Nobel Peace Prize Win a Boon for Nuclear Nonproliferation Activists
Experts say it will drive the conversation about a world without nuclear weapons, but don’t expect a nuclear-free world just yet.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee announced Friday it awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) a coalition of nongovernmental organizations from over 100 countries, which has led the charge to convince nations to outlaw nuclear weapons.
The committee honored ICAN for “its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons.”
In July, prodded by ICAN, the world took a legal step toward global nuclear disarmament with the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, meant to legally prohibit atomic arms. Over 50 countries have signed the treaty, though none of the eight acknowledged nuclear powers have. (Israel, which is presumed to have nuclear weapons, has also not signed the treaty.) With ratification by 50 states, nukes would be legally prohibited.
In a post on its Facebook page, ICAN called the award an honor, adding, “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.”
“It’s an exciting day!” said Rebecca Gibbons, a visiting assistant professor of government and legal studies at Bowdoin College, who has written extensively on ICAN. She said she hoped the win would draw attention to an organization whose goal has been to “create a vast well of popular support for disarmament.”
It’s a propitious moment for such a groundswell. The United States and North Korea, both nuclear powers, have been engaged in an escalating war of words with mutual threats of destruction, and U.S. President Donald Trump has hinted at a willingness to wage nuclear war. The Trump administration is trying to jettison or at least overhaul the 2015 deal with Iran that pushed back its nuclear weapons development by at least a decade. And Trump himself has called for a more robust nuclear arsenal, publicly comparing the aged U.S. nuclear deterrent with Russia’s.
ICAN was not shy about pointing out the widespread concern Trump’s rhetoric has spawned. “The election of President Donald Trump has made a lot of people feel very uncomfortable with the fact that he alone can authorize the use of nuclear weapons,” said Beatrice Fihn, the group’s executive director. “There are no right hands for nuclear weapons,” she added.
Some Lawmakers in Congress share the sentiment. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) proposed a bill in January that would strip Trump of the power to launch a first-strike nuclear attack.
Nonproliferation advocates don’t expect the treaty to eliminate nuclear weapons anytime soon, but they do like the signal it sends.
It is a “very powerful message that the majority of countries in the world don’t see nuclear weapons as an instrument of security,” said Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova, director of the International Organizations and Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. She said the aim of the treaty was to change the conversation around nuclear weapons.
“The idea is to establish legal prohibition, as an actual norm,” Mukhatzhanova said. “It’s supposed to exert influence over time.”
Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images
Oct. 9 Correction: A previous version of this article said over 100 countries had signed the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. It is actually more than 50 countries.