On June 6th, we at Pressenza premiered our latest documentary film, “The Beginning of the End of Nuclear Weapons”.  For this film, we interviewed 14 people, experts in their fields, who were able to provide insight into the history of the subject, the process which led to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and current efforts to stigmatise and turn the ban into an eradication.  As part of our commitment to make this information available to the whole world, we are publishing the full versions of those interviews with transcripts with the hope that the information will be useful for future documentary film makers, activists and historians who would like to hear the testimony of our interviews.

This interview is with Daniel Högsta, Campaign Coordinator for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons at their former offices in Geneva, Switzerland, on the 12th of December 2018.

Questions: Tony Robinson, Cameraman: Álvaro Orús


Tell us about how the Ban Treaty was achieved

I think rather than talking about dates and quotes, the way I see it is that there was this reframing of the debate around the humanitarian approach, as compared to a security-centric focus on nuclear weapons, which tends to favour more the deterrence arguments and how many nuclear weapons do we need in a country in order to preserve deterrence as a credible source of national defence.

That’s fundamentally quite disempowering for campaigners and also states who want to engage with it.  It very much leads you to a situation where we’ve got certain states who have control of the debate and who have the agency to speak in the debate, and the rest of the world who should sit down, shut up and listen quietly, and shout a bit from the side-lines.

So this humanitarian reframing empowered both civil society and States to take a leading role, as they’ve done in other campaigns: cluster munitions and landmines, as I’m sure you’ve heard others reference a lot.

I think that reframing was a huge decision as well, and also the ability of the campaign of ICAN, and when I say campaign I don’t just mean ICAN, I mean also the States that were involved, the academics, the ICRC, this kind of broader group of people to find moments in time to build and continue momentum.

So the humanitarian impact conferences were the most prominent examples of that.  It was a big gathering of states which got together.  Lots of new evidence was unveiled and we heard very poignantly and prominently from the survivors, the Hibakusha, and also the nuclear test survivors.

So having those moments in time created and built a sense of momentum as people start to realize actually there is another way forward.  The UN as a forum was very useful for that as well.  We had several meetings at the General Assembly where States got together delivering increasingly strong joint statements about the humanitarian consequences, and then also about the need for a new legal instrument to fill the legal gap, as it was called.

So through that we reached a kind of breaking point in 2016 with the Open-Ended Working Group, which was a group that was set up to identify what are the different options on the table to remedy this situation, to break the status quo, and at that open-ended working group it was quite clear that the most effective, the most supported idea was this idea of a treaty that would prohibit them.

And importantly as well was the idea that the treaty was something that could and should be pursued even if the nuclear weapon-states stayed away from the process.  I think that obviously led into the negotiations the next year in which the momentum carried us through to that, but I would just finish with emphasizing the importance of the realisation in civil society, in governments, in academia as well, that pursuing a legal instrument without the states that are the main perpetrators of the harm that we’re alleging, not being part of it, that that’s something we should still continue to do, and that’s something that’s useful in terms of building a norm that would affect both practice and theory around nuclear weapons.

What happened in the moment you received the call about the Nobel Peace Prize?

We actually did have the stream of the Nobel ceremony on – the announcement, the press conference – because nuclear weapons had been in the news a lot that past year, and ICAN has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in the past.  We have had journalists wandering around here on the day, waiting, and we never really took it seriously.  So we thought it was just going to be another one of those years, but we knew that nuclear weapons had been in the news.  So we expected it to go to a nuclear weapons-related organization; maybe the CTBTO, maybe the negotiators of the Iran deal.

So we wanted to be prepared to give a statement on that.  We had no idea obviously that we were in the key consideration of it, as it were.  So 10 minutes before 11 o’clock and we received the phone call.  I picked up the phone – and it’s a really bad old phone as well, sticky buttons – and so I answered the phone and I heard a very strong, Norwegian-accented voice, which was Olav Njolstad from the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize Committee, and he said, “I think I have some good news. I need to speak to Beatrice Fihn.”

And then I handed the phone to Beatrice Fihn. I still at that point didn’t think that this was anything serious.  I thought it was a journalist who was asking to get some reaction, but then obviously I saw her face kind of melt and freeze, and oh my god, oh my god!

So at that point it became clear.  Well, I shouldn’t say it became exactly clear, I still thought it could have been a hoax or something.  I said, “Nobody release any press statement!”

And then actually our website – at 11 o’clock, once the statement had actually been made – our website crashed. So I couldn’t actually publish the press release that we had hastily put together.  So we had to put it on Facebook first.

So that was the madness, and then we had ten minutes of frantically – I think there’s some video of this – frantically walking around the office, and wondering, “Oh my god, what are we supposed to do? Okay, we have to have a press conference.  We have to have a press conference, that’s what organizations do when they encounter these kinds of things.”

But then the phone started ringing.  There were journalists outside the room, they kind of forced their way in and took some pictures initially.

Which was very exciting obviously.  So it was a mad day that didn’t stop until – that was a Friday – didn’t stop until the Monday thereafter.

What difference has it made to your work and the campaign?

I’d say, in terms of the work that we do, and what we focus on and prioritize, it hasn’t changed so much.  Our priorities are still the same, the projects that we’re going to do, maybe we would have done them anyway, but it just kind of elevates everything.  It gives us many more opportunities to get meetings with people.

Obviously our interaction with the media has been vastly improved, but everything has been just elevated.  But has it changed the way we are as a campaign?  No, I think the spirit of ICAN is the same as it was before, and I think, because ICAN is quite a big campaign, lots of partner organizations around the world, many of them work in quite difficult contexts, like nuclear weapon-states where they feel like they’re just hammering away, and not maybe achieving any kind of tangible results, that they would hope to, and feel on the outside, or they’re alone in a country where nuclear weapons are not on the agenda at all, and they’re wondering how much of an impact is this really making.  Is it even worth it to get try to get my government on board when they don’t care about nuclear weapons at all?

I think it’s a huge validation for the work that those campaigners are doing in whatever context, and I think that’s the most beautiful thing that I felt immediately afterwards, and I get goosebumps just thinking about it right now, is the celebrations from all over the campaign, from South Africa to Kenya to Zambia to Panama.  just seeing our campaigners and all these different people all across the world get on TV, take ownership of this amazing moment that had happened and really be elevated and validated for their hard work over the years.

So I think that’s been the most special thing.

ICAN as a network of organisations

I see our role here, I mean we’re quite a small staff here in Geneva and some colleagues, some staff members outside of Geneva as well, but our role is mainly just to help and facilitate the work that our partners are doing, because it’s the work in capitals that makes a huge difference, especially now after the treaty has been opened for signature and is on its way to entry into force, that work that perhaps used to take place in diplomatic hubs like the UN here in Geneva or in New York, it’s even more important that it’s taking place in capitals now.

Those are the opinion-makers, the decision-makers that we have to convince.  So the value of the network is entirely, in my opinion, the strength of the partner organizations.

Tell us about the ICAN cities appeal.

So the ICAN cities appeal is a commitment that cities can make to endorse the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and call on their governments to join.

A general trend that we’ve seen is that people, all over the world, not just in nuclear weapons issues, but across the political spectrum, are quite dissatisfied with national governments and there’s this frustration with that, and it has taken some ugly turns in some contexts, but I think one of the exciting things that’s coming out of it is much more resonance of local governments, of local activism and engaging with municipal governments as well, and the relevance that that can have.

In the past I think that’s been side-lined.  It’s something that’s not super exciting, local politics, but I think it’s changing now with this focus on community organizing, and local government can have a resonance in terms of building a movement nationally, as well.

I think that’s going to be true for nuclear weapons as well.  So cities which are actually the main targets of nuclear weapons.  Nuclear weapons are designed to be city destroyers, to have the maximum impact, to destroy as many lives and as much infrastructure as possible.

So it makes sense also that cities have a responsibility, and city governments, mayors and city officials have a responsibility to their people to speak out against this issue.  That’s their job to look out for the well-being of their people.  So it makes sense when it comes to an issue like nuclear weapons that they would also use their voice, as the closest representatives of their people, to speak out to the national government and say being involved in this in any way, whether it be a country that actually possesses nuclear weapons, or a country, and there are several dozen of them that endorse the use of nuclear weapons through being part of so-called nuclear-umbrella alliances, these city governments in those countries have a responsibility to say, “That’s not acceptable.  Not in our name, not in the city’s name are you doing that kind of action.

So I think it’s something that, both taps into a trend and that’s taking place right now, and also just makes sense from the nature of nuclear weapons.

How can people get involved with initiatives to ban nuclear weapons?

There’s a few different ways.  The city’s appeal, which we talked about, is one of the key ways.  Get involved with your local government.  Find out who your local representative for your district is, and ask them if they’ve heard about the City’s Appeal.  Ask them if the city has a policy on nuclear weapons.

What we’re seeing is more and more cities passing motions or solemn statements that endorse the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and call on their government to join the treaty.  That’s something that city officials can do, and that’s something that individual people can do, because these city officials, they have to relate to you in some way.

So that’s something that pretty much everyone can do, because the City’s Appeal is not just for major cities, it’s also for towns and other municipalities.

On a national level, there’s also reaching out to your national parliamentarian.  ICAN also has what’s called the Parliamentary Pledge which is signed by over 800 parliamentarians across the world.  And it’s a pledge to work to bring the treaty into force in that country.

So everyone has a local, a national representative.  Everyone can write to their senator or diputado wherever they are and get them to endorse the parliamentary pledge.  And the final thing as well is: nuclear weapons are an extremely costly enterprise and this money doesn’t just come from governments, in fact it comes mainly from banks and financial institutions.

ICAN through cooperation with our partner organization PAX publishes the Don’t Bank on the Bomb report every year which is an amazing study that reveals the lack of transparency around the way in which financial institutions and banks funnel money into the major companies that produce, develop and are involved in the modernization of nuclear weapons, and also developing ideas about new nuclear weapons.  As the United States came out with recently, more “usable” nuclear weapons, which is a horrifying prospect in and of itself.

So through this Don’t Bank on the Bomb report citizens can reach out to their banks and ask them how they’re involved and encourage their bank to be more transparent, which companies they’re investing in, and also encourage them to remove their money from institutions that develop nuclear weapons.

So I think those are three things that pretty much everyone, whether or not you’re an experienced campaigner, can get involved in.

What is your motivation?

I think one thing that I’ve learned through being in ICAN is focusing on small victories, the small wins along the way, and seeing them as being along a path.

One thing that’s very important about ICAN is our single-minded focus on the TPNW.  But the TPNW, it wasn’t just to get the treaty in to force and that’s it.  And then let the thing happen by itself, but to draw a line between all the individual victories.

So each pledge, each parliamentary pledge that signed, each city that gets on to the appeal, each email that you get back from a decision-maker in government that responds to your question where you get a new piece of information that you can share with the wider network.  Each of those things comes together to build momentum, and that’s how we’ll get the treaty into force, and that’s how we’re going to use the treaty to change actual policies.

So focusing on the small wins is incredibly important.  Sometimes I think the apathy around nuclear weapons comes from the fact that people see it as such a huge issue, something that’s been around forever, something that’s never going to change. It’s what I hear constantly, not just from governments, but unfortunately many of my friends, sometimes, in these governments.

But politics changes constantly.  We’re in a political climate right now that would have been totally unthinkable many years ago, and that doesn’t only have to be a negative thing.  It doesn’t have to be the ugly face that we’ve seen in many countries.  It can also be positive changes, and it can also be quick changes in issues that we thought were intransigent for a long time, and nuclear weapons is part of that.