M V Ramana and Zia Mian


In July 2017, 122 countries adopted the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. To mark this historic achievement, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, in recognition of its work over the past decade to make this treaty possible. This article reflects on the nuclear disarmament activism that led up to the formation of ICAN and the new treaty, and the challenges this now poses to the nuclear weapon states.


This year’s Nobel Peace Prize … is an award to the most diverse and intersectional grassroots antinuclear movement the world has ever seen. It is an award for peace, dialogue, and international law. It is an award to courage.


— Ray Acheson, Member of International Steering Group, ICAN (Acheson 2017: 4).


The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize “for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its groundbreaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons.” Both of these are significant achievements, especially the latter. Proposals to eliminate nuclear weapons started almost as soon as nuclear weapons were first exploded. The very first resolution of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) First Committee on international security from 1946 called for proposals for “the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction” (UNODA 1946). Nevertheless, there has not been an international treaty that legally prohibits nuclear weapons.


That changed in July 2017, when 122 countries voted at the United Nations (UN) to adopt the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (or the Ban Treaty) (AFP 2017). On 20 September, the treaty was opened for signature to all states at the UN. Within days, 53 countries signed the treaty; three ratified it. Upon ratification by at least 50 countries, the treaty will make it illegal for its signatories to, among other things, develop, produce, test, possess, use, threaten to use, or transfer nuclear weapons. The treaty fills an important legal gap, namely, the absence of a prohibition on the most destructive of weapons, when other means of mass destruction, such as chemical and biological weapons, are prohibited by international treaties.


The efforts by nuclear weapon states to dismiss the Ban Treaty as futile, or worse, perverse are very much in line with a long history of rhetorical opposition to any effort to overturn a world order in which these states see advantage rather than a danger to humanity (Pelopidas 2014).


Short History of the Ban Treaty and ICAN


The origins of the Ban Treaty go back about a decade, when a number of disarmament activists got together to start a campaign to resuscitate efforts to move towards a nuclear weapon–free future. During the 1990s, there had been some developments aimed at furthering nuclear disarmament, most notably the negotiation of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), the international agreement banning explosive nuclear weapons tests, which was originally proposed in 1954 by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. But, since the CTBT was negotiated in 1996, there had not been a single multilateral nuclear treaty for nearly a decade when ICAN was initiated.


Lack of action on disarmament by the five nuclear weapon states recognised by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was also an important driver for frustration amongst those seeking the elimination of nuclear weapons. This was what drove an immediate forerunner of ICAN, Abolition 2000, a global network of anti-nuclear, peace, and justice groups founded in 1995 in New York on the margins of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review and Extension?Conference?(Abolition 2000[2017]). Its goal was to mobilise public opinion and to work with states to begin talks and agree to a treaty to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons, also known as a nuclear weapons convention (the authors are members of the global council of Abolition 2000). It grew to include over 2,000 groups in over 90 countries and among its achievements was a Model Nuclear Weapons Convention (MNWC) that was submitted as an official UN document in 1997 (UNGA 1997).


The MNWC prefigured key parts of the 2017 Ban Treaty. It banned the “development, testing, production, stockpiling, transfer, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons.” States with nuclear weapons were required to verifiably eliminate their arsenals. It also was framed explicitly in a humanitarian ethos by the preamble of the convention:


Convinced that the existence of nuclear weapons poses a threat to all humanity and that their use would have catastrophic consequences for all the creatures of this Earth; Noting that the destructive effects of nuclear weapons upon life on earth are uncontrollable whether in time or space. (UNGA 1997)


Despite the widespread support for the MNWC from several countries and sections of civil society, the initiative did not translate into an international treaty. In 2005, Ron McCoy from Malaysia, a former co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), which in 1985 had won a Nobel Prize for “spreading authoritative information and by creating an awareness of the catastrophic consequences of atomic warfare,” proposed the idea of ICAN as part of his advocacy for “lateral thinking and a new approach to nuclear disarmament.” This led, eventually, to a coalition of civil society groups forming ICAN in 2007. The ICAN leadership included activists from Abolition 2000.


ICAN emphasised the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons use and testing right from its early days. ICAN also drew upon the 1996 advisory opinion offered by the International Court of Justice (or World Court) that “the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law” (Burroughs 1998). The Court based this opinion on the unique destructive potential of nuclear weapons and the indiscriminate nature of their effects.


Another motivation for ICAN’s focus on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons was the use of similar arguments in the campaigns for treaties to ban cluster munitions and, especially, anti-personnel landmines. Those campaigns featured evidence of immense human suffering caused by the deployment and use of landmines and cluster munitions.


One of the organisations involved in those campaigns, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), also turned its attention to nuclear weapons. In 2010, its president stated that the ICRC found “it difficult to envisage how any use of nuclear weapons could be compatible with the rules of international humanitarian law” (Kellenberger 2010). This was followed by three major conferences on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons—in Oslo, Norway in March 2013, in Nayarit, Mexico in February 2014, and in Vienna, Austria in December 2014—all of which involved discussions about the catastrophic global consequences of using nuclear weapons, including the potential effects on the climate of even a limited nuclear war.


The process picked up strength as more countries joined in. At the Vienna Conference, officials from 158 countries attended. The host nation, Austria, invited countries to sign the Humanitarian Pledge resolution at the UNGA the following year, and obtained support from 150 states (ICAN 2014). The resolution called upon countries “to identify and pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.” This was followed in 2016 with the UNGA establishing an Open-ended Working Group that recommended the commencement of negotiations of a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons. Those negotiations began in March 2017 and were successfully completed in July.


Disarmament Movements, the Public and Nuclear Weapon States


ICAN follows in the footsteps of generations of disarmament and abolition activists. Among the first of these was Albert Einstein and the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists that he helped set up in Princeton, New Jersey, in May 1946, less than a year after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States (US). Writing on behalf of the Committee, Einstein (1947) proposed a campaign to educate and organise the public as the only way to achieve the abolition of nuclear weapons, declaring


Through the release of atomic energy, our generation has brought into the world the most revolutionary force since prehistoric man’s discovery of fire. This basic power of the universe cannot be fitted into the outmoded concept of narrow nationalisms. For there is no secret and there is no defense; there is no possibility of control except through the aroused understanding and insistence of the peoples of the world.


We scientists recognise our inescapable responsibility to carry to our fellow citizens an understanding of the simple facts of atomic energy and its implications for society. In this lies our only security and our only hope—we believe that an informed citizenry will act for life and not for death.


This understanding and hope in the power of the “aroused understanding and insistence of the peoples of the world” was reflected in ICAN’s statement upon receiving notice of the Nobel Peace Prize:


This prize is a tribute to the tireless efforts of many millions of campaigners and concerned citizens worldwide who, ever since the dawn of the atomic age, have loudly protested nuclear weapons, insisting that they can serve no legitimate purpose and must be forever banished from the face of our earth. (ICAN 2017)


Although persistent and long-standing, movements opposed to nuclear weapons have waxed and waned, usually gaining in strength during those times when the nuclear peril seems greater. In South Asia, for example, the anti-nuclear peace movement was strongest in the first few years after the nuclear weapon tests conducted by India and Pakistan in May 1998, when the region saw the first small-scale war between two nuclear armed powers over Kargil in 1999 and a massive border confrontation involving hundreds of thousands of troops in 2001–02. This period saw legions of civil society groups coalescing to form the Pakistan Peace Council and India’s Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (Bidwai 2000). It saw protests, citizen activism, media coverage of nuclear issues, and, quite possibly, greater government willingness to curb some of the wilder nuclear ambitions of hawkish strategists in both countries.


Public attention to nuclear weapons has since declined as other concerns, more immediate and pressing, have taken precedence. Details about nuclear weapons—how many there are, where they are kept, plans for using these, and so on—are held secret for the most part. Physically too, they are hidden from the public gaze. Under such circumstances, it is not surprising that civil society does not often engage in debates over nuclear weapons.


Through what the Swedish diplomat and 1982 Nobel Peace Prize winner Alva Myrdal (1977) called the “high rhetoric about the goal of disarmament,” where great powers go on “talking disarmament while relentlessly building up their own armaments”, nuclear weapon states have also learnt to mislead the public. The US has the longest history of such disarmament posturing. Despite countless commitments to nuclear disarmament since 1946, and former President Barack Obama’s famous 2009 declaration in Prague of “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” the US launched in 2010 a massive 30-year modernisation of its entire nuclear arsenal, currently comprising about 4,000 weapons (Mian 2010).


President Putin in Russia is no different. In October 2017, Putin declared:


Should you ask me if nuclear disarmament is possible, I will tell you “Yes, it is possible.” Does Russia wish to achieve universal nuclear disarmament or not? The answer is in the affirmative, too. “Yes, it does, and it will be working for it.” (TASS 2017)


At the same time, Russia is engaged in expensive modernisation efforts that seek to ensure that its nuclear arsenal of some 4,300 weapons, already capable of massive destruction, remains usable for many more decades. Britain, France, and China are doing the same.


India and Pakistan, for the two decades since their nuclear weapons tests in 1998, have continued to build up their stockpiles of nuclear weapons and ways of delivering these weapons of mass destruction (Ramana and Mian 2008). The arms race between the two countries has involved ballistic and cruise missiles, submarines, and aggressive war plans. At the UNGA in December 2016, both countries abstained on the resolution to begin the talk on the Ban Treaty and couched it in the “high rhetoric about the goal of disarmament.” India’s explanation of its vote included the claim, with Pakistan echoing this deception:


India attaches the highest priority to nuclear disarmament and shares with the co-sponsors the widely felt frustration that the international community has not been able to take forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations. We also share the deep concern about the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons. (Singh 2016)


Pakistan remains committed to the achievement of a nuclear weapons-free world through the conclusion of a universal, verifiable and non-discriminatory, comprehensive convention on nuclear weapons to prohibit their possession, development, production, acquisition, testing, stockpiling, transfer, use or threat of use and to provide for their destruction. (Foreign Office 2016)


Fine words, but all the effort is devoted to building up the arsenal.


None of the nine countries armed with nuclear weapons showed up for the negotiations, nor, with the exception of the Netherlands (which voted against the treaty), did any of their military allies. None have signed on to the Ban Treaty. Their commitment to nuclear disarmament was put to the test, and all failed.


There is plenty of evidence that nuclear weapon states are very concerned about the Ban Treaty and the possibility that its adoption would undermine their continued possession of nuclear weapons. The US has pressed its allies to block the Ban Treaty. In October 2016, the United States Mission to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) circulated a “non-paper,” which stated that the effects of a nuclear weapons ban treaty could be wide-ranging and degrade enduring security relationships. Allies and partners should not underestimate the breadth of potential impacts across security relationships or their potential to grow more severe over time. (United States 2016)


Clearly, the US fears the Ban Treaty may pose a growing long-term challenge to its nuclear policies.


The Ban Treaty provides various mechanisms for increasing pressure on the nuclear weapon states to get rid of their means of mass destruction. How successful this pressure will be remains to be seen. To start with, the treaty creates the obligation, under Article 12, for signatories to practise disarmament diplomacy by mandating that “[e]ach State Party shall encourage States not party to this Treaty to ratify, accept, approve or accede to the Treaty, with the goal of universal adherence of all States to the Treaty” (Mian 2017). If Ban Treaty states follow this injunction, they must seek new kinds of official and public engagement with peace movements and civil society and governments in weapons states. For their part, peace groups in nuclear weapon states must reach out to Ban Treaty states. To be sure, there will be opposition, and to prevail against such opposition, states party to the Ban Treaty will need to hold together and expand their coalition and keep working with civil society groups (Mian 2017).




At a time when, in the Korean peninsula, we are, perhaps, the closest to the possibility of nuclear war since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the significance of the Ban Treaty and the awarding of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize to ICAN can scarcely be overstated. They testify to the fundamental importance and effectiveness of citizens from around the world taking responsibility and working together to drive progress on issues that confront communities, countries and the world as a whole when governments and business-as-usual politics have fallen short. It has taken 70 years, but the “aroused understanding and insistence of the peoples of the world” has taken humanity one step closer to finally ending the danger posed by the existence of nuclear weapons.


M V Ramana ( is the Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security at the Liu Institute for Global Issues, University of British Columbia. Zia Mian ( is co-director of the Program on Science and Global Security at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University. has references.

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