The Duck of Minerva

ICAN’s Road to the Nobel Peace Prize

8 December 2017

This is a guest post from Rebecca Gibbons, a Visiting Assistant Professor at Bowdoin College. 

On Sunday, December 10, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) will accept the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for calling attention to the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences” of nuclear use and for promoting the recently adopted Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

This movement grew out of great frustration with a lack of progress on nuclear disarmament through traditional channels such as the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) or the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament. After nuclear weapons possessors in the NPT failed in 2005 to re-commit to disarmament promises they had agreed to previously, a leader from the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War—itself a Nobel Peace Prize winner—sought to found a new umbrella organization devoted to developing a convention against nuclear weapons. He envisioned an international campaign that would operate similar to the one that had banned landmines and suggested calling this new organization the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons with the acronym ICAN. ICAN began in Australia in 2006 and was launched internationally in 2007. In a decade’s time, this group succeeded in pushing forward a multilateral treaty banning nuclear weapons and winning a Nobel Peace Prize. In my research on ICAN, I have identified five reasons for this movement’s success in achieving a nuclear prohibition treaty earlier this year.

1.       A cooperative relationship with committed diplomats

In the 2000s, ICAN members were not the only ones frustrated with the slow pace of nuclear disarmament. A group of committed diplomats from a handful of middle power countries worked together with ICAN and other civil society partners to pursue novel paths toward nuclear disarmament. Significantly, some of these governments, including Norway, Switzerland, and Austria, provided funding to support these efforts. They funded reports, meetings, and conferences related to nuclear disarmament and the humanitarian effects of nuclear use. Norway, Mexico, and Austria each hosted well-attended international conferences on the humanitarian effects of nuclear weapons. In addition, diplomats from South Africa, New Zealand, Nigeria, and Ireland worked together at various times with civil society partners to push the movement forward.

2.      An influx of new coalition members

After the Convention on Cluster Munitions was firmly in place in the early 2010s, many of the advocates involved in promoting that treaty turned their attention toward nuclear disarmament. These experienced activists and experts—some of whom had also worked on the successful campaign to ban anti-personnel landmines—swelled ICAN’s ranks and brought additional experience to the movement. Original ICAN members provided knowledge and experience on nuclear weapons and nuclear disarmament, while new advocates brought energy and expertise from their previous campaigns.

3.      Promoting a new narrative around nuclear weapons

The devastating humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons became the movement’s prominent frame for talking about nuclear weapons; this narrative catalyzed the movement toward the adoption of a treaty in 2017. The movement presented information on the potentially catastrophic impact of nuclear weapons at three humanitarian conferences in 2013 and 2014. While the Norwegian, Mexican, and Austrian governments hosted these conferences, ICAN operated as the civil society partner for two of them and lobbied for states to participate in all three. 128 states participated in the first conference in March 2013. 158 participated in the final conference in December 2014. At the conferences, participants learned about the effects of nuclear weapons on the human body, the food chain, the economy and the climate. According to advocates, this research helped bring additional states into the movement, as it illustrated that a nuclear exchange would have ramifications beyond the states directly involved.

4.      ICAN’s persistent advocacy

ICAN provided persistent pressure on states to become involved in the humanitarian movement and the 2017 treaty negotiations. In the past five years, ICAN staff and volunteers were present at every major multilateral meeting related to nuclear weapons and disarmament to educate states on ICAN’s goals and to ask for support. They lobbied for states to attend the three humanitarian conferences; to include language within NPT documents on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons; to sign on to a “humanitarian pledge” to pursue a legal mechanism for eliminating nuclear weapons; and to vote in favor of UN resolutions establishing working groups and formal negotiations on a nuclear ban treaty. ICAN’s advocacy also benefited from the involvement of scores of young people. ICAN’s savvy use of social media and electronic communications to connect its vast network of advocates is a testament to the contributions of a new generation of nuclear disarmament advocates.

5.      The role of the Obama administration

Lastly, the context provided by the Obama administration played a significant role in the success of ICAN’s advocacy. After President Obama’s 2009 Prague speech, in which he set out a vision for “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” many nuclear disarmament advocates were optimistic that significant change was possible. The Obama administration’s inability to make progress on disarmament following New START (due to a lack of Russian interest) and its commitment to a vast nuclear modernization program greatly disappointed disarmament advocates. This perceived failure helped galvanize the movement toward seeking a nuclear ban treaty with or without the participation of the nuclear weapons states. The fact that the five official nuclear weapons states within the NPT decided in tandem to boycott the first humanitarian conference in Oslo in 2013 also bolstered the case of those who sought to pursue this course without nuclear weapons states. With these states absent from treaty negotiations, it became much easier to draft a treaty.