Interview with Susi Snyder, Don’t Bank on the Bomb

24.07.2019 - Utrecht, The Netherlands - Tony Robinson

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Interview with Susi Snyder, Don’t Bank on the Bomb
Susi Snyder, coordinator of the Don't Bank on the Bomb campaign, PAX, The Netherlands, interview for The Beginning of the End of Nuclear Weapons, Utrecht, December 11, 2018 (Image by Álvaro Orús)

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 Susi Snyder, project lead for the PAX No Nukes project and coordinator of the Don’t Bank on the Bomb research and campaign, on December 11th 2018 in her office in Utrecht, The Netherlands.

Questions: Tony Robinson, Cameraman: Álvaro Orús

Transcript

Tell me about your background in nuclear disarmament?

I’ve been working on the nuclear weapons issue for more than half my life, and I’ve been doing it, because nuclear weapons, to me, were the worst thing I’d ever learned about.  They’re the worst wrong that I had ever come across, and the reason I felt that way is because actually it’s a human rights reason.

I met some people whose families were forcibly displaced in order for the United States to do nuclear testing.  So this whole Nation that has a treaty with the US government were removed from their territorial homeland at gunpoint so the United States could blow up nuclear bombs.  And I was appalled and I said, “Well that’s just so wrong. How could this wrong, wrong, wrong thing be allowed to continue?”

And I believe in the good in people.  I believe that given the opportunity, people will choose to do the right thing.  So I thought, well, let me find a way to help people see that in themselves and choose to do something other than nuclear weapons.

Working with indigenous people helped me find a way into this issue that I felt like I could contribute, and also I was not alone doing something that stood for peace and for justice, and I felt like we could we could actually make a difference, because we’re rooted in those core human rights principles.

That led into the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

I was working with this organization called the Shundahai Network, and it was led by a traditional leader from the Shoshone Nation, and after several years working there I decided to go back to New York and figure out where to take this issue to the global level.  And so I started to work with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and that gave me a place to voice also my strong feminism, and to really take a look at the disarmament issue from a global perspective, to engage with decision-makers at the UN, which was different than engaging in the very local level in in Nevada or in the national level in Washington.  And it gave me a chance to explore the opportunities for what was possible.

And so I was at WILPF for nearly a decade, and we saw some great things happen during that time, including the Convention on Cluster Munitions, and some real progress on the concept of humanitarian disarmament.  It was really exciting!

Tell us about your experience with ICAN?

Everybody’s got another story on how the Ban Treaty happened.  I think I bring it back to the change in the way we look at nuclear weapons, and that was embodied in international documents after the then-president of the international community of the Red Cross, Jacob Kellenberger, addressed the Geneva diplomatic corps and I guess it would have been early 2010.

He talked about nuclear weapons as bombs, as weapons and talked about the impact that they have.  He talked about the humanitarian catastrophe that could not be avoided even by using one tiny weapon.  I think that inspired some activity.  It inspired a lot of back room discussions that led to the inclusion of language in the 2010 NPT outcome document recognizing the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. And that built up, and the focus changed from tools of security and stability to “human beings are destroyed by nuclear weapons”, either in the immediate by the flash and the fireball that incinerates the body, or in the longer term by the impact of the ionizing radiation that will eat us up from within.  Nuclear weapons are catastrophic to humanity and catastrophic to life on this planet.

People started to talk about that, and within ICAN, we made a decision to focus on that, focus on what this weapon does to people, and that’s how we got the treaty.

What were the steps from 2010?

So in 2010 we had this NPT outcome document, and the NPT is where almost every country participates, and it’s nearly universal, but it’s a bit flawed.  Some can have nuclear weapons as long as they eventually get rid of them, and everyone else can’t and the focus is about maintaining a balance, but where there’s this language on humanitarian consequences, and that led to a statement in 2012 NPT Preparatory Committee meeting led by the Swiss, and about a dozen governments that said, “Wait! Any use of nuclear weapons causes catastrophic humanitarian consequences.”

There’s a couple of key words in there “catastrophic”, because nuclear weapons are catastrophic, and “any use”.  So that started to delegitimize the weapon as a security tool and put the emphasis on the weapon as a weapon.  That led to some further discussions and Norway said, “Well, you know, at the 2010 NPT we agreed that all countries would do everything they could for nuclear disarmament.  Let’s do something!  Let’s put some emphasis on the consequences.”

And Norway decided to hold the first-ever, ever in the history of nuclear weapons, Norway held the first ever conference among governments on the impact of nuclear weapons, the humanitarian impact.

That was in March 2013, cold and bitter in Oslo, and warmly welcomed by the global community.  I think it was 130 governments that participated there.

So the Oslo conference took place and we’re quite excited, and at the end of the Oslo conference the government of Mexico said, “We’ll do the next one and we’ll hold it around the anniversary of the Treaty of Tlatelolco.”  Which those of us in the western hemisphere celebrate as Valentine’s Day! It’s our love letter to disarmament, this first treaty that banned nuclear weapons for a populated area.

And so Mexico hosts the Nayarit conference and declared it was the point of no-return.  It almost put Austria off hosting the conference after that, but they did it anyway.  And so Austria held the third conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, which recognized there was no way to deal with it, and we have to do something about it.

And at that conference the Austrian government, in their own name, issued a pledge to work with anyone willing to do everything they could to stigmatize, outlaw and eliminate nuclear weapons, and not necessarily in that order and other governments soon decided to join on.  And more and more governments joined the pledge, and then that led to…

That was in advance of the 2015 NPT review conference, which ended without an outcome document, but did reaffirm the agreements made in 2010, and then, what are we going to do? There’s nothing on the horizon. So at the General Assembly later that year, governments said, “Well, let’s make some progress.”

And so they agreed.  Let’s put together an Open-Ended Working Group.  It was a very complicated way to say we’ll have a bunch of meetings where we’re going to talk about what we can do to get rid of nuclear weapons.

So they set up a bunch of meetings in 2016 that came up with some recommendations and one of the core recommendations was to start negotiations on a new treaty to ban nuclear weapons.  It was very contentious.  It’s always contentious, but it was also extremely logical, and it was decided at that meeting to put that recommendation forward.

And the General Assembly, when it met later that year in 2016, took a vote.  We’re going to start negotiations on a new treaty, and they did!  And in 2017 – it seems like forever ago, but it wasn’t – in 2017 they started negotiations in March 2017.

And we finished in July, and that’s how we got the treaty!  A lot of hard work.

I don’t want to discount though – that’s the government side of what happened – but behind the scenes and in the streets and through creative actions people have been pushing and pushing and pushing to make sure this happened.

This wasn’t just a couple of people in suits saying, “Oh, let’s have some meetings.”

This was the power of people saying nuclear weapons are wrong, governments have to do something, and they’re accountable to us.  So we’re going to make them do something. So I think that there’s more to the story than what we saw in the government meetings.

Holland was the only NATO state to participate in Ban Treaty negotiations.

Here in the Netherlands we decided we wanted to take up this issue, and then our organization was one of the drivers of the movement against the Pershing missiles in the 70s and 80s.  And we got a million people on the streets of Amsterdam, and today’s type of organizing is a bit different, and we recognize that, but there are still tools available to us.

So my colleagues put together the most amazing campaign that was in Dutch, “teken tegen kernwapens”, which is “sign against nuclear weapons”, because the Dutch political system allows you to put any issue that hasn’t been otherwise debated on the parliamentary agenda, if you get enough signatures.

We got more than enough signatures.  So we got over 45,000 signatures calling for a national ban on nuclear weapons and the Parliament debated a national ban on nuclear weapons, and they said, “No, that’s too far, but we’ll encourage the government to participate in any international discussions without prejudice to the outcome, without prejudging.”

And because of that resolution, because that motion that was supported overwhelmingly by the Parliament when the negotiations for the Ban Treaty came up, the government couldn’t say no.  It was bound.  Democracy worked and they had to be there.

Of course at the end of the day, they were unhappy with the treaty, and they voted against the treaty, and in further conversations the real reason they voted against the treaty is because they are currently violating the treaty.  There are nuclear weapons in the Netherlands, and the treaty prohibits a country from accepting the stationing of nuclear weapons in their territory.

So the government’s not ready to join onto a treaty that it’s violating.  So we’ve got some more work to do.

Where were you? And what were you doing, when you heard about the Nobel Peace Prize?

I sit on the ICAN Steering Group, and we had talked earlier in the week, in the week of the Nobel announcement, “Oh, we should get ready in case we win the Nobel Prize.”

I was one of the people who said, “No.  We prepared a few things last year, but let’s not be ridiculous.  Let’s not go overboard. Hold your horses.  I’m sure it’s going to be some very well deserving person or organization.”

There was always still this hope, and also we heard a rumour that you get a phone call half an hour beforehand, which is not true it’s only five minutes! It was 10:30 in the morning before the 11 o’clock announcement nobody had gotten a message. “Oh right, we didn’t get it.”

So I was sitting in this meeting with some people from a think-tank and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs talking about what to do next on nuclear weapons.  And of course, as you do, it’s the end of the meeting, you’re checking your phone, looking at what’s next, what’s next, what’s next and then I saw “ICAN wins Nobel Peace Prize” and I threw my phone across the table at my colleague from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  I said, “Can you check that? I think we just won the Nobel Peace Prize.”

And he just looked at me and his phone was ringing.  He answered his phone.  He said, “You did!  Congratulations!”

And then we both just picked up our phones and started calling, because there was press stuff to do, there were announcements.  He got a tweet out from the government of the Netherlands immediately congratulating ICAN.  One of the only NATO countries that did congratulate ICAN.

I really appreciate that.  It was very nice.  Then we had to run for buses because we were in the boondocks of The Hague, and running for buses.  We totally got on the wrong bus and there’s frantic phone calls.  Calling my director.  Camera crews went to my director’s house to interview him, and we had immediately arranged this big celebration.  We had a nice big party here in our office also, with more camera crews, because we had a wonderful media frenzy.

The headlines were “Nobel Peace Prize comes to Utrecht – a little bit”, which is exactly what it was. And it’s such a great thing because we get to celebrate as a campaign of five hundred organizations in a hundred countries. How many thousands of ICAN campaigners got a note from their high school politics teachers or science professors saying, congratulations?

It’s ours as a group, and it’s such a cool thing.  I’m so proud to be part of it.

Tell us about Don’t Bank on the Bomb and how people can get involved.

So I’ve been working on nuclear weapons for, well, more than half my life now.  And it’s hard work, and it’s very disempowering. Nuclear weapons are the worst weapon that was ever created, and they’re often seen as something only experts, and maybe some select politicians in a few countries have the right to talk about.

I think that’s completely wrong.  So what I wanted to change that.  I wanted to think about a way that everyone can get involved, and we can.  We can talk to politicians, but it’s important for us to think about what we can do personally.  So we decided to do some stuff around the issue of the way nuclear weapons are financed, because people might not know this, but private companies make key components for nuclear weapons, and in order for them to be able to do that, they need financing from banks and pension funds.

People profit from the production of nuclear weapons.  It’s just a little bit surprising, and so we started Don’t Bank on the Bomb, and what Don’t Bank on the Bomb does is it gives everyone a pathway to resist nuclear weapons.

So what we do is we publish information, free and open to anyone, what are the companies that are involved in the production of nuclear weapons?  What are the banks and pension funds, asset managers, insurance companies that provide them with the financing they need? How much?

We make it public.  Not only that, but we also recognize that not everybody is trying to profit from nuclear weapons.  There are some that are actually doing real good, that have really strong policies that say we will not be touched, and we will not let our money touch anything to do with the nuclear bomb.

So we also publish information about those, because people need good examples too.  But the great thing about Don’t Bank on the Bomb is, if you have a bank account, you can do something about nuclear weapons.  You can talk to your bank, and ask them if they have a policy on investment.

If you have a pension fund, is your pension fund profiting from the production of nuclear weapons?  And if they are, why?  You have a right as a consumer.  You have power to do something to change that, and people are.  And as soon as we started publishing this, people started to get nervous.  Their investments were exposed, and we’re shining a light on that, and I think that’s really important, and we’ve seen very positive changes.

It’s not huge, huge, huge, huge numbers of people and massive demonstrations that are making the change, it’s a handful of people writing on the Facebook page of a Bank in Sweden, then catching the eye of somebody in their communications department who sends a message out, “Hey, can we do something?  This is bad PR.”

And then one person in the bank says, “Oh wait, I think we can,” and writes a policy and fixes it.  Ten people can move millions and millions of dollars, and it’s a powerful act, because we keep seeing success.  We keep seeing pension funds like ABP, here in the Netherlands last year, as we’re gearing up and planning for our next step in the campaign, and they just announced, “Oh yeah.  We’re not going to invest in nuclear weapon producers anymore.”

The Norwegian pension fund is the largest in the world.  Trillions, that fund controls.  Nope!  Not touching nuclear weapons anymore.  And they cite different things.  It’s a humanitarian concern, because they’re actually bombs that kill people, or because of pressure from their clients, or because it’s not necessarily the most profitable investment.  There’s other companies you can invest in and make a decent return, or at least they say they just want to do the right thing.

What we’ve seen since the treaty was adopted, though, is that more financial institutions are citing the treaty as a reason to divest, because nuclear weapons will be illegal under international law, and they don’t want to risk being exposed financially to the production of something that’s illegal.

So that’s a great tool.

What impact has the Nobel Peace Prize had on your work?

Well with Don’t Bank on the Bomb, we launched this year’s report in March, and so several months after it had been awarded, the prize and the shine was still on, and it opened a lot of doors for us.  It meant that we could get meetings with vice-presidents at Citigroup and meant that we could get into the world of high finance with this nice, “Hello! We have a Nobel Prize.  Can we talk to you?”

That’s been great.  They haven’t all changed policies yet, but they’re talking to us.  They recognize the concerns.  They’re looking for ways to do the right thing, and again they come back to the treaty. As this treaty enters into force, when nuclear weapons are completely illegal, they see, “Oh yeah governments are also saying, well, so is financing the weapons.  So let’s get ahead of the game.”

Financiers want to be ahead of markets.  So they’re looking. It’s been great, and opening doors, and giving us attention to the issue,

It’s been in a tough year for nuclear weapons in a lot of ways.  There’s been quite a lot more threats.  So the issue’s been in the public eye more than it has in a long time.  I think the Nobel Prize means that our solution to the problem of nuclear weapons: outlaw and eliminate, it’s seen and dealt with as an honest solution and not just some crazy idea of a bunch of people.  This is now a treaty, this is now an option, this is something we can move forward with.

So it helped a lot of ways like that too.

How do the provisions of the treaty help indigenous people?

So in the pathway to produce nuclear weapons, you have manufacturing, we also have testing and development.  And in order to test nuclear weapons, primarily they’ve been tested on the lands of indigenous people, they’ve been tested on the lands of those without power, and that’s deliberate.  Also the key components, the toxic components are always made in communities of colour, and in areas where the people were seen as politically not valuable, not that important.

And so the treaty recognizes the disproportionate impacts that nuclear weapons have had on certain communities, and that they’ve prevented people from attaining their full human rights.

I’m really quite pleased at the language in the treaty on victim-assistance and the recognition of human rights because it gives space for those who have been directly impacted to seek redress from governments, to ask the international community for help.

Last year I went to the Trinity site.  They do an open day, and I’ve been working with nuclear weapons a long time, I’m quite interested in it.  I wanted to see the first place a bomb was ever blown up, and I did.  As we were leaving this site my friend and I saw some people outside with signs, and it was a community group of people who had been affected, physically affected by that very first nuclear weapon explosion.

So we stopped and talked to them and asked the people to tell their stories.  People have been displaced, people had long-term illnesses, lost family members, horrible miscarriages, child deformities, all of these things that we know can be directly tied to nuclear weapons explosions.

And I said, “Well, do you know about this Ban Treaty? About ICAN?”

They said, “Of course we do!  We see ourselves in the treaty.  We see the treaty, too, as a way to help us get all of our human rights, which have been denied to us until now.”

For me that was just amazing.

What is your inspiration?

I’m really and constantly inspired by the people I get to work with, because people who choose to spend their energy on nuclear weapons are not seeking fame and fortune.  They’re seeking to make the world better for themselves and for coming generations.  They’re taking a long view, and they’re doing it with creativity and confidence and dedication and a fierce, fierce determination to do what is right, and what is good.

Sometimes we do make some mistakes, but we learn from them.  So I really draw my inspiration from the community of people I get to work with, my colleagues and their creativity and compassion as well.

Are you an optimistic person?

Yeah, so I did have a child and that did change the way I look at the future.  And it actually made me a bit more pessimistic than I was, because now I have a physical connection to the next generation. In a way, before it was very theoretical, and that said though, I’m optimistic that the good nature of people will win in the end.

It’s amazing. When you talk to a human being, even somebody who defends nuclear weapons in public, you talk to them on a personal level, on a human level, and I say, “Is this really the right thing to do?”

I’d say 98% of the time they’ll agree with you privately that nuclear weapons are insane.  So finding ways to build that confidence so that they can say that publicly.

I know that the good can win through, because if it doesn’t then we’re all doomed, and that’s going to suck.  So I’m kind of an optimist.  I’m very hopeful.

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