Q&A: The mounting push for nuclear abolition

Cesar Jaramillo Nuclear Weapons

Cesar Jaramillo

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 35 Issue 3 Autumn 2014

Ploughshares Program Officer Cesar Jaramillo talks with Beatrice Fihn, who is the Executive Director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and based in Geneva.

CJ: Let’s begin with a bit about ICAN. What can you tell us about the primary objectives, strategies, and membership of the campaign?

BF: ICAN is a global campaign coalition working to mobilize people in all countries to inspire, persuade, and pressure their governments to initiate and support negotiations for a treaty banning and eliminating nuclear weapons. Currently, over 380 organisations have joined the campaign, from 94 different countries.

CJ: ICAN supports the pursuit of a ban treaty, even without the participation of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (P5). What do you understand by ‘ban treaty’ in this context?

BF: We don’t have a model treaty, which lays out exactly what a ban would look like in the end. But for ICAN, the ban treaty should be an international, legally binding instrument that will prohibit the use, development, production, stockpiling, and deployment of nuclear weapons.

CJ: Some skeptics argue that without P5 participation the process to achieve a ban treaty is pointless. How would you respond to this type of concern? Are there other benefits to be gained, even if prohibition is not followed by actual elimination?

BF: By just looking at the history of disarmament and arms control treaties, I think it is obvious that treaties matter and have an impact even if they don’t have universal participation. If they didn’t matter, why would you ever need to block anything? The treaties prohibiting other weapons categories, such as the biological weapons convention, the chemical weapons convention, the landmines treaty, or the cluster munitions convention, have all had an impact on states outside the legal regimes.

As we don’t have an explicit legal rejection of nuclear weapons, a treaty banning nuclear weapons would offer states that are concerned about the unacceptable consequences of nuclear weapons the opportunity to formalize a categorical rejection of these weapons by anyone under any circumstances. Such a treaty, even without the nuclear-armed states on board, would enhance the stigma against these weapons, undermine the legitimacy of maintaining and modernizing nuclear arsenals, and would require governments to either continue to support nuclear weapons or reject them entirely. It could be a very powerful tool, even if the nuclear-armed states remained outside.

By contributing to international stigmatization and rejection of these weapons, a treaty banning nuclear weapons can serve as a boost for other ongoing nuclear disarmament and arms control efforts. For example, efforts to prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons would be a lot easier if nuclear weapons were illegal and categorically considered unacceptable weapons.

CJ: There has been some confusion about how the proposed ban relates to the longstanding goal of a Nuclear Weapons Convention. Can you comment on this? Are they complementary? Mutually exclusive? Sequential? Must governments and/or civil society make choices about which process to support or where to expend energy and resources?

BF: To me, a ban treaty and a nuclear weapons convention are the same thing, only the names are different. It is a treaty that will require all states that join it to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons. However, a ban treaty does not have to look like the Model Nuclear Weapons Convention, a draft text originally developed by civil society actors in the 1990s, which had a very detailed account for how elimination could take place and assumed that nuclear-armed states would be a part of the negotiations. While that model has been extremely useful as a campaigning tool and a contribution to the discussion on how to achieve the elimination of nuclear weapons, the actual treaty is going to look different depending on who is a part of the negotiations.

While we hope that nuclear-armed states will join negotiations of a ban treaty, we believe we need to be able to negotiate it even without their participation. I think that a ban treaty without the nuclear-armed states could be quite simple and straightforward, with few technical details on elimination. But obviously once a nuclear-armed state wants to join, it would be necessary to negotiate the details and verification of its stockpile elimination.

I don’t think you need to make any choice about which process to support, especially since negotiations haven’t started yet. Once a treaty negotiation starts, I hope that all of civil society and as many governments as possible will join the efforts to make sure that the treaty is as strong as possible.

CJ: Thinking about the series of international conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons (Oslo, Nayarit, and Vienna) and specific references to this issue in the Final Document of the 2010 NPT Review Conference, what do you believe has been the main takeaway from the humanitarian initiative thus far?

BF: A humanitarian focus means that nuclear weapons are no longer only a topic for technical experts in the arms control community of Washington, DC; new actors, such as humanitarian relief agencies, development agencies, and human rights agencies can engage. It also allows a more global engagement; ICAN has seen tremendous growth in the interest in nuclear weapons from NGOs from developing countries. Finally, it activates non-nuclear-weapon states and gives them a key role in nuclear disarmament efforts. This is a powerful new force that I hope will lead to significant results soon.

CJ: Do you think the renewed attention to the humanitarian impact has influenced public discourse and attitudes about nuclear weapons? How?

BF: I think it has definitely influenced the discourse in the venues where nuclear weapons are being discussed regularly. We’ve seen a huge shift in the way governments and civil society actors talk about nuclear weapons since 2010. But the general public still says very little. There’s a lot of work needed to reach out further, but I think the humanitarian impact discourse is very easy for the public to understand. It’s not a technical deterrence theory argument. It’s based on very practical and simple questions: what would happen to my city if a nuclear bomb detonated here? Which hospital would still be able to receive patients? How would emergency workers be able to provide any meaningful help? The humanitarian angle is very useful for raising public awareness and highlighting what an unacceptable weapon this really is.

CJ: The P5 boycotted the Oslo and Nayarit conferences, and their attendance at the December Vienna conference is uncertain. What do you make of their position? Would you encourage them to attend the Vienna conference? Why?

BF: I think it was a mistake not to attend the first two conferences. First, because they possess the most knowledge about the consequences of a nuclear detonation—they have spent a lot of time testing these weapons to measure just that. But also because I think that their arguments for staying away were seen by even their closest friends as dishonest, signaling an unwillingness to even engage in a discussion. I think the nuclear-weapon states missed an opportunity to engage in dialogue.

I hope they do come to Vienna; I think it would be in their interest. I believe that continued boycotting of these meetings will raise more concerns that they are not serious about their commitments to nuclear disarmament under the NPT.

CJ: Nuclear-dependent states have resisted calls to begin preparatory work for a Nuclear Weapons Convention, arguing that the most pragmatic approach is to take a series of steps, such as the negotiation of a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) or Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) ratification. What is your reaction to this position?

BF: I think FMCT and CTBT ratification would be very helpful and useful steps if they could be achieved. But again, these efforts are mainly focused on the nuclear-armed states; the rest of the world is standing still, waiting for a few states to make up their minds. A ban treaty, even without the participation of nuclear-armed states, would strengthen these steps. Wouldn’t it be much easier to ban the production of material for a weapon, if the actual weapon were prohibited first?

CJ: What are your impressions of the role of international civil society in highlighting the humanitarian dimension of nuclear weapons?

BF: Civil society has been absolutely instrumental in this process. ICAN doesn’t only focus on these multilateral conferences and meetings; our partner organisations are working closely with foreign ministries, parliamentarians, and national emergency relief agencies, with national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, and with media. The impact of this work was shown in New York in October 2013, where 125 states signed a joint statement on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, and in Nayarit, where 146 states showed up and the Chair concluded that the time has come for a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons. Civil society has brought a lot of energy into the ongoing discussions and will now push for concrete action, such as a treaty negotiating a ban on nuclear weapons.

CJ: Are you optimistic? Is there a best-case scenario?

BF: Yes, I’m very optimistic. I think it might take a long time to eliminate all nuclear weapons, but I don’t think prohibiting them needs to be very far off. If civil society continues to engage and mobilize, negotiations could start quite soon. I hope that the Vienna conference will be an opportunity for governments to indicate that they are ready to start negotiating a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons. My hopes are that we will start such a process in 2015.

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