Pressenza took the opportunity on the last day of the civil society forum on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons to interview Tim Wright, 27, from Melbourne, Australia, the spokesperson for ICAN (the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear weapons) who organised the event in Oslo.
PRESSENZA: What’s the idea behind the conference and how did the idea emerge for it? How did we get here?
Tim Wright: The opportunity to hold the conference came up when the Norwegian government decided to bring together other governments to discuss the effects of nuclear weapons and so we felt that we needed to have a strong civil society presence at that government meeting but also to bring together people beforehand to align our strategies and to really build the momentum for a nuclear weapons ban, so linking the catastrophic humanitarian consequences approach with the approach of outlawing nuclear weapons. We feel that unless governments can see that there’s clear and strong public support for negotiating a ban then they’re unlikely to pursue that so getting together 500 people from 70 countries has been a real achievement that I think will help raise the expectations over the coming days.
PR: Do you know if many of the participants in the intergovernmental conference have been paying attention to what’s going on here?
TW: There’ve been quite a few government delegates here and the feedback we’ve received is that they’re surprised almost by the level of enthusiasm. It’s been very clear over the last day that civil society wants a ban and that we want it at the earliest possible date; that we’re not happy with the current situation; that we don’t see much hope for the traditional disarmament forums and the NPT and we feel that a new approach is needed; that the emphasis on the humanitarian dimension of this problem is a really important way to reframe the debate and to get action.
PR: If there’s any one thing that would come out of this, what would you want to achieve? What would you like to look back on and say, “We did that”?
TW: I think the most important thing for the civil society forum is that people go home feeling energised, feeling inspired and do everything in their power to build national coalitions of organisations, to raise public awareness about the effects of nuclear weapons and really to build the momentum in their country for a nuclear weapons ban because we need everyone around the world doing their bit to build that critical mass of governments to make this happen and every government in this process is important. We’re not talking about a process that just involves nuclear weapons states we’re talking about the process that’s driven by the international community as a whole. I hope that people don’t feel as if attending this conference is their contribution; attending this conference is just the beginning of what needs to be done.
PR: In terms of ICAN, the ICAN campaign operates in how many countries?
TW: About 70. In some countries we have quite well established campaign teams. We have paid staff in around a dozen or so countries and in other places we have campaigners who are either volunteers or who are employed by our partner organisations to work on ICAN. So it differs a lot from country to country but our emphasis, in our campaigning, is that every country matters. This is about building a global campaign and in fact some of the most important countries in this process will probably be non-nuclear weapons states.
PR: ICAN is also developing in the Middle East. You have your website also in Arabic, I think.
TW: Yes, and they’ve been incredibly successful in raising awareness in the Arabic speaking world and they’ve got quite a significant number of ‘likes’ on their Facebook page, more than the English page! It’s a really dynamic team of campaigners there. We’ve got a wonderful campaigner in Israel who’s done a lot to raise awareness there about Israel’s nuclear weapons programme, but also to really put pressure on the Israeli government not to engage in any military action against Iran’s nuclear programme which is obviously something that we’re all quite concerned to ensure doesn’t happen.
PR: If people come across ICAN on the internet and don’t find it in their country, how can they connect to this network?
TW: It depends on how much time they can dedicate to the campaign but there are always things that people can do. We have global days of action. We have a global week of action this year coming up in July and so just getting a few people together for a street action is a contribution that people can make that we can publicise on our website and when you can see that people in other countries are doing things however small, that inspires; it has a flow on effect around the world. So no one should feel that their contribution isn’t significant enough to warrant publicity and to be worthwhile. I think that we all need to be thinking about who we can influence. Whether it’s our family members our friends, at the university or work place and finding ways to get the ICAN message out through those avenues.
PR: So what’s next after this conference? You talked about the week of action in July. Over the next year what are the milestones that you have?
TW: Well to some extent that depends on what happens over the next couple of days. We don’t know whether there’s going to be a follow-up conference announced, but certainly if there is that will help to shape what to do over the coming year because we do feel that this humanitarian-based approach is the one that’s most likely to yield results. So that’s where we’ll focus our energies. We’ll continue to engage to some extent with the NPT process as well because we feel that we need to get the message through in that forum that a ban on nuclear weapons is necessary, but we’re hoping to some extent to bring it away from that and to put our focus elsewhere so things are all still a little bit up in the air but I hope we’ll have a clearer picture in a few days’ time.
PR: Regarding the conference happening on Monday and Tuesday, are you participating in that? And what are your hopes for this conference? What can be the outcome? Can we go immediately to negotiating a treaty?
TW: Yes, I’m participating. We hope that they’ll be a serious evidence-based discussion of the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and the inability to provide any adequate, humanitarian response in the event of a nuclear attack and that that discussion will provide a clear and compelling rationale for beginning negotiations on a ban. We hope that this will give governments the encouragement to begin negotiations on a nuclear weapons ban; that they can see that there’s not only the humanitarian necessity to ban nuclear weapons but that there’s strong support from civil society and from other governments to pursue that goal. So this is very much about the evidence but also building the support among governments.
PR: Are you concerned about the lack of participation of the P5 at this stage?
TW: We encouraged all governments to participate and our campaigners in the P5 nations put a lot of pressure on their governments to participate so it’s quite disappointing that they won’t be there. But we shouldn’t see this as in any way making the conference less important and in fact I think their absence emphasises just how important this conference is. If they felt it were unimportant then they’d probably be there.
PR: Just to finish, what’s been your inspiration? What’s driven you personally into nuclear abolition? How did you, Tim, get here?
I learned about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki when I was quite young, maybe 7 or 8 in primary school. We learned basic Japanese. In Australia it’s quite common to be taught Asian languages at school. So that was part of my primary education and I remember being quite appalled at the suffering that had been inflicted on the people of those cities and we sent 1000 paper cranes each year to Hiroshima so that was, I guess, my first activism, on reflection. I’ve been interested in peace and disarmament issues ever since really and particularly since I was at university when I became much more actively involved and helped to set up ICAN back in 2006. So it’s been quite rewarding for me to see how the campaign has taken off around the world and over the last couple of days to see that there’s a lot of momentum for this idea of a ban and I think we are making real progress and I’m encouraged by other campaigners who are doing amazing things. Martin Sheen is a very inspiring person as well who’s engaged in a lot of activism so I think as he said last night, when we listen to what other people are doing it’s not difficult to find inspiration. There are a lot people doing amazing things.