International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons Wins Nobel Peace Prize

The grassroots coalition spearheaded a U.N. treaty to outlaw nuclear arms and hopes to make them taboo, like chemical weapons

Beatrice Fihn, Executive Director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), poses at the headquarters of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), in Geneva, Switzerland. Martial Trezzini/Keystone via AP

This morning, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a decade-old grassroots organization pursuing a global ban on atomic weapons.

According to a Nobel press release, ICAN is a coalition of NGOs from 100 nations around the world. The coalition has worked to convince nations to sign its Humanitarian Pledge to prohibit, eliminate and stigmatize the stockpiling, use and testing of nuclear weapons. So far, 108 nations have signed the pledge. More significantly, ICAN was also the leader in a campaign to prohibit nuclear weapons under international law. In July, 2017, 122 members of the United Nations participated in negotiations for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. After 50 nations formally ratify the treaty, it will be considered international law for those countries.

“This prize is a tribute to the tireless efforts of many millions of campaigners and concerned citizens worldwide who, ever since the dawn of the atomic age, have loudly protested nuclear weapons, insisting that they can serve no legitimate purpose and must be forever banished from the face of our earth,” ICAN says in a statement. "This is a time of great global tension, when fiery rhetoric could all too easily lead us, inexorably, to unspeakable horror. The spectre of nuclear conflict looms large once more. If ever there were a moment for nations to declare their unequivocal opposition to nuclear weapons, that moment is now.”

The Nobel Committee points out that recent flares in nuclear tensions between the United States and North Korea and the possibility of the U.S. decertifying the Iran nuclear deal are some of the reasons for selecting ICAN and shining a renewed spotlight on nuclear proliferation.

“It is now 71 years since the UN General Assembly, in its very first resolution, advocated the importance of nuclear disarmament and a nuclear weapon-free world. With this year’s award, the Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to pay tribute to ICAN for giving new momentum to the efforts to achieve this goal,” the Committee writes.

Beatrice Fihn, executive director of ICAN tells Michael Birnbaum at The Washington Post that the group does not have any illusions that they will convince the United States, Russia, China and the world’s six other nuclear armed states to get rid of their weapons in the near future. Instead, the group hopes to develop a moral and legal taboo around the weapons, similar to the way most nations now view chemical and biological weapons, land mines and cluster bombs. “Nuclear weapons became a tool for weak leaders to take shortcuts instead of providing their own people with safety, security and food,” Rebecca Johnson, a founding co-chairwoman of ICAN tells Birnbaum. “We have to take that value away in order to pull down numbers to zero.”

Rick Gladstone at The New York Times reports that none of the world’s nine nuclear powers have signed onto the Prohibition Treaty, with those states calling it naïve and potentially dangerous. In fact, the United States has pushed its allies to boycott the treaty and Russia and China are equally opposed to the move. Gladstone points out that the situation is similar to the resolution to ban land mines. (The International Campaign to Ban Landmines was awarded the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize; while more than three-quarters of the world’s nations have ratified the treaty, the United States and China are still holdouts.)

There has been no official reaction from the U.S. government about this year’s peace prize yet. But the activist community and United Nations are happy about the choice. “The world has witnessed declining respect for the unique destructive capacity of nuclear weapons,” Dan Smith, director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, tells The Guardian. “At a time when the nuclear threat is increasing, ICAN reminds us that it is important to imagine a world in which they do not exist.”

While the selection of ICAN is fairly non-controversial, the Nobel Peace Prize has historically been fraught with contested choices. The choice of Palestinian Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat, who won the 1994 prize along with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and then Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, caused an uproar at the time, as ​Deutsche Welle reports, with one Norwegian politician resigning in protest from the Nobel Committee, calling Arafat an "unworthy winner."

In 1973, "the most controversial to date" selection occurred when U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was chosen for the prize. As TIME magazine reports, critics called the decision a "mockery of the prize," lambasting Kissinger's role in the Vietnam war. (North Vietnamese leader Le Duc Tho, who was jointly awarded the Nobel, refused to accept it.) Most recently, Aung San Suu Kyi, who was a political prisoner in Myanmar and won the 1991 prize for her fight for democracy and human rights in that country, has received international condemnation for sitting by as the nation she is now de-facto leader of conducts an ethnic cleansing of its Muslim Rohingya population

“It is always a risk when they promote somebody, and they cannot predict what is going to happen in the future,” historian of the Nobel Peace Prize​ Asle Sveen tells Reuters. “That is what makes the Nobel Peace Prize different from all the other peace prizes, otherwise, you would give the prize to very old people just before they die.”

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