CIVICUS speaks to Daniel Högsta, Network Coordinator with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a broad, inclusive campaign focused on mobilising civil society around the world to promote the negotiation of a global nuclear weapon ban treaty. In October 2017 ICAN was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of its role in achieving the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, adopted by 122 nations in July 2017.
1. Can you tell us more about the work of ICAN?
The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) is a coalition of non-governmental organisations in one hundred countries advocating for a strong and effective treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons.
ICAN was inspired by the tremendous success of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which a decade earlier had played an instrumental role in the negotiation of the anti-personnel mine ban treaty.
Since our founding, we have worked to build a powerful global groundswell of public support for the abolition of nuclear weapons. By engaging diverse groups and working alongside the Red Cross and like-minded governments, we have reframed the debate on nuclear weapons and generated momentum for the start of treaty negotiations.
At a review of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2010, all nations expressed their deep concern at the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences” of any use of nuclear weapons – a collective statement that led to the convening of three major conferences in 2013 and 2014 focusing on the humanitarian impact of nuclear detonations. ICAN served as the civil society coordinator for these meetings, which brought together most of the world’s governments, along with international organisations and academic institutions. In 2015 we helped garner the support of 127 nations for a diplomatic pledge “to fill the legal gap” in the existing regime governing nuclear weapons.
In 2016, our campaign lobbied successfully for the UN General Assembly to establish a UN working group to examine specific proposals for advancing nuclear disarmament and then to adopt the resolution in December 2016 to launch negotiations on “a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons”.
The negotiations took place over four weeks in 2017 and culminated in the adoption by 122 States of a treaty that prohibits nuclear weapons. It opened for signature on 20 September 2017 and already has 53 signatories.
The importance of this initiative and our strategy looking forward was cited by the Norwegian Nobel Committee in awarding ICAN the Nobel Peace Prize for 2017.
2. What strengths do you think you gained from working as a coalition, and what strategies have you used to do so successfully?
In the field of disarmament and arms control, coalitions have achieved remarkable successes. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines was key to the achievement of the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, the Cluster Munitions Coalition saw the agreement of the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions and Control Arms provided momentum for the adoption of the international Arms Trade Treaty. With the successful adoption by 122 governments of the first prohibition treaty on nuclear weapons, ICAN has followed in a strong tradition of humanitarian disarmament coalitions.
All issues and coalitions are unique and we shouldn’t just simply copy past approaches expecting them to work again, but there is much evidence to suggest that working together makes us much stronger as civil society organisations.
First we’ve tried to set the terms of the debate. Too often the conversation about nuclear weapons returns to the same topics over and again, without evolving or challenging what we see as the central question about nuclear weapons: Is the catastrophic humanitarian harm that nuclear weapons pose acceptable or not? If not, then all discussions need to proceed from that starting point. Arguments that nuclear weapons confer any security benefits or that there is value in “nuclear deterrence” no longer stand up to logic, nor correspond to modern ethical and humanitarian values.
It is not always necessary to win an argument you are presented with; it can be better to reframe the problem in a way that gives you the upper hand. Legal and technical arguments can be important, but they can also be ways by which the unacceptability of the status quo gets obscured or lost sight of. The burden of proof needs to be pushed onto those that claim reform is not needed or should only be limited and piecemeal.
Secondly, and this obviously is related to the first point, we have maintained a constant focus on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons. A key part of reframing the debate is to move beyond the common legal framing of balancing humanitarian and military considerations and to focus on the human suffering as unacceptable.
Third, and also related, we have sourced leadership from communities that have been directly affected by nuclear weapons. The voices of the Hibakusha (the surviving victims of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and of nuclear test survivors has been invaluable in bringing the issue of nuclear weapons back to what it should be about – people. It also provides many more campaigning opportunities as it broadens the spectrum of those who can speak to the issue. There is such a broad range of concerns related to nuclear weapons, we cannot simply leave the conversation to supposed military or geopolitical experts.
Finally, while ICAN is itself a group of partner organisations, by working together ICAN as a whole can also make strategic working relationships with other larger organisations or movements, including the Red Cross and the Red Crescent Movement. This has served to amplify our voice and relevance as an actor in the field of disarmament.
3. What are the key challenges your campaign has faced?
Unsurprisingly perhaps, a major challenge has been public apathy around nuclear weapons and the fact that the media attention has centred on the same issues in the same way and has tended to reinforce the narrative that “nothing is possible”.
We, along with many, many advocacy-oriented organisations in the field of disarmament at large, have also struggled with funding. In the push for the ban treaty and beyond we need to consider the fact that civil society has been continuing to work to drive this initiative forward in spite of an alarming shrinking of resources devoted to advocacy in disarmament. Governments and foundations are quite keen to contribute to research, meetings, etc., but there is a much smaller pool that are interested in (or able to due to their internal technical regulations or traditions) funding civil society initiatives. There needs to be more of an institutional (among governments and also within the United Nations) recognition of the indispensable role played by civil society and that it is simply not possible without resources. If we simply rely on the generosity of the governments with resources to fund civil society initiatives, would we get the progressive outcomes we need?
Another challenge has been the active opposition of the most powerful states in the diplomatic sphere, in particular the “P5” states (that is, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council): the US, the UK, France, Russia and China. It seems the only thing those five states can agree on is that they are against pursuing the prohibition of nuclear weapons. Fortunately, our strategy and the power of the prohibition Treaty never relied on the participation of the nuclear weapon states – indeed it was borne out of acknowledging that the nuclear weapon states and their allies are blocking progress and that waiting for them is not an option. But they are powerful opponents, capable of wielding significant behind-the-scenes diplomatic pressure that has proved to be too much to resist for several governments. Fortunately, it wasn’t enough to thwart the process.
4. What are your thoughts on the fact that your work was recognized with the Nobel Peace Prize? Will this make any difference to your campaign?
We are both humbled and excited to receive this award. We are humbled because we know the breadth of actors that have been involved in making the ban treaty happen — from states to civil society to the international Red Cross and the Red Crescent movement to academics and researchers. We are excited because of the opportunities this presents us as campaigners to work for universalization 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 further change the narrative around nuclear weapons.
Fortunately, all governments agree – at least nominally –that a world without nuclear weapons is a desirable goal. It’s time to hold them to their words and force them to pursue this goal. With the achievement of the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and of course the recognition afforded us by the Nobel Peace Prize we hope there can be a new dawn for disarmament and the beginning of the end for nuclear weapons.