Anti-nuclear campaigners preparing to receive the Nobel Peace Prize next weekend expect a new treaty banning nuclear weapons to help quickly consign the bomb to history. In an interview ahead of the December 10 award ceremony, Beatrice Fihn, head of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), said that attitudes to other weapons and harmful behaviours had changed overnight after bans were introduced. Even with the current standoff between the United States and North Korea creating the world’s most acute nuclear threat in decades, Fihn told AFP that the rapid abolishment of the weapons was “very realistic”. ICAN, which for the past decade has been sounding the alarm over the dangers posed by nuclear weapons, secured a significant victory in July when the United Nations adopted a new treaty outlawing them. That treaty, which was signed by 122 countries despite stark opposition from the nuclear powers, could take years to take effect, but Fihn said it was already having an impact on opinions towards the weapons.
Sitting in ICAN’s cramped office in Geneva, Fihn, a Swedish national, pointed to the rapid shift in attitudes towards smoking indoors as an example. “We didn’t sit around and wait for the smokers to quit. We banned it inside, and they had to go outside if they wanted to keep smoking,” she said. “Now, it seems laughable to think that we used to sit in offices and smoke. That was so crazy,” Fihn said, adding: “I think it could be like that with nuclear weapons as well.” “Suddenly, it just goes really, really quickly. Ten years later, we can’t imagine we ever (accepted) that.”
Fihn said the nuclear ban treaty and ICAN’s Nobel award, coupled with a sense of urgency created by the growing nuclear threat, had created “a window of opportunity” to shift attitudes toward nuclear weapons. Her comments came amid mounting tensions over Pyongyang’s weapons programme and fear that US President Donald Trump is considering military action against North Korea which could unleash a nuclear war.
The situation is “obviously extremely concerning,” Fihn said, warning that the conflict was pushing militaries to prepare for action, thus raising “the risk of an accident or a miscalculation”. “There is going to be an end, but we can choose if we want to end nuclear weapons or if we want nuclear weapons to end us,” she said. Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric and impulsive behaviour have sparked debate about how safe it is to give a US president the exclusive power to decide if and when nuclear weapons should be deployed. Fihn, who has not shied away from denouncing Trump’s nuclear bravado, emphasised that it was the weapons, not the man, which were the main problem.
“I think if you are worried about Donald Trump having access to nuclear weapons and having the ability to… pretty much end the world, you are probably worried about nuclear weapons,” she said. She laughed off the assertion by the world’s nine nuclear-armed states that the weapons help deter conflicts and promote peace. “The big problem with deterrence theory is this idea that if we just threaten with more murder, more slaughtering of people, with more indiscriminate killing, somehow peace will prevail,” Fihn said. It is about time, she said, to stop treating nuclear weapons like a “magic power tool that some countries have to feel more important”. Instead, they should be treated with the abhorrence worthy of the weapons of mass destruction they are, capable of killing hundreds of thousands of civilians.
Fihn voiced frustration that nuclear-armed states frequently label efforts to ban the weapons as “naive”. “I think it is rather the opposite. It is naive to think that nine states can have (nuclear weapons) while the rest of the world doesn’t,” she said. “The naive position is to think that we can have 15,000 nuclear weapons and that they will never, ever be used.” Fihn said she felt her organisation and the hundreds of anti-nuclear groups it helps coordinate around the world had already achieved an incredible feat. “The most amazing things about this campaign is that we’re just a bunch of random people who got together and wanted to do something,” she said. “The biggest countries in the world, the most militarily powerful countries, the richest countries, have been trying to stop this and actively worked against us, and we did it anyway.” “We hope this will serve as inspiration for others to get active and mobilise, against nuclear weapons and other issues.”