The 2017 Nobel peace prize was awarded to International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a coalition of NGOs in 100 countries promoting a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. ICAN’s executive director Beatrice Fihn shared her views with Rohit E David:
What do you have to say about winning the Nobel peace prize?
It is a great honour, awarded in recognition of our role in achieving the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. This historic agreement, adopted on July 7 with the backing of 122 nations, offers a powerful, much-needed alternative to a world in which threats of mass destruction are allowed to prevail and, indeed, are escalating.
How will this prize help in eradicating nuclear weapons?
We are excited because of the opportunities this presents us as campaigners to work for universalisation of the treaty and to work in nuclear weapon and nuclear umbrella states to change their policies related to nuclear weapons. We hope it will also allow us to change the media narrative around nuclear weapons. Too often the conversation about nuclear weapons returns to the same topics over and again, without challenging the central premise around nuclear weapons: Is the catastrophic humanitarian harm that nuclear weapons pose acceptable or not?
North Korea said that even if you don’t have nuclear weapons you can be attacked by countries with these weapons. Therefore, doesn’t it become important to have this option?
The idea that nuclear weapons are important is not only held by North Korea to justify their nuclear weapons, but by all nuclear weapon states as an excuse to keep theirs. They argue that nuclear weapons have a deterrent effect which is the final assurance of their national security. Unfortunately, the concept of nuclear deterrence rests on outdated and dangerous logic. In the last few years new studies and reports have revealed much more about the history and risks of nuclear weapons. This new evidence about nuclear weapons has challenged the concept and utility of deterrence as a security doctrine.
In addition to these new challenges, the critical question is if we should take the chance that it will work for another 70 years. The world no longer consists of two ideological blocs, but is in a much more unpredictable situation – including both state and non-state actors. If our security should be based on nuclear deterrence, that strategy must work perfectly forever. It won’t. If nuclear weapons are kept, sooner or later the world will see a nuclear detonation, either by intent or accident. The utility of nuclear weapons is at best doubtful, but what we know for sure is that nuclear weapons put us at risk of facing a humanitarian catastrophe.
North Korea has said that a nuclear war is likely, what’s your response?
Whether or not nuclear war is likely on the Korean peninsula, what we can say for sure is that the current geopolitical context further demonstrates that the risks of a nuclear war are as high as they’ve been in recent memory. Furthermore, nothing but sheer luck has gotten us 72 years without an accidental nuclear detonation. The treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons is the best response responsible states can make to reject the nuclear saber-rattling which is a threat to the international community.
Countries around the world have developed nuclear weapons. Is it legal to make such weapons?
Under a 1968 treaty called the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a bargain was established whereby it would be illegal for states to acquire or develop new nuclear weapons, while the five nuclear-armed states promised to disarm. Unfortunately, this bargain has not been upheld: there are no serious signs that the nuclear weapon states intend to give up their weapons. Until the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, these weapons were not yet categorically prohibited under international law. When it enters into force (following the ratification by 50 states), this new treaty will greatly contribute to an international norm that to possess, to use, to develop, threaten to use, and other activities related to nuclear weapons is illegal.
Can the world become free of nuclear weapons one day?
There is definitely a hope for a world free of nuclear weapons. The notion that nuclear weapons prevent war is a dangerous one. It is inevitable that a nuclear detonation will happen sometime in the future if we do not act now. Past processes to ban other weapons with indiscriminate effects, such as biological and chemical weapons as well as anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions teach us that once a weapon is prohibited, elimination follows. The problem we have with nuclear weapons is that they are seen as being almost mythical tools, rather than weapons
What will be the cost of destroying nuclear weapons?
Naturally, a weapon as powerful and dangerous as a nuclear weapon is costly to disarm. However, the cost of keeping them indefinitely is far greater.
Rohit E David in TOI’s The Interviews Blog – Views expressed above are the author’s own.