It’s hard winning a Nobel Peace Prize in the fast-paced internet age. When the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) won the award in 2017 for its leading role in getting the United Nations to adopt the world’s first treaty to ban nuclear weapons, sudden name recognition and a frenzy of media attention followed. “Nobody even knew who we were before that,” admits Beatrice Fihn, the Swedish activist who serves as ICAN’s executive director. Once they did, the expectations were intense. “Two months after Oslo, people said, ‘Well, that didn’t lead anywhere. You haven’t disarmed a single country yet!’” says Fihn. The media swarm moved elsewhere. “It was pretty disorienting. But we didn’t win the prize by being in the spotlight.”
They really didn’t. ICAN is a coalition of roughly 550 nongovernmental organizations in 100 countries helping to promote the treaty, administered and governed by the UN, and build public support for the abolition of nuclear weapons. But the team coordinating that work is tiny—only a handful of people toiling in a modest office in Geneva, Switzerland. Fihn, now 37, is one of the oldest on staff. “No celebrities, no powerful politicians,” she says. “Just a bunch of 30-year-olds taking on the biggest countries in the world.”
Being millennials may explain their ability to spark global action around nuclear weapons eradication like the world hasn’t seen in decades. ICAN has brought fresh eyes and fresh energy to a problem that has long plagued disarmament activists: how to transform public and political disengagement into active support for abolition. But their success also has a lot to do with Fihn herself. The ICAN head isn’t interested in just drumming up support for the eradication of nuclear weapons. Rather, she wants to knock the foundation out from under the argument that they have any place in the world, rendering support for them nonsensical.
“The actual problem is that people still think these are valuable weapons. So you have to attack the basic, fundamental part of it,” Fihn says. “Is it acceptable to threaten to mass-murder civilians? No, it’s not. It’s crazy.” For Fihn, challenging that acceptability is the key to sparking new movement around the issue. And the best way to do that, she says, is to make nuclear weapons a humanitarian issue rather than a geopolitical one, shifting the inhumanity of these weapons to the center of the nuclear debate. “When you explain what these weapons do,” says Fihn, “suddenly they make no sense.”
“the actual problem is that people still think these are valuable weapons. so you have to attack the basic, fundamental part of it.”
ICAN isn’t the first organization to set its sights on drawing global attention to nuclear weapons’ catastrophic human consequences. But the ICAN campaign has been particularly, even singularly, effective at expanding the audience of people who are listening. They’ve drawn new attention not just to the fallout from Hiroshima and Nagasaki but to the human impacts of the thousands of nuclear test explosions that have taken place around the world since, as well as the continued health and environmental threats posed by unstable nuclear waste. In the age of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, they’ve also managed to connect their campaign with other social movements that share a common cause. “Nuclear weapons are another example of the powerful forcing something on people without power,” says Fihn.
She thinks that how nuclear weapons have been talked about until now has made them easier to accept—and she doesn’t read that as an accident. “There’s been an intentional creation of a conversation on nuclear weapons that excludes regular people, so that if you’re not a 60-year-old white security expert, and if you don’t know all the acronyms and all the details, it’s too complicated for you, so don’t even bother,” Fihn says. Telling human stories helps people see nuclear weapons as what they are—not magic, just weapons. “They aren’t a strategy. They aren’t a security theory,” she says. “They’re just big, radioactive bombs that mass-murder civilians, which means they violate the laws of war. And what do we do with weapons that violate the laws of war? We ban them.”
This human-centered framing also helps puncture another myth—that global security somehow relies on nuclear weapons. “It moves deterrence from a theory into a scenario,” says Fihn. “Are they saying that my country’s strategy is to use me and my family and my city as a human shield for their security? I’m basically deterrence. It’s putting up your own civil population and saying, ‘I dare you to wipe out my cities because then I’ll wipe out your cities.’ Are we comfortable with that?” Adds Fihn: “The whole point of the campaign and the whole point of the treaty is to create something new in this field by reasoning with people.”