Anti-nuclear weapons group wins Nobel Peace Prize

The nuclear stand-off between the US and North Korea is a "red flag" Keystone

The Geneva-based International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear WeaponsExternal link (ICAN) has been awarded the Nobel Peace PrizeExternal link 2017.

This content was published on October 6, 2017 - 11:37

“The organization is receiving the award for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons,” the Norwegian Nobel Committee said in a statementExternal link on Friday.

ICAN has helped fill a “legal gap” between the proliferation of nuclear weapons and a failure by the international community to prohibit such weapons of mass destruction, the committee said. This is particularly relevant in light of tensions between the United States and North Korea, it added.

ICAN has campaigned actively for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear WeaponsExternal link adopted by the United Nations in July, but which needs ratification from 50 countries. Only three countries have ratified it so far (see infobox below). 

Executive director Beatrice Fihn said the tiny non-governmental group was honoured to receive the prestigious award. 

The prize "sends a message to all nuclear-armed states and all states that continue to rely on nuclear weapons for security that it is unacceptable behaviour. We will not support it, we will not make excuses for it, we can't threaten to indiscriminately slaughter hundreds of thousands of civilians in the name of security. That's not how you build security," she told reporters in Geneva on Friday. 

Fihn said that the group has received a phone call minutes before the official announcement was made that ICAN had won the prize. But she thought it was "a prank" and she didn't believe it until heard the name of the group during the Peace Prize announcement in Oslo.

The prize seeks to strengthen the case for disarmament amid nuclear tensions between Washington and Pyongyang, as well as uncertainty over the fate of the 2015 deal between Iran and major powers to limit Tehran's nuclear programme.

"The belief of some governments that nuclear weapons are a legitimate and essential source of security is not only misguided, but also dangerous, for it incites proliferation and undermines disarmament. All nations should reject these weapons completely – before they are ever used again," ICAN said in a statement. 

"This is a time of great global tension, when fiery rhetoric could all too easily lead us, inexorably, to unspeakable horror. The spectre of nuclear conflict looms large once more. If ever there were a moment for nations to declare their unequivocal opposition to nuclear weapons, that moment is now." 

Swiss reaction

Swiss President Doris Leuthard welcomed the honour for ICAN in a statement released on twitter.

For its part, the Swiss Foreign Ministry hailed ICAN’s "relentless commitment”. The Nobel Peace Prize validated the strong contribution made by civil society to nuclear disarmament and “encourages all those involved to reinforce their common efforts”, it was quoted on the Swiss news agency as saying.

Peter Maurer, the head of the Swiss-run International Committee of the Red Cross, also added his congratulations.

Great base

ICAN describes itself as a coalition of grassroots non-government groups in more than 100 nations aiming to promote implementation and adherence of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. It began in Australia and was officially launched in Vienna in 2007 but now has its headquarters in Geneva. 

“Geneva is a great place to be working as it’s the capital for a lot of disarmament and humanitarian issues which form the basis for this treaty. We have great UN partners here as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). the Geneva Ecumenical Centre and others,” said Fihn. 

The award of the $1.1-million prize means a ‘huge amount’ for the small organisation, which coordinates 468 partner organisations around the world. 

“It will allow us to increase pressure on governments to abolish nuclear weapons,” said Fihn. “We are trying to devalue nuclear weapons and give people rational reasons to cut arsenals and eventually eliminate weapons.”

UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

In July 7, 2017, 122 nations, including Switzerland, adopted a UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. It was signed by 53 UN member states at a ceremony to start the ratification process held at the UN General Assembly on September 20.

The text needs to be signed and ratified by at least 50 countries before coming into effect, a process that could take some time. As of Friday, three - Guyana, the Vatican and Thailand - had done so.

Switzerland will not sign right now, as the Swiss foreign ministry says it is evaluating the text – despite having adopted it, a step that signifies non-binding approval.

The new treaty text requires of all ratifying countries “never under any circumstances to develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices”. It also bans any transfer or use of nuclear weapons or nuclear explosive devices – and the threat to use such weapons. 

Critics say the new treaty is largely symbolic. None of the nine countries known or believed to possess nuclear weapons – the United States, Russia, Britain, China, France, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel – is supporting the treaty. Many of their allies also did not attend the July meeting.

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