For those working in the field of nuclear abolition, Ray Acheson from ‘Reaching Critical Will’, is a well-known, dynamic and tireless organiser who ensures that civil society gets the opportunity to present its case to the world’s diplomats in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) conferences.  She deals with all the demands of, and disagreements between, NGO representatives professionally and courteously, yet firmly when necessary.

As a member of the coordinating group of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), Ray has been in Edinburgh for the Abolition 2000 annual meeting.  At an event at the Scottish Parliament, Pressenza had the chance to speak to Ray about the ICAN campaign, the difference between a treaty and a convention, her experience during the Arms Trade Treaty negotiations and how she came to be in such a responsible position at such a young age.

“I think it just comes from this understanding that we are not doing a very good job as a species in protecting our planet or each other and so I want to be part of the solution to that.”

* Reaching Critical Will (RCW) is the disarmament arm of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF)


Pressenza: Ray, here in Edinburgh there’s been a lot of discussion about the ICAN campaign for a Ban Treaty for nuclear weapons.  Can you outline briefly what that’s about?

RA:  Sure, the Ban Treaty that ICAN has been calling for is a treaty that would outlaw nuclear weapons.  So it would prohibit the production, development, research, testing, transit and all of the things that a strong Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone treaty prohibits.  It would be quite similar to an NWFZ treaty in what it would prohibit.

The thing that’s attractive about the call for a ban is that it’s something that can be initiated by non-Nuclear-Weapon States (NWS) now instead of waiting for the nuclear weapons possessors to agree that they’re finally ready to get rid of their nuclear arsenals.  We haven’t seen any signs of that.  We see them modernising their arsenals; not engaging in any concrete multi-lateral disarmament.  So the idea is to mobilise support among citizens and non-NWS to say once and for all that nuclear weapons are illegal.

Pressenza: The Abolition 2000 founding statement talks about a Nuclear Weapons Convention (NWC) which would require the participation of all NWS from the outset.  How does the ban treaty fit with the Convention?

RA:  There’s a few ways to think about it and there’s no wrong way to think about it.  The ban treaty could be seen as a tool to be used to pressure NWS into negotiating a NWC: an instrument that would set out the parameters for them to eliminate their arsenals with verification, building institutional mechanisms to ensure that a nuclear-weapon-free world stays nuclear-weapon-free, and all the other pieces of the architecture necessary.

So, one way to look at it is as a tool to achieve that.  Another way to look at it is that calling for a ban treaty starts a process that can be initiated by the non-NWS but that NWS would also be free to join in negotiations from the outset, later on or join the ban treaty once it’s concluded.  A ban treaty would have provisions for NWS to join and it would have parameters for them to eliminate their nuclear arsenals.  So to join the treaty they would have to eliminate their arsenals.

Pressenza: So the thinking behind the ICAN strategy is that you could start work earlier if there were a ban treaty?

RA: Exactly.  It’s a reaction mostly to the mounting frustration felt, not just in civil society – we’ve been frustrated for a long time – but among many non-NWS.  We saw this at the 2010 NPT review conference in particular during negotiation of the outcome document.  The original draft had timelines and concrete commitments and the P5 [permanent 5 members of the UN Security Council] lined up one after the other to say, “take that out, strip that out,” and they just cut it all down to the bare bones without making any real, concrete commitment to disarm.

At the same time, they’re investing in modernisation and they plan to spend billions of dollars increasing their nuclear weapons budget.  So non-NWS see this and they feel that it’s past time for the NWS to get serious about disarmament and they are often told by the NWS that, “these are very serious issues, you can’t rush us, you can’t put a timeframe on this, this is about security” and non-NWS are buying that argument less and less.

(They say,) “We’ve been waiting for 65 years.  How much longer are we going to be put off?  Stop treating us like children.  This is about all of our security and you’re endangering it.”

Pressenza: From the point of view of a grass roots campaign does it make any difference if we talk about a ban treaty or a NWC?

RA:  No, I think the goal is the same.  The ultimate goal, whichever language you use, is the abolition and elimination of nuclear weapons.  In many cases, we’ve heard that using the language of the ban actually has more appeal at the grassroots level.  It’s easier to understand.  If you’re banning something it implies that you’re prohibiting it, you’re outlawing it and you’re eliminating it and that is more easily and effectively communicated to the public at large.

Pressenza:  What is ICAN’s message in nuclear-weapons states and those under a nuclear umbrella?  What are ICAN campaigners pushing for in such countries?

RA:  ICAN campaigners in nuclear-umbrella states, or the NATO states that are hosting nuclear weapons, are doing a lot of work to mobilise support from their governments around this concept, the same as in other non-NWS to some extent.  They are saying that nuclear weapons are not legitimate, they’re not part of our security, you can do something about getting rid of them even though you currently rely on them, and even though they’re currently in your security doctrines.

So the unique aspect of the campaigns in those countries is addressing the security doctrine question and in NATO addressing the hosting of these weapons.  A particular issue for those states right now is modernisation because the United States is saying that it has to upgrade the B61 bombs that are in those countries in order to ensure that they’re safe, secure and reliable for the indefinite future.  So this is actually a great opportunity that campaigners are taking by saying, “Why invest billions of dollars in these nuclear weapons if the international community is mobilising to outlaw them?”  So that’s the unique stance that they take.

In NWS, it’s a little bit different.  We have a very strong ICAN presence in the UK for example.  They are mobilising civil society around this idea to pressure the UK government by saying that there is an international movement to ban nuclear weapons.  “We can’t modernise trident when they’re going to be outlawed and we’ll just have to get rid of them in a few years anyway to be in compliance with international law.”  So that’s the approach they’re taking.

Pressenza: ICAN has been very successful at working with young people.  What’s the secret?  How is it that the ICAN campaign has been able to resonate so strongly with young people when nuclear weapons have the appearance of being something from the past and irrelevant to the lives of young people?

RA:  Engaging youth in nuclear weapons has always been very difficult and so it’s been very energising to see how many young people have been drawn to the ICAN campaign.  I think the reason that they are is that it’s been a very clear, straightforward campaign.  It’s been able to use social media tools very effectively to reach new audiences and this has been very important.

Many of the staff members of ICAN are under 30 years old.  Many of the members of the ICAN international steering group are also quite young, so we’ve been able to harness different networks over the last few years to draw in a new audience and to try to communicate it in language that is relevant to youth today and I think that the humanitarian consequences approach that ICAN has utilised has been very key for this because one of the major issues that youth are more focussed on these days are issues of climate change, energy and environmental issues.  So we’ve been able to tie it in to those sorts of issues using the environmental and humanitarian consequences and to say, “This is how it will affect climate change, it will result in famine and poverty,” and all of those issues.

So I think that’s been a compelling argument for a generation that has grown up not really understanding the dangers of nuclear weapons.

Pressenza:  ICAN was working very hard towards the Oslo conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and it seems to have changed the discourse in international forums.  Is that it?  Have ICAN campaigners been on holiday since then?

RA:  No, that’s definitely not it.  ICAN campaigners have been very active back in their countries, taking these messages home about what happened in Oslo.  We have a lot of campaigners that are working on getting their governments to address this issue of the humanitarian consequences and to think about nuclear weapons as a danger and not as a tool for security and I think that that’s how the discourse has changed.  They’re definitely following-up in many creative ways.

Some of our ICAN campaigners in Sweden, for example, in preparation for Oslo looked up Sweden’s policies of what measures Sweden would take if a nuclear weapon were detonated and there were really old policies that said things like they would distribute rain coats to the people in the military to protect them from fallout.

So the Swedish campaigners delivered raincoats to every parliamentarian with a note explaining why they’re doing it and saying, “Don’t you have a better way to prepare?”  Or, “shouldn’t we have a better way to prepare?”

But the answer is that there is no way to prepare.  So it’s taking that message on and asking governments to really look at this hard question of, “Can you prepare?”  And we had in Oslo reports from several governments that did take the time ahead of the conference – not many did, but a few did – and reported back that they had no capacity.  Their hospitals didn’t have enough burn beds, they wouldn’t have the capacity to do blood transfusions and so campaigners have been doing more work on following up to get governments to recognise that there’s no capacity to deal with this.

Pressenza:  What’s next?  Is there news of the Mexico follow-up campaign?

RA:  There’s no date yet for the Mexico follow-up conference.  The understanding generally is that it will happen either in late 2013 or early 2014 but there’s no confirmed date and no hint of the agenda at this point.  But the government of Mexico is billing it as a follow-up meeting.

Pressenza:  I know that you, personally, have been involved with the NGO push for an arms trade treaty, and specifically from the point of view of WILPF, with the article concerning gender-based violence.  Can you explain a bit about the idea behind this specific article?

RA:  Yes, absolutely.  You know it’s funny that when we first started campaigning to include gender-based violence in the arms trade treaty back in 2009, when the preparatory work started for this treaty we were met with that question of, “How does gender-based violence and the arms trade relate?”

“We don’t understand the connection,” was the response we got from most governments and even from civil society actors and we took the time to document and explain how the arms trade can facilitate gender-based violence and you can use some pretty typical examples such as the Democratic Republic of Congo where mass and systematic rape has been a huge problem there and that’s been facilitated by irresponsible arms transfers with easy access to small arms in particular to facilitate those crimes.

There’s also other aspects of gender-based violence that relate not just to women, but of course gender-based violence also affects men, it affects trans-gender people, it affects anyone who’s targeted because of their gender identity or because of their perceived gender roles.  It’s used generally to emasculate men, it’s used to make women suffer, it’s used as a very targeted tool and it’s always facilitated by weapons, particularly small arms.

So we wanted a tool in the treaty that we could use that specifically highlighted gender-based violence because it’s the most overlooked human rights violation.  It’s difficult to get it recognised by many governments as a human rights violation or as an international humanitarian law violation, so we wanted a specific reference so that governments couldn’t say, “yes, we considered human rights violations but we didn’t actually consider gender-based violence.”

So I think that that was the driving force behind that, to have a legal tool that we could have at our disposal to really raise awareness of this issue.

Pressenza:  How was your experience of the days of negotiation?

RA:  It was a really tough experience.  I mean it started in 2007 and went on until 2013 but the most intense periods were of course July 2012 and March 2013.  There were a lot of ups and downs.  In the July conference and the entire process, WILPF was extremely critical of the drafts coming out and at the end of July we were completely disheartened by the text.  We felt that much of the legal language was so ambiguous that it was actually worse than having nothing because it had so many loopholes that it would allow states to say, “We’ve made the transfer and we’ve complied with international law, so we’re done.”

The treaty basically allowed for anything to continue.  Throughout March the treaty went up and down and we fought really hard for good language on a number of provisions, not just gender-based violence.  We won on some; we did not win on others.

There are still some pretty unfortunate things in the treaty.  It doesn’t actively increase transparency of the arms trade because there are no explicit provisions on public reporting, although many countries have committed that they will do public reporting, but that’s not going to get us to countries like China and the United States who won’t do it anyway.  So that’s unfortunate.

Some of the language around “overriding risks” and such ambiguous legal terminology is very problematic.  On the other hand we did get a really strong article on gender-based violence in the treaty which we were satisfied with in the end.  It wasn’t what we were asking for, but it was a million times better than what was in the earlier draft and that was due largely to campaigning and the dedication of a few, really-committed governments.

The government of Iceland made it one of their top priorities to ensure that gender-based violence was legally binding in the treaty and so they put a lot of political capital into that.  So it was really exciting to work with them.

It was great to work with other civil society organisations who were supporting us in our drive.  We managed to get hundreds of civil society organisations back in July to sign on for our call for gender-based violence and by the end of the March negotiations we had 100 governments all supporting the call which was probably the largest group supporting a particular aspect of the treaty language, besides including ammunition.  That probably had the largest, but I think gender-based violence at the end was probably the second-largest.

So that was a big change from 2009 when we were being asked, “What’s the connection here?” to 100 governments and hundreds of civil society organisations saying, “yes, of course this has to be in the treaty.”

Pressenza:  Next week is the NPT prepcom in Geneva.  You coordinate the production of the NGO presentations, you liaise with the UN and yet you’re probably the youngest person here at the Abolition meeting.  How did you get to be in the position that you are?

RA:  Well it all has to do with the group that I work for.  WILPF’s disarmament programme, Reaching Critical Will, since 1999 has taken on this role of NGO facilitation and coordination for international inter-governmental meetings on nuclear weapons and so I inherited the role from my predecessor.

I started as an intern back in 2005 and when my predecessor left I took over her position and so I was sort of thrown into the midst of it.  I’d worked in the community for a few years, so I knew a lot of people but I was very young when I started.  I was probably 23 when I started at RCW so to get thrown into “now you’re the coordinator” when you’re so much younger and have so much less experience than the people you’re supposed to be coordinating was both difficult, but also very rewarding.  You have so many people to learn from, and I still haven’t stopped learning from many of the same people and now it’s quite fascinating to see so many more young people coming in who are now the age I was when I first started and they’re getting involved and that’s great to see.  It’s nice that there’s a flow of people.

Pressenza:  In the opening session of the Aboltion 2000 AGM we were asked to reflect on who came before us, who will come after us and why we’re here.  What’s your inspiration for being here?

RA:  I’ve always been very interested in social justice issues.  I wouldn’t say that there’s any one single event in my life or person in my life that’s inspired me but just in general I was always a bookworm growing up and I read newspapers from a ridiculously young age.  I was a very big nerd.  So I’ve always just been very interested with what’s happening in the world and different perspectives on things.  I always wanted to work in an international setting to learn from different cultures and different world views and my inspiration is very diverse but I think it just comes from this understanding that we are not doing a very good job as a species in protecting our planet or each other and so I want to be part of the solution to that, part of the group of people all over the world that actually cares and is invested in things that are happening.