Young, gifted and female. The unexpected face of the nuclear weapons ban and the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.
By Linda Pentz Gunter
According to the now much parroted African proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child.” But what does it take to get a worldwide nuclear weapons ban?
Once upon a time, it might have taken a room full of white men in ties, but not anymore. Today the face of the UN nuclear weapons ban — and the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize that rewarded this achievement — belongs to a 35-year old woman.
That woman is Beatrice Fihn, young, vibrant, Swedish and the executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, or ICAN. Fihn is not the group’s founder (of that, more in an upcoming article), but she has become its face, and it’s a welcome change in a movement that remains very much dominated by elder statesmen.
Fihn is of course quick to point out that “I did not win the prize. 460 NGOs won the prize.” ICAN is made up of constituent organizations from around the world. Together, they navigated a ban process that focused not on the technical and war-fighting capacity of nuclear weapons but on their devastating humanitarian impact.
“We decided to look at what weapons do to people as the starting point,” Fihn told one of the many filled-to-capacity rooms she has spoken to since the win, this time at a Washington, DC event hosted by the Ploughshares Fund.
“It’s not theory, it’s reality. We looked at them as weapons, not as magical power tools.” The goal for ICAN and its partners, Fihn said, was “to make them unacceptable in people’s minds.” It was important to try to dispel the idea of nuclear weapons “as essential to our survival.”
ICAN was formed in 2007. In 2013 the Norwegian government held the first conference on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons. They did not invite the disarmament groups. The whole focus was on the consequential displacement of people; on refugees. Another such conference was held in Mexico the following year and then in Vienna in 2015. That is when the Austrian government noted that what was missing was a prohibition. Nuclear weapons should not, said Austria, be legal under international law. The Austrian government pledged then to work for a ban.
But it was in March 2017, when Fihn found herself and the ICAN network inside the UN negotiating chambers and the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, outside protesting via a press conference, that she knew a real sea change was happening.
“The power dynamic has changed,” she told herself then. “We are on the inside negotiating and the US government is outside protesting! We are moving ahead and they are trying to stop it.”
This scenario was precisely the kind of pariah status dynamic the nuclear weapons ban is designed to create. It is an effort to stigmatize as well as outlaw the worst weapons of mass destruction humankind has ever created. And to the skeptics who point out that none of the nuclear weapons states signed the ban, Fihn responds: “The treaty is not about unilateral disarmament. You have to start with stigmatizing and rejecting nuclear weapons. Whether or not the nuclear weapons states sign it does not necessarily matter.”
She points to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. “It has been effective,” she said. “Signing or ratifying is not how you measure success.” It’s what you do that counts. The same is true for the landmine ban treaty. While the U.S. has not signed this either, it is effectively complying with it.
The nuclear weapons ban, Fihn said, really brought home the reality of what these weapons would do — not only to people or countries, but to entire regions of the world totally uninvolved in a nuclear conflict. The Nuclear Winter studies primarily carried out by Alan Robock, Brian Toon and others, showed how a “limited” nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan would impact the climate worldwide, causing agricultural collapse and famine due to the amount of soot and smoke lofted into the atmosphere that would block crucial sunlight.
“These studies hit the point home for a lot of countries where nuclear weapons had not been an issue,” Fihn said. “They realized what one country does will impact all of us. It was a huge factor. It gave countries agency to have a say in the issue.”
The Nobel Prize, Fihn says, has opened doors and reintroduced the nuclear weapons threat into the conversation. It has changed the dialogue. It puts the nuclear weapons states on notice. It begs the question, Fihn says, “if the rest of the world thinks nuclear weapons are unacceptable and illegal, why are you investing in them?”
During her Nobel acceptance remarks, she pointed out in a quote that went viral, that “the deaths of millions may be one tiny tantrum away.”
More recently, there has been a lot of concern about U.S. president, Donald Trump’s ability to launch nuclear weapons impulsively. If he did so, the missiles would take 15 to 30-minutes to reach their target and there is no possibility of recall. But Fihn takes a more reflective perspective. As she told the New York Times in a November 1, 2017 interview:
“If you’re really uncomfortable with Trump having that power, you are really uncomfortable with nuclear weapons in general. There are no right hands for these weapons. There’s no one who should have that kind of power.”