A Nobel Peace Prize. Now What?

ICAN nabbed the Nobel in 2017 for its work to establish a global nuclear weapons ban treaty. But executive director Beatrice Fihn has her eye on a bigger prize—making nuclear weapons impossible.

Jenny Johnston / June 27, 2019

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.”

ICAN campaigners celebrate.
Courtesy of ICAN, credit Ralf Schlesener

In 2013 and 2014, ICAN convened a series of conferences on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear detonations. Those conferences led to UN treaty negotiations, then to 122 countries voting in favor of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Since then, 70 countries have taken the next step to become signatories on the treaty—despite ongoing pressure by the nuclear weapons states, which have been working hard to stop the treaty’s progress. “Oh, they are furious,” says Fihn. Each country that signs the treaty then has to ratify it—a bureaucratic process involving parliaments, debate, and domestic legislation that can sometimes take years. But ratifications keep trickling in every month. So far, 23 countries have ratified the treaty. When that hits 50, it will become binding international law.


 “THE WHOLE POINT OF THE CAMPAIGN AND THE WHOLE POINT OF THE TREATY IS TO CREATE SOMETHING NEW IN THE FIELD BY REASONING WITH PEOPLE.”


There is still ample resistance to the treaty—and even to the argument that we need one. “I’m always told by serious men that I’m being too emotional or too irrational,” Fihn says, not just for focusing on the human costs of nuclear weapons but for wanting to eradicate them at all. “If you’re in favor of weapons, you’re automatically assumed to be strong and rational, whereas negotiations and diplomacy are weak. I think that’s very gender coded and extremely dangerous.” Before the Trump era, Fihn sometimes had trouble getting people to see that coding—or, relatedly, how nuclear weapons have come to serve as a proxy for male power run rampant. “People would say, ‘I don’t see the gender perspective,’” says Fihn. “And then Trump says, ‘My button is bigger than yours.’ And they were like, ‘Oh, yeah, I can see it now.’”

One of Fihn’s best counterpunches? Methodically exposing the companies involved in producing nuclear weapons, then making them answer for it. “There is a lot of big money in keeping nuclear going,” says Fihn—some $116 billion in government contracts to private companies at last count, according to ICAN’s latest annual Don’t Bank on the Bomb report. And it’s not just the usual suspects. Honeywell, known for its air conditioners and kitchen appliances, is on the list. So are Airbus, Boeing, and Bechtel. Many customers and investors have no idea that their dollars are helping fund nuclear weapons.

“That’s the plan, to make it controversial,” Fihn says. “If we talk publicly about them helping create weapons of mass destruction meant to murder civilians and wipe out whole cities, then it becomes really uncomfortable to defend that investment.” In some cases, the exposure has forced companies to change course. ICAN has also helped pressure pension funds to divest from nuclear weapons producers—including the largest fund in the Netherlands, which previously had $1 billion invested in these companies. “Cut off the resources, make it harder,” explains Fihn. “We have to stigmatize every part of it.”

Beatrice Fihn (in blue) speaking to Tribeca Disruptors in May 2019.
Courtesy of ICAN, credit Eric Espino

Fihn’s not worried what enraged executives think about her full-court-press tactics. Or what Donald Trump and Justin Trudeau think about them either. “In the arms control movement, we’ve been so focused on the top, thinking that we just need the right arguments to convince the right leader, and that’s not how change happens,” says Fihn. “They’re never going to do the right thing. It’s difficult to do the right thing.” What compels leaders to act, she thinks, is culture shift. “With same-sex marriage, you could almost never believe that could happen a couple years ago, but now it is the new norm,” Fihn explains. “When norms shift, politicians follow. Suddenly it just tumbles and then people don’t accept anything else but change.”


“THERE’S NOT GOING TO BE A MAGIC FIX. WE JUST HAVE TO TAKE SMALL STEPS OVER AND OVER AGAIN, LOOKING FOR NEW OPPORTUNITIES AND THEN MOVING THERE.”


Provoking that kind of tumble, she says, will require a groundswell of public support for denuclearization. “Those in power stand no chance against the people when the people actually want something. So we have to get people to want this,” says Fihn. Every march, protest, and divestment matters, she says. So does city- and state-level legislation banning nuclear weapons, which is on the rise, and continued international campaigning for the UN ban treaty. When Fihn was growing up in Sweden in the 1980s, niche campaigns like Doctors Against Nuclear Weapons and Nurses Against Nuclear Weapons were springing up everywhere. “They even had Hairdressers Against Nuclear Weapons,” she says. It’s the kind of attitude and organizing Fihn wants to help stimulate and re-inspire now, in this new age. She also sees artists and other creatives as vital to creating culture shift, and hopes to work with more of them. Recently, a Japanese gardener contacted Fihn. He’d bred a new rose, named it ICAN, and planted in the Hiroshima rose garden, as both a project and a protest. “I love that,” says Fihn. “It’s that feeling that whoever you are, whatever your profession, you can do something about this issue.”

Fihn admits that this work can feel slow and hopeless some days. “There’s not going to be a magic fix,” she says. “We just have to take small steps over and over again, looking for new opportunities and then moving there.” But endurance has its rewards. “It feels we’re losing big battles, but we’re winning so many battles as well,” adds Fihn. “Yes, things are really bad in the United States, but St. Lucia just signed the treaty, and that’s amazing.”

A happy next decade for Fihn? Getting a majority of countries to sign the ban treaty, including a few NATO countries, and maybe seeing one or two states rid themselves of nuclear weapons. But even then, she says, her work wouldn’t be done. “To be honest, I’m not one of those people who thinks this issue is the most important in the world. Because for me this is not about nuclear weapons. It’s about equality and justice.” And there is no end to the struggles she could join on that front. “I’d tackle another easy issue,” Fihn jokes. “There are so many fights.”


Top photo: Courtesy of ICAN, credit Jo Straube; Cover photo: Courtesy of ICAN, credit Eric Espino

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