Nuclear weapons: In conversation with ICAN

2017 Nobel Peace Prize winner ICAN is calling for ‘a different kind of debate around nuclear disarmament’.

Activists Protests Against North Korea Tensions
ICAN's coalition is made up of 468 partner organisations operating in more than 100 countries worldwide [Omer Messinger/Getty Images]

The 2017 Nobel Peace Prize will be awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) for the campaign’s “ground-breaking efforts” to secure a prohibition on such weapons.

In July, ICAN was at the forefront of international efforts to establish a global agreement against the development, and use, of nuclear weapons. Their work led to the creation of the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which to date has 50 signatories, including Brazil, South Africa and Vietnam.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee, recognising this achievement, has praised ICAN for “its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons”.

Ahead of the December 10 ceremony in Oslo, Al Jazeera spoke to Rebecca Johnson, founding co-chair of ICAN and member of the organisation’s International Steering Group, about the campaign, current challenges and aspirations for the future.

Al Jazeera: What does winning the Nobel Prize mean for ICAN?

Rebecca Johnson: We see the Nobel Peace Prize as being a way to give a spotlight to the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and encourage ICAN to get the job done.

It will help to publicise what we are doing so that people around the world want to be part of ICAN and get their countries on board to sign the treaty as well.

Having the Nobel as well as the treaty, we are re-energised. 


We were working on a shoestring budget, but now have more opportunities to raise funds and focus those into our campaigners in the countries and regions that we need to prioritise in terms of signing up to the agreement, which include those with nuclear arms or which are part of nuclear alliances. 

Our role is to raise awareness and to focus arguments so that campaigners on the ground can persuade their own governments that this is a treaty they should join.

We need to change the conversation about nuclear weapons in those countries, highlighting the risks and insecurity they bring. 

Al Jazeera: Is there a renewed sense of danger about the use, and potential impacts, of nuclear weapons within the international community?

Johnson: From the very beginning, ICAN has always said: “Don’t delude yourselves, there are no safe hands for these dangerous, abhorrent and unsafe weapons.”

Now the rest of the world is seeing that more clearly – when they see Donald Trump in the White House and Kim Jong-un in North Korea trading very irresponsible threats to nuke each other, or to nuke places in their vicinity, and seeming to be unaware how catastrophic the consequences of that would be. 

People thought the end of the Cold War meant nuclear weapons were being dealt with, but with Trump and Kim Jong-un and all these instabilities, with nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, Israel with nuclear weapons in the Middle East, the deterioration of relations between Russia and the West – with these and other flashpoints that could erupt, people are saying “the political situations are bad enough, we don’t want nuclear weapons in that mix”.

We don’t want Trump to be able to decide at 3am in the morning to fire off a nuclear weapon instead of a tweet. We can’t play Russian roulette with nuclear weapons; they’re too dangerous.

Al Jazeera: What is ICAN’s stance on the Iran nuclear deal?

Johnson: I think it [the Iran nuclear deal] was one of the successes of both the Obama approach and the European Union, together with Russia and China, to be able to bring Iran to the negotiating table. [The deal was agreed to by Iran, China, France, Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and the EU in July 2015.]

They created a deal that at least addressed most, if not all, of the drivers underpinning the value that Iran was attaching to having a free hand with what it called its nuclear programme for peaceful purposes, but which had all the elements of a programme that could be weaponised at a certain point further down the road. 

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The Iran nuclear deal was not perfect, but it created a mechanism for confidence-building and also for monitoring.

Trump has come along, understood none of that, and played fast and loose with the deal, which is extremely dangerous because with a country like Iran, it’s very difficult to get them back to the negotiating table if a deal has been broken.

Al Jazeera: How has nuclear weapons testing impacted global health?

Johnson: For many years, the humanitarian impacts of the nuclear testing programmes were swept under the carpet.

The leaders of the countries doing the testing knew that the explosions were very, very harmful. That’s why they conducted the testing as far from their own centres of population as they possibly could: so France tested first of all in Algeria and then in the Pacific; Russia tested in Kazakhstan and on an Arctic island called Novaya Zemlya; and the UK and United States did most of their nuclear testing in the Pacific, or underground in areas like Nevada.

I don’t think they meant to deliberately harm indigenous people [of those areas]; they just didn’t really care, as long as it wasn’t their own cities [being affected].

What we are seeing in those indigenous communities are effects like cancer and birth problems that filter down into the next generation, and sometimes the generation after that … The impacts do continue to move through time and space.

[But] due to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the nuclear testing programmes have by and large finished; the only country still testing is North Korea.

So we are now focusing on what we can do to make the damage less harmful for the generations who are suffering the impacts of use and testing, and our primary aim is to make certain no more nuclear detonations of any kind, not use, tests, or accidents even, should take place. [Some 2.4 million people worldwide will eventually die from cancers due to atmospheric nuclear tests conducted between 1945 and 1980, according to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation.]

Al Jazeera: What’s next for ICAN?

Johnson: We have two streams of priorities.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons needs to have 50 countries sign and ratify it.

Often ratification means that a treaty has to go through various parliamentary and legal processes within each country and all of those are different, but the sooner the treaty enters into force, the stronger it will be and the more it will be able to do the work of reducing nuclear dangers worldwide.

So we are looking at the countries that are already signatories, while trying to increase that base, and working with those governments to ensure they can get the treaty ratified in order to allow it to enter into force.

The second set of challenges is to unlock a different kind of debate around nuclear disarmament in each of the nine nuclear-armed countries [US, Russia, China, France, England, Israel, Pakistan, the UK and North Korea], and show that they will be safer and more secure if they eliminate their arsenals and join the treaty.

Source: Al Jazeera