Just over one year ago, nuclear disarmament advocates in North America woke up to thrilling news: the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) had won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. A quick phone call from the committee to the campaign’s executive director, Beatrice Fihn, in Geneva and then a public announcement and our work forever changed.
Earlier in the year, in July, ICAN had achieved one of its longest held goals —122 states adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). A couple of months later, in September, the treaty opened for signature. Being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize showed that these efforts had not only been noticed but were appreciated.
ICAN’s Nobel year was a whirlwind. The Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo was just the start of a whole new platform for the organization, which was founded in 2007 and now represents several hundred non-governmental organizations in one hundred countries advocating for nuclear disarmament. All of a sudden, campaigners were being invited to speak in rooms that had previously been closed to us and former skeptics were immensely supportive.
Campaigners from around the world used the momentum from the Nobel to push for signatures and ratifications of the TPNW. Campaigners took a replica of “Alfred,” as the medal was affectionately called, after the prize’s founder, to the United Nations, to conferences and meetings, around the world with PeaceBoat, a Japanese NGO that organizes global voyages to promote peace and sustainable development (including a stop in Halifax, Nova Scotia), on a bicycle ride from Melbourne to Canberra in Australia, and into parliaments, universities and communities still living with the effects of nuclear weapons use and testing. With “Alfred” came a strong message that nuclear weapons threaten us all so all states must sign and ratify the TPNW. States heard this message and throughout the year we saw new signatures and ratifications almost monthly.
Perhaps more importantly, people heard this message — amplified to a greater degree than it would have been without the Nobel boost — and started to speak out. Here in Canada, hundreds of people signed petitions and a people’s treaty calling on the Government of Canada to sign the TPNW. Citizen action in the United States resulted in city and state governments publicly supporting the treaty and calling on the American government to do the same. Hundreds of parliamentarians from around the world endorsed ICAN’s Parliamentary Pledge. Ordinary people around the world called out their financial institutions for investing in nuclear weapons production, resulting in new policies at banks. This Nobel year was not a time to celebrate our achievements, it was a time to push forward and move the campaign closer to all its goals.
ICAN was not the first humanitarian disarmament campaign to win the Nobel Peace Prize and we hope it will not be the last. Exactly 20 years before, in 1997, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) was awarded the prize, along with its coordinator, Jody Williams. The ICBL spent the 20 years since its Nobel year working tirelessly to bring more countries on board the Ottawa Treaty banning landmines, to build the norms against these indiscriminate weapons and to ensure that the treaty is implemented effectively. Now there are 164 countries that have joined the Ottawa Treaty, the norm against the use of landmines is so strong that 2016 only saw two states use landmines, and thousands of kilometres of land have been cleared of landmines.
Like the ICBL, ICAN ended its Nobel year stronger and more focused. ICAN is moving forward with an unwavering commitment to gaining the 50 ratifications needed for the TPNW to enter into force and become binding international law. At the time of writing, there are 69 signatories and 19 ratifications, with more expected in the coming weeks.
Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege, the 2018 Nobel laureates, are just beginning their Nobel year. I hope that they will see a similar increase in attention to their work to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict. By recognizing two individuals who have devoted their lives to this fight, the Nobel Committee has amplified the message of helpers like Mukwege and of survivors like Murad that sexual violence as a weapon of war is unacceptable and constitutes a war crime. For too long the harm caused by sexual violence has been kept in the shadows, shrouded by shame. This year, Murad and Mukwege have a global spotlight to shine on efforts to prevent these war crimes, on the strength of survivors, and on the need for justice. May that light continue to shine after their Nobel year.
ICAN’s Nobel year, like the ICBL’s one two decades ago, highlighted a simple fact — that campaigns of committed individuals and organizations united by a shared goal can and do change the world. These campaigns made up of humanitarians, teachers, lawyers, doctors, faith leaders, students, retirees, survivors, artists and others were recognized with this prestigious prize because collectively they were able to shift the conversation about weapons and achieve global bans on indiscriminate weapons. Ordinary people truly do have an extraordinary impact, and we are just getting started.