At the “Health Through Peace” conference organised by Medact, the UK affiliate organisation of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, Beatrice Fihn, the Executive Director of ICAN (the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons), was invited to the opening plenary session to speak about the recently approved text of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Pressenza had the opportunity to take Beatrice for a coffee and find out how life has been for this indomitable activist since the treaty was approved, how we got here, and where do we go from here.
“I spent the evening after the treaty was approved celebrating with ICAN in a bar, drinking coke and eating crisps desperately trying to stay awake!” Hmmm, the party doesn’t sound as fabulous as we’d imagined it from Budapest, but the sense of relief and the outpouring of emotion immediately after the vote took place must have been exhausting.
Pressenza: Going back through this whole process which started in 2009 with the launch of ICAN, you’ve seen the process right from the beginning. When was the moment when you thought, ‘Wow! We’re going to get a treaty. We’re going to be able to do this.’?
Beatrice Fihn: I’m not sure. I was sceptical at first. When they said, ‘we’re going to ban nuclear weapons without the nuclear-armed states,’ I wasn’t 100% on board when I heard the idea, which I think is natural, especially if your experience is with nuclear weapons, because that’s not how we do things in the nuclear weapons field. We stand there, and we argue, and we knock on the doors of the nuclear-armed states and say, “please, please, please, please do something,” and they don’t and we go home and try again next time. So I think, the first time I was a bit like, “What’s that going to do? I don’t believe in that.” But then I went to Oslo [the first conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons]. I had seen the humanitarian statement in 2012, and I thought that it was pretty cool. But the first time I really felt like we’re on to something was at the civil society forum in Oslo when Gry Larsen, the Norwegian Secretary of State gave a speech, and she described how Norway had just been démarched [ciplomatically told off] by the P5 who had made the decision not to come just a few days before, and she described it to the audience.
We were really nervous in ICAN about how people would react to the P5 boycotting the conference because this was the first time that they boycotted anything. It didn’t happen before because no one put anything forward that they wouldn’t do.
So, she said, “Yeah, well I had a visit at the foreign ministry. The P5 ambassadors came up and they had their arguments, and what can I say? They weren’t very convincing!” And the entire audience laughed, and that was the first time we laughed at the P5 and I remember sitting there thinking, “Wow! This is different, this changes everything.”
Because it’s about power dynamics. And nobody cared that they didn’t come, and they didn’t care because she had the confidence to say that it didn’t matter. We had the confidence to go ahead with it, and I think that’s also what we talked about at the Vienna Conference [the third conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons]. We had this theme, “the courage to ban nuclear weapons.” And it really is not just about a Foreign Minister having courage, it’s also about us as individuals daring to think that this will matter, daring to stand up to those people that you meet at parties and who are like, “Oh yeah. You work on nuclear weapons. How silly. That’s not going to happen.”
It takes a lot personal courage to think that we could do something and that we could manage something and, maybe it won’t work, but we’re going to do it anyway. So in Oslo, I didn’t know we were going to get a treaty then. It felt very far away, but anyway it felt like we were on to something there.
PZ: Given the glacial pace of the NPT process it has felt like a whirlwind really, hasn’t it? Because every year there’s been something; the humanitarian conferences, the open-ended working group, the resolution of the General Assembly, and then we got a treaty.
BF: I think a lot of people think that all the steps were pre-planned, but we really didn’t know what was going to happen after the next step. I think that also speaks a little bit to the importance of just doing stuff and even if you don’t know where you’re going to end up, you just keep moving forward, because the plan wasn’t an Open-Ended Working Group [the UN mandated conference to take forward measures for nuclear disarmament], and then a resolution [in the UN] and then a General Assembly process. I mean we wanted the Oslo conference, and then we wanted to go immediately into negotiations, and then, “oh sure, another conference, that’s good,” and then Nayarit [the second conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons], and the point of no return and we’re like, “Aha! The next one’s going to be the mandate for negotiations.” And in Vienna we got the pledge, “Ok, we’ll go with that.” And we were hoping that there would be a South Africa conference [treaty negotiations] and that didn’t happen, and the NPT happened [stalemate at the 2015 NPT conference where no consensus was agreed], and it was a great launching pad, but there was no conference and it became an Open-Ended Working Group. You have to adjust a little bit, but it’s been moving forward all the time. So, I think to people who are on the outside it has looked very straight-forward, like all the steps just followed one after another, whereas obviously internally it’s been a bit chaotic.
PZ: Tell me about the provisions of the treaty. Many people in civil society organisations, especially PAX, were hoping that there would be a specific mention of a prohibition on financing. Do you think that that not being specifically mentioned in the treaty detracts from it, or creates any problems for civil-society moving forward?
BF: No. Obviously, we would have loved to have had it because if it’s explicit, we don’t have to go through the hassle of arguing about it nationally. But at the same time, the cluster munitions coalition has done a big campaign, banks have divested from other weapons because of the provision on assistance; so it’s already a precedent that banks look at the treaty. Susi Snyder from the PAX campaign, “Don’t Bank on the Bomb,” has talked to some banks and they say, “It’s not even about assistance, it’s about the prohibition. If it’s prohibited and my state has signed on to it, we can’t do it. It doesn’t matter if financing is specifically prohibited, why would we invest in a prohibited weapon?”
So I think it’s still fine. I mean obviously we would have liked it to be more explicit and a lot of states were worried about putting it in because they didn’t know how far that would be interpreted. Would you be able to buy airplanes from Boeing? Obviously that’s never the definition of financing, it would be the actual nuclear weapons and the components, not just general stuff from the same company. So, I wish they would have been a bit stronger, it would have been nice also, but we see how these laws are getting more and more progressive as the years go. The cluster munitions convention was the first one with victim assistance, and now we got that provision into this treaty as well which was really great, and we got environmental remediation, and the environmental campaigners were not happy about it [they thought it could have been stronger], but at the same time it’s the first time we got it into a treaty, which means that the next time it goes into a treaty it will be really good, and then next time we can get an explicit prohibition on financing. So, I think that it’s evolving international law.
PZ: The other clause which was a little bit controversial was the withdrawal clause. How did that get in there?
BF: It was such a dramatic moment in the last session when they went through the treaty, and it was almost removed entirely. Oh my god, that was so dramatic!
So I think that this treaty comes from a humanitarian angle, but it’s still nuclear weapons, and it’s still a very traditional NPT and WMD mind-set. So I think that the withdrawal clause is really the clash of two perspectives; security and humanitarian. Obviously, we would have liked to have had no withdrawal clause and let governments argue their way out of it if they really have to and go to court to prove it. But otherwise we wanted the withdrawal period to be long, which we got – 12 months – which was good, and the fact that you can’t withdraw if you’re in an armed-conflict, because that’s what other humanitarian treaties: land mines, cluster munitions, have, but then they have this thing from the biological weapons and the chemical weapons conventions that there’s a supreme interest which really undermines the whole humanitarian stuff. So, basically they put both things together.
The thing is, we mustn’t make it bigger than it is. If a state wants to withdraw, clearly they’re going to do it anyway. If they want to develop nuclear weapons, they’re going to do it. It’s just annoying that “supreme interests” are in there because somehow it still feeds the narrative that there are certain interests, there are certain reasons to have nuclear weapons which is just counter to the whole beginning of the treaty that bans them under any circumstances.
So it’s annoying but in practice I don’t think it matters.
PZ: So we have a treaty and it’s going to be open for signing on the twentieth of September. Do you have any feeling for how many countries are going to be queuing up to sign? I saw a tweet from Austria to say that they’re going to sign it.
BF: They’re the only ones who’ve said it in public. We have one! No, I think we’re pretty confident that we can hit a hundred relatively quickly. But I am not going to define exactly what “relatively quickly” is as I like to be right. It’s a little bit difficult because it’s the high level week of the UN General Assembly. So it’s when the heads of states are in town and the meeting schedule is insane. Each head of state is coming in at a different time. So, it might be that some countries won’t be there during the two hours of the signing ceremony, but they still want to sign it so they might sign it two or three days later. But at the same time we’re not hearing anyone not wanting to sign it.
We’ve heard from Sweden and Switzerland that they are doing thorough legal examinations internally and they probably won’t be ready on the 20th of September. The Swedish Parliament opens on the 16th of September and they want to talk about it in Parliament. New Zealand has an election on the 23rd so they’re not allowed to sign it. It’s not really good practice to sign a treaty three days before a general election. So it might be left for the new government to do it.
So you have a couple of those things, but very few countries have said, “We’re not going to sign it.” And none of the countries who participated, so it’s basically just about making sure that they show up and have their credentials.
However, there is a lot of pressure from the nuclear-armed states. Documents have come out, new demarches. In particular, in Sweden. Direct threats to stop buying arms from Swedish weapons companies. So we’ll see how that pressure takes shape, but I think it’s going to be good and we’ll get a lot of countries, maybe seventy or eighty.
PZ: So it already comes into force quite quickly?
BF: Well, you need the ratification to follow, and that will take time of course, because you need to show that either you already have the appropriate law or pass a new one. It might be that the nuclear-weapon-free-zone states already have one, but it still needs the approval of parliament and that can take months or years. So definitely there are tasks for the campaigners to do.
PZ: So that’s my next question really. One of the fantastic things about ICAN has been its ability to bring new blood, young people into nuclear disarmament. Have you had time since the treaty to think about the next steps, the next campaigning, how to continue transmitting that incredibly important information about the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons to new people to motivate them?
BF: A little bit. You know signing and ratifying will be a big part of what we do. I think that’s good also for people’s energy levels, and one of the most important reasons for our success is that we have had success. That sort of feeds itself in a way. That has been because of this ability to convince governments that are non-nuclear-armed states, and when any country signed on to the pledge [the humanitarian pledge coming from the Vienna conference] or any of the sign-on statements, we have all celebrated as a campaign. Even the campaigners in the United States or the UK where you just keep banging your head and not getting anywhere, you get to be a part of seeing the numbers go up and the support growing, and I think that’s important for people to keep the motivation levels up.
So signing and ratifying will be a big part, but we also want to gather people particularly in umbrella state countries [countries who have agreements that the USA will use nuclear weapons on their behalf] to talk about how we utilize this treaty in the best way. Because I think that just the fact that we have a treaty is important. [Jeremy] Corbyn said something about it just as a matter of fact, “Well, you know these states have prohibited nuclear weapons.” It legitimises the treaty. Almost in the way that Obama’s Prague talk legitimized working on this issue. A lot of people complained that he didn’t do enough, but that speech was important for us, because it made it look like it wasn’t naive to be working on this issue. It was actually something that even the President of the United States thinks was important, even if he didn’t do anything about it.
But having the treaty will hopefully make it easier for new people to come on-board because there is an international treaty. You can’t deny that, and even the opponents are going to have to relate to it. So everything has jumped up a step, and now this is the basis from where we launch our new projects and efforts. I think it’s going to be helpful. I think we need to work much harder in European countries, also in nuclear-armed states, building public support. There’s a big debate now about Sweden signing because there was a newspaper that leaked information about U.S. pressure.
This idea that it’s radical left wing policy to be in favour of prohibiting nuclear weapons, we need to break it down further and make it again about a humanitarian issue. We have to make them justify why they want to use nuclear weapons, why they want to use weapons of mass destruction to indiscriminately slaughter civilians. Why isn’t that the question? Rather than, why do you want to ruin our security agreements? They put us in the position where we’re the ones who have to argue, while it should be them defending why they want a weapon of mass destruction, and what they’re going to use it for, and how they’re going to use it.
PZ: Do you have any plans for any ICAN campaigners meetings coming up?
BF: Lots of plans, no money! We need to fundraise a bit. A lot of money was dedicated to the negotiations. So we need to rethink some plans now. There are a couple of really interesting things that we need to do regarding the “Don’t bank on the bomb” campaign. I would love to do some work on Victim Assistance and Environmental Remediation; very practical things that people can do that makes this treaty have an impact, even if it isn’t being signed, but then of course also I think we would need a campaign meeting soon, maybe early 2018. Somewhere in Europe maybe, gather the umbrella states, not a big show, but just a really practical meeting: what do we do now, what’s the focus, how we’re going to move things? But I’m also thinking of some kind of product, you know the landmine monitor, the cluster munition monitor that can get media attention.
I don’t think we should do exactly that but I’m thinking, especially looking at North Korea, about how we really should be able to describe the activities of the nuclear-armed states from the perspective of the treaty. The United States and North Korea, are testing these missiles to prepare to use nuclear weapons on cities, on civilians, and that’s unacceptable, and other states have outlawed it. The UK is investing in new submarines that are going to launch these weapons that are going to target cities and civilians. That’s unacceptable behaviour. Put out material like that so we can work maybe a little bit more with the technical nuclear weapons experts than we’ve done before now, because we’ve been very focused on just the political negotiations in the US, which is its own world, but now we need to look at the actual arsenals and how they’re being used.
PZ: Yes, it’s about it’s about creating consciousness, about creating awareness in the public and creating such a build-up of steam about that that politicians have no alternative other than to adopt ban-friendly policies.
BF: And make politicians responsible for holding nuclear weapons. We have now in Sweden and Norway big debates about this treaty and how so many politicians are comfortable saying that we need to be able to have nuclear weapons to protect ourselves. But instead we need to make them feel responsible for saying, “We need to be able to mass-murder civilians to protect ourselves.” I mean that’s what we need to push them in to saying, to expose what it is they actually are proposing to do. Nuclear weapons are not a magic, security-creating vacuum, it’s actually a weapon that you are meant to be using at something. For deterrence to work you have to be ready to actually obliterate an entire city which is illegal under humanitarian law. You can’t do that! That’s not something to be proud of, or to think it’s a powerful position. So I think we need to be exposing all the exercises, investments, and every time they do something that is now illegal under this treaty, we need to be highlighting this unacceptable behaviour.
PZ: Pointing out the hypocrisy really.
PZ: This must have been an incredibly stressful time for you over the last nine years and there must have been moments when you thought, “Oh my god, this is so hard.” From where have you drawn your inspiration? What has given you the strength to say, “You know what, it’s really hard but I have to continue.” Where does that come from?
BF: I think, all the colleagues. I mean without question, all the partner organisations and all these really amazing individuals within this network both in ICAN and also on the government side and the ICRC side. It’s just really brilliant people and we’ve had a lot of fun in ICAN and I think that’s also one of the keys. You know you have to have fun, because if it’s fun then it doesn’t really matter what some old man in the U.S. tweets about the ban. We know that we’re doing the right thing, and it’s enough. And we don’t have to convince everyone right now. And in itself that also generates more power to the initiative. I think one of the things that you can see is the frustration from the nuclear-armed states, because we don’t care if they’re there or not. It’s really taking a toll on them, because basically we’ve created our own power position, and we keep moving on, not recognizing their authority over us.
Every time I go to D.C. or even London, you have these meetings, and you think this is so hard, and you see these tweets and these articles trashing the treaty, yaddah, yaddah, yaddah. Then you get really depressed and think that it’s all shit and nobody is changing their mind, and then you just gather with the people that have been working on this. You see that it’s just awesome. We just did this and now we have the treaty!
So I think you also have to maybe lower your ambitions. Like OK, maybe it won’t change the world, probably it won’t in a way. I think that a world without nuclear weapons is going to be exactly the same as a world with nuclear weapons. I really don’t think there’s a difference given that we have enough conventional weaponry to blow up as much as we like as well. It would just not have nuclear weapons, and that’s a good thing. So I’m also trying to not put too high demands on ourselves in ICAN, but we did do a treaty and that’s good!
As was said on the panel this morning, we managed to put some kind of normative objective into a legal document that’s going to be international law. You know they can argue as much as they like that it doesn’t mean anything, that it doesn’t impact these countries. But it’s still a treaty and it’s going to be international law and that’s pretty cool!
And that attitude, you can only have if you surround yourself with other people that are working on this issue. A lot of people who’ve done it with landmines and cluster munitions and have that kind of attitude that this is absolutely possible. Let’s not listen to those that say just the negative things and tell us that we’re wrong all the time.
I mean this idea of having consensus. Why do we strive for that? Because if everyone agreed, I mean look at the world, it’s pretty awful, in a way. If everyone agreed to do something it wouldn’t change anything. So in order to be change, it has to be confrontational. We’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from other treaties of course. But also from big social movements like civil rights, women’s right to vote, anti-apartheid, and those activists were also marginalized, they were called crazy, people said they were too aggressive and that they need to compromise.
I mean imagine people saying that we have to compromise with Nazis. “Let’s find common ground here, build a bridge between the Nazis and the non-Nazis, maybe a little bit of Nazism is OK, but not too much.” It’s just ridiculous! Either you’re OK with mass murdering civilians with nuclear weapons or you’re not. Why would we build bridges to that?