAN’s international steering group and an antinuclear proponent, smiled and said that the treaty was able to include more robust provisions for eliminating nuclear weapons, mentioning the provision on the threat to use nuclear weapons, which has been at the heart of nuclear deterrence policy. As that day happened to be Ms. Acheson’s birthday, people in the gallery section sang “Happy birthday” to her in chorus before the voting began, while the diplomats also applauded her. That scene was a symbol of the nature of the treaty, which was realized through the integrated efforts of national governments and civil society.

However, because there had been a different level of interest in the treaty between the diplomats and international public opinion, the young ICAN members took it upon themselves to launch a series of unique and influential PR campaigns that helped close this gap.

Paper crane placed at seat of absentee

ICAN placed a paper crane at the seat of the representative of Japan, who didn’t take part in the negotiations, with a message that read: “Wish you were here.” This caught the attention of the media. They also posted this same message online, on top of the national flags of nations that were absent from the talks. In addition, ICAN created a satirical image, made of the faces of the heads of nuclear powers like the United States and Russia, that was combined with pro-nuclear messages such as “Love the bomb.”

ICAN members also brought a number of computers adorned with the red ICAN logo, of a nuclear missile cut in two, to the gallery seats. There they tapped away on the keyboards and posted to Twitter in real time about the comments made by government representatives, A-bomb survivors, and NGO representatives.

Tim Wright, 32, an Australian who is part of ICAN’s PR efforts, said that the most important thing, in terms of getting the nuclear nations and the countries that remain under a nuclear umbrella involved in the treaty, is public awareness. At the signing ceremony for the treaty, Ms. Fihn expressed confidence that a growing number of nations will ratify the treaty. She said, “Groundbreaking steps forward do not start with consensus agreements. There was a lot of resistance when slavery was abolished. ICAN will work with states and survivors, with international organizations and UN agencies, and with our partners across civil society to build the strength of this treaty over time.” Winning the Nobel Peace Prize will surely help boost the organization’s efforts.

(Originally published on October 7, 2017)