The 2017 Nobel peace prize for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) is richly deserved. What difference does it make to ground realities? The prize is really a recognition of the audacious idea that states that have abjured nuclear weapons, the weakest and most marginalized, can lead us to a nuclear weapons-free world. It is equally audacious to suggest that states which say they need nuclear weapons for their security while others can’t have them are actually inciting proliferation.
It is an idea that is hard to get your head around if you are thinking of the US, North Korea, Iran, Russia, China, India, Pakistan issues. I found it hard, too, in 2011. It took me a few months to understand it. Curiously, India supported this logic in opposing the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Now it is busy building new weapons like other nuclear-armed states. ICAN has now brought democracy to disarmament.
The idea is so powerful that 122 states adopted the Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) on 7 July 2017. It bans all nukes. This is unprecedented. These states fought tooth and nail both at the UN General Assembly and the UN in Geneva against the machinations of the nuclear-armed, led by the US, to derail any attempt to have them band together without a veto from the all-powerful. I was witness to this every step of the way, the only civil society participant from India.
Will the Nobel peace prize make any difference to the ongoing nuclear stand-off between the US and North Korea? Is it a message to President Donald Trump not to ditch the Iran deal that most people in his own administration support? The questions distract. By awarding and recognizing ICAN’s work translated into an actionable treaty banning all nuclear weapons, the Nobel committee has given the idea a powerful platform. ICAN and the many partner organizations and individuals spread across the world can no longer be dismissed as idealistic bleeding hearts. They represent, in fact, the reality of the day. Indeed, North Korea voted in favour of this idea, sending it to the UN to be negotiated as a treaty. It then withdrew at the UNGA, citing US intransigence.
The platform reminds the world of the perilous consequences of following the logic of deterrence, of mutual assured destruction. It reminds the world that there is an alternative and it is possible to change the game if the ground rules are changed. This is the history of disarmament through the chemical and biological weapons conventions, the landmines ban and the arms trade treaty. In each case, the law came first the reality changed later. Nothing was achieved in a day. They all took time. Even the NPT did not have near universal adherence when it first began. Today, even India, which is a non-signatory nuclear-armed state, cannot escape its impact and swears by the non-proliferation regime. ICAN’s approach was galling to the nuclear-armed. They were repeatedly told that a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons is possible even without the participation of the nuclear-armed. ICAN had history on its side, while the nuclear-armed just had egos. Isn’t it ironic that the US administration now admonishes states wanting to ban all nukes as irresponsible, while threatening to annihilate North Korea?
The TPNW opened for signature on 20 September. It needs only 50 states to sign and ratify for it to come into force. Fifty signed it on Day One and ratifications are coming in easily. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is in a limbo. The Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty remains a pipe dream. The Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, that India loves to cite as the only forum with the mandate, has done no disarmament work in 20 years. Is it not audacious to negotiate and soon bring into effect an entire treaty that would legally prohibit all nuclear weapons? ICAN got a lot of help from key states. Norway did the initial handholding and then withdrew once the government changed. Vital impetus came from Austria, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa and many others. Fifty states sponsored the resolution in the United Nations that adopted the treaty. To get all these states to actually act, and not just talk, disarmament is truly monumental work.
Leading the charge have been some of the most amazing women in the field of disarmament. To mention a few, Rebecca Johnson, the firebrand who squared off with India’s Arundhati Ghose over the CTBT; Beatrice Fihn, the executive director of ICAN, unmatched in coolness; Ray Acheson of Reaching Critical Will, whose editorials and ideas are some of the most powerful and clear-headed in this business; and Susy Snyder, who did a fabulous ‘Don’t Bank on the Bomb’ campaign. Among the men—the cool Daniel Hogsta, the super organizer Tim Wright and a quirky, former Australian diplomat, Richard Lenane, who stripped the nuclear-armed with wit, knowledge and social media campaigns such as Wildfire. There are many, many more. Nuclear disarmament is now the cool beat. More importantly it is the only hope we have.
Vidya Shankar Aiyar is an anti-nuclear weapons activist and is a partner of ICAN in India since 2013.