The drive to ban nuclear weapons
On December 10, 2017, Beatrice Fihn and Canadian Setsuko Thurlow accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). What follows is an edited version of their remarks when they accepted the award.
Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 39 Issue 1 Spring 2018
Today, it is a great honour to accept the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of thousands of inspirational people who make up the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.
Together we have brought democracy to disarmament and are reshaping international law.
At dozens of locations around the world—in missile silos buried in our earth, on submarines navigating through our oceans, and aboard planes flying high in our sky—lie 15,000 objects of humankind’s destruction. Perhaps it is the enormity of this fact, perhaps it is the unimaginable scale of the consequences that leads many to simply accept this grim reality. To go about our daily lives with no thought to the instruments of insanity all around us.
For it is insanity to allow ourselves to be ruled by these weapons. Many critics of this movement suggest that we are the irrational ones, the idealists with no grounding in reality. That nuclear-armed states will never give up their weapons.
But we represent the only rational choice. We represent those who refuse to accept nuclear weapons as a fixture in our world, those who refuse to have their fates bound up in a few lines of launch code.
Today I want to talk of three things: fear, freedom, and the future.
By the very admission of those who possess them, the real utility of nuclear weapons is in their ability to provoke fear. When they refer to their “deterrent” effect, proponents of nuclear weapons are celebrating fear as a weapon of war. They are puffing their chests by declaring their preparedness to exterminate, in a flash, countless thousands of human lives.
The risk for nuclear weapons use is even greater today than at the end of the Cold War. But unlike the Cold War, today we face many more nuclear armed states, terrorists, and cyber warfare. All of this makes us less safe.
Learning to live with these weapons in blind acceptance has been our next great mistake.
Fear is rational. The threat is real. We have avoided nuclear war not through prudent leadership but good fortune. Sooner or later, if we fail to act, our luck will run out.
Only by being the voice of humanity can we defeat fear; can we help humanity endure. ICAN’s duty is to be that voice. The voice of humanity and humanitarian law; to speak up on behalf of civilians.
We must reclaim the freedom to not live our lives as hostages to imminent annihilation.
Man—not woman!—made nuclear weapons to control others, but instead we are controlled by them. They made us false promises. That by making the consequences of using these weapons so unthinkable it would make any conflict unpalatable. That it would keep us free from war. But far from preventing war, these weapons brought us to the brink multiple times throughout the Cold War. And in this century, these weapons continue to escalate us towards war and conflict, in Iraq, in Iran, in Kashmir, in North Korea. Their existence propels others to join the nuclear race. They don’t keep us safe, they cause conflict.
It’s an affront to democracy to be ruled by these weapons. But they are just weapons. They are just tools. And just as they were created by geopolitical context, they can just as easily be destroyed by placing them in a humanitarian context.
There are hundreds of organisations that together as ICAN are making great strides towards that future. There are thousands of tireless campaigners around the world who work each day to rise to that challenge. There are millions of people across the globe who have stood shoulder to shoulder with those campaigners to show hundreds of millions more that a different future is truly possible.
Those who say that future is not possible need to get out of the way of those making it a reality.
As the culmination of this grassroots effort, through the action of ordinary people, this year the hypothetical marched forward towards the actual as 122 nations negotiated and concluded a UN treaty to outlaw these weapons of mass destruction.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons provides the pathway forward at a moment of great global crisis. It is a light in a dark time. And more than that, it provides a choice.
A choice between the two endings: the end of nuclear weapons or the end of us. All of us face that choice. And I call on every nation to join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
To the nations who believe they are sheltered under the umbrella of nuclear weapons, will you be complicit in your own destruction and the destruction of others in your name? To all nations: choose the end of nuclear weapons over the end of us! This is the choice that the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons represents. Join this Treaty.
Remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki
I speak as a member of the family of hibakusha—those of us who, by some miraculous chance, survived the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For more than seven decades, we have worked for the total abolition of nuclear weapons.
We have stood in solidarity with those harmed by the production and testing of these horrific weapons around the world. People from places with long-forgotten names, like Moruroa, Ekker, Semipalatinsk, Maralinga, Bikini. People whose lands and seas were irradiated, whose bodies were experimented upon, whose cultures were forever disrupted.
We were not content to be victims. We refused to wait for an immediate fiery end or the slow poisoning of our world. We refused to sit idly in terror as the so-called great powers took us past nuclear dusk and brought us recklessly close to nuclear midnight. We rose up. We shared our stories of survival. We said: humanity and nuclear weapons cannot coexist.
Today, I want you to feel in this hall the presence of all those who perished in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I want you to feel, above and around us, a great cloud of a quarter-million souls. Each person had a name. Each person was loved by someone. Let us ensure that their deaths were not in vain.
I was just 13 years old when the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on my city Hiroshima. I still vividly remember that morning. At 8:15, I saw a blinding bluish-white flash from the window. I remember having the sensation of floating in the air.
As I regained consciousness in the silence and darkness, I found myself pinned by the collapsed building. I began to hear my classmates’ faint cries: “Mother, help me. God, help me.”
Then, suddenly, I felt hands touching my left shoulder, and heard a man saying: “Don’t give up! Keep pushing! I am trying to free you. See the light coming through that opening? Crawl towards it as quickly as you can.” As I crawled out, the ruins were on fire. Most of my classmates in that building were burned to death alive. I saw all around me utter, unimaginable devastation.
Processions of ghostly figures shuffled by. Grotesquely wounded people, they were bleeding, burnt, blackened and swollen. Parts of their bodies were missing. Flesh and skin hung from their bones. Some with their eyeballs hanging in their hands. Some with their bellies burst open, their intestines hanging out. The foul stench of burnt human flesh filled the air.
Thus, with one bomb my beloved city was obliterated. Most of its residents were civilians who were incinerated, vaporized, carbonized—among them, members of my own family and 351 of my schoolmates.
Whenever I remember Hiroshima, the first image that comes to mind is of my four-year-old nephew, Eiji—his little body transformed into an unrecognizable melted chunk of flesh. He kept begging for water in a faint voice until his death released him from agony. To me, he came to represent all the innocent children of the world, threatened as they are at this very moment by nuclear weapons. Every second of every day, nuclear weapons endanger everyone we love and everything we hold dear. We must not tolerate this insanity any longer.
We hibakusha became convinced that we must warn the world about these apocalyptic weapons. Time and again, we shared our testimonies. But still some refused to see Hiroshima and Nagasaki as atrocities, as war crimes. They accepted the propaganda that these were “good bombs” that had ended a “just war.” It was this myth that led to the disastrous nuclear arms race—a race that continues to this day.
Nine nations still threaten to incinerate entire cities, to destroy life on Earth, to make our beautiful world uninhabitable for future generations. The development of nuclear weapons signifies not a country’s elevation to greatness, but its descent to the darkest depths of depravity. These weapons are not a necessary evil; they are the ultimate evil.
On the seventh of July this year, I was overwhelmed with joy when a great majority of the world’s nations voted to adopt the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Having witnessed humanity at its worst, I witnessed, that day, humanity at its best. We hibakusha had been waiting for the ban for seventy-two years. Let this be the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons.
All responsible leaders will sign this treaty. And history will judge harshly those who reject it. No longer shall their abstract theories mask the genocidal reality of their practices. No longer shall “deterrence” be viewed as anything but a deterrent to disarmament. No longer shall we live under a mushroom cloud of fear.
To the officials of nuclear-armed nations—and to their accomplices under the so-called “nuclear umbrella”—I say this: Listen to our testimony. Heed our warning. And know that your actions are consequential. You are each an integral part of a system of violence that is endangering humankind. Let us all be alert to the banality of evil.
To every president and prime minister of every nation of the world, I beseech you: Join this treaty; forever eradicate the threat of nuclear annihilation.
© THE NOBEL FOUNDATION, STOCKHOLM, 2017