On Dec. 10, the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize will be awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, a coalition of 468 partner organizations in 101 countries. It was selected to receive the prize 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 award is a momentous achievement for an organization that was only created in 2007.
Since its formation, ICAN has focused on the “legal gap” concerning nuclear weapons. Other weapons that kill indiscriminately, such as biological and chemical weapons, land mines and cluster munitions, have been banned by international treaties. Nuclear weapons were not until this year, when 122 countries voted at the United Nations to adopt the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
The campaign to create this treaty began with a renewed focus on the catastrophic humanitarian impact of the use of nuclear weapons. By 2013, Norway hosted the first ever intergovernmental conference on this issue. Relief organizations from many parts of the world warned that they would be powerless to respond effectively in the aftermath of a nuclear attack. Furthermore, the indiscriminate killing of civilians, inevitable in a nuclear attack, constitutes a violation of the fourth Geneva Convention and therefore amounts to a war crime. In 2014, two additional conferences in Mexico City and Vienna further solidified global support for a legally binding treaty governing nuclear weapons. Finally, in 2017, the treaty was adopted; it opened for signatures on Sept. 20. So far, 53 countries have signed the treaty and three have already ratified it.
The treaty prohibits countries from developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, transferring, possessing, stockpiling, using or threatening to use nuclear weapons, or allowing nuclear weapons to be stationed on their territory. It also bars them from assisting, encouraging or inducing others to engage in any of these prohibited activities.
Countries armed with nuclear weapons must, upon joining the treaty, commit to destroy their stockpiles in accordance with a legally binding, time-bound plan. Countries that host an ally’s nuclear weapons on their territory must remove them by a specified deadline. The treaty also obliges its parties to provide assistance to people who have suffered as a result of the use and testing of nuclear weapons around the world, and to take measures to remediate contaminated environments.
The process of nuclear disarmament is to be supervised by a competent international agency, assisted by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has a solid record of supervising such processes as part of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Although the treaty does not specify coordination between nuclear powers, it seems obvious that the process of nuclear disarmament will proceed in stages negotiated among the nuclear powers. The verification by a third party is therefore crucial to assure that these reductions take place in a coordinated manner.
The treaty represents the best hope yet to rid the world of the threat and scourge of nuclear war. For too long we have lived with that threat. It is time that these weapons be destroyed. Elimination is the only way we can assure that they won’t be used again. The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to ICAN is a reminder that we all are responsible for the future of our planet. It will take sustained work to convince our national leadership to make the U.S. a signatory to this treaty. Let’s commit to that work.
Hiroshima survivor Setsuko Thurlow said it best, “To the leaders of countries around the world, I beseech you: if you love this planet, you will sign this treaty.”
— Michael Niemann of Ashland is an author and adjunct professor of international studies at Southern Oregon University.