Podcast: UN Nuclear Weapons Ban with Beatrice Fihn and Susi Snyder
Last October, the United Nations passed a historic resolution to begin negotiations on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. Previous nuclear treaties have included the Test Ban Treaty, and the Non-Proliferation Treaty. But in the 70 plus years of the United Nations, the countries have yet to agree on a treaty to completely ban nuclear weapons. The negotiations will begin this March. To discuss the importance of this event, I interviewed Beatrice Fihn and Susi Snyder. Beatrice is the Executive Director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, also known as ICAN, where she is leading a global campaign consisting of about 450 NGOs working together to prohibit nuclear weapons. Susi is the Nuclear Disarmament Program Manager for PAX in the Netherlands, and the principal author of the Don’t Bank on the Bomb series. She is an International Steering Group member of ICAN.
The following interview has been heavily edited for brevity, but you can listen to it in its entirety above or read the full transcript here.
This podcast was edited by Tucker Davey.
Note from FLI: Among our objectives is to inspire discussion and a sharing of ideas. As such, we interview researchers and thought leaders who we believe will help spur discussion within our community. The interviews do not necessarily represent FLI’s opinions or views.
ARIEL: I’m Ariel Conn with the Future of Life Institute. Last October, the United Nations passed a historic resolution to begin negotiations on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. Previous nuclear treaties have included the Test Ban Treaty, and the Non-Proliferation Treaty. But in the 70 plus years of the United Nations, the countries have yet to agree on a treaty to completely ban nuclear weapons. The negotiations will begin this March. To discuss the importance of this event, I have with me Beatrice Fihn and Susi Snyder. Beatrice is the Executive Director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, also known as ICAN, where she is leading a global campaign consisting of about 450 NGOs working together to prohibit nuclear weapons.
Susi Snyder is the Nuclear Disarmament Program Manager for PAX in the Netherlands, and the principal author of the Don’t Bank on the Bomb series. She is an International Steering Group member of ICAN.
Susi and Beatrice, thank you both so much for being here with me today.
BEATRICE: Thank you.
SUSI: Yeah, thanks Ariel. Great to be here.
ARIEL: So, the first thing I want to ask, and, Beatrice, I kind of want to start with you because I know you spearheaded much, if not all, of this effort. What is the ban? What will it cover? What’s going to be prohibited? And Susi, I’d love to have you weigh in as well.
BEATRICE: Sure, thanks a lot Ariel. And it’s really great to be here. So, it sounds a little bit counterintuitive, but nuclear weapons is really the only weapon of mass destruction that is not prohibited by an international treaty. And we prohibited not just chemical weapons and biological weapons, but also other weapons with indiscriminate, inhumane impacts on civilians—such as landmines and cluster munitions—but nuclear weapons are still legal for some. And that makes it really, really important that we correct this issue. So, what we’ve been doing in ICAN and together with organizations like the ICRC and many governments is to work to ensure that nuclear weapons are prohibited.
As you mentioned earlier, last October governments finally agreed to start these negotiations. So we’re hoping that this treaty will be a very clear-cut prohibition; that nuclear weapons are illegal because of the humanitarian consequences that they cause if used. And it should include things like using nuclear weapons, possessing nuclear weapons, transferring nuclear weapons, assisting with those kind of things. And basically, a very straightforward treaty that makes it clear that, under international law, nuclear weapons are unacceptable.
ARIEL: Okay. And Susi, did you have anything that you wanted to add?
SUSI: That’s it. I mean, this is a clear… it’s a fix to a problem that the international community has had. This whole system where some people think that nuclear weapons are legal for them, but they’re illegal for others—that’s a problem. And so what this is—negotiations are going to start to make nuclear weapons illegal for everybody. And why? As Beatrice said, because they cause these catastrophic humanitarian consequences. So, when we talk about what it is that we’re looking to prohibit, we’re prohibiting people from having nuclear weapons, from making them, from getting them from somewhere else, and—really importantly—prohibiting them from using nuclear weapons.
The thing is, nobody can deal with the consequences of using nuclear weapons. You can pour resources into trying to deal with… well, what if nuclear weapons are used in a conflict. But the Red Cross, the UN program, and others have said that’s just impossible. And so what better cure than to prevent it. And the way to prevent it is to ban the weapons.
ARIEL: Okay, so one of the things that I’m wondering—I’ve been reading some stuff saying that the UN has actually been trying to prohibit nuclear weapons, basically, since 1945. Why has it taken this long?
BEATRICE: Maybe I can jump in on that. I think... there is no prohibition on nuclear weapons, but there are many treaties and many regulations governing nuclear weapons, and almost all governments in the world agree that nuclear weapons are really bad and they should be eliminated. So it’s a bit of a strange situation where governments, including the two—Russia and the United States—with the most nuclear weapons, agree ‘these are really horrible weapons, we don’t think they should be used, they should get rid of them. But we don’t want to prohibit them, because it still kind of suits us that we have them.’ And I think that’s what Susi mentioned before, this kind of double standard around nuclear weapons where it’s okay for some to have them, but not others. And that’s what we’re trying to fix with this treaty.
For a very long time, I think the whole world just accepted that nuclear weapons are around. The Cold War certainly didn’t make it easy to get rid of them. They’re this kind of mythical weapons almost. Much more than just a weapon—they’re magic. They keep peace and stability, they ended World War II, they made sure that there was no big war in Europe during the Cold War. So they are very ingrained in our minds. And so I think that people just felt that it’s been impossible to get rid of them, and this idea of prohibiting them… it’s not realistic. Whereas I think that, after the Cold War ended, we look at security from a different perspective. It’s no longer total, mass destruction that is the aim or the way that we carry out warfare anymore. Nuclear weapons can’t fight the kind of threats that we face today: climate change, organized crime, terrorism. It’s not an appropriate weapon for this millennium.
ARIEL: Ok, Susi, did you want to say anything?
SUSI: Yeah. The thing is, also, now people are talking again—and since the first time nuclear weapons were used—people have really come back to focus on what they do. And when you start talking about what it is that nuclear weapons do, you get into the issue of the fact that what they do isn’t contained by a national border. A nuclear weapon detonation, even a small one, that went off, say, in the Port of Rotterdam, would have catastrophic effects and would resonate around the world. You can’t stop the impact of this at a border. It’s not like other weapons in that way… in a way. But also, at the same time it is a weapon, and weapons that are inhumane, that are indiscriminate, get prohibited. That’s what we have done—we have evolved as a society. We ban bad stuff, because we know that when we can’t deal with it, when we can’t respond to it, that’s what we have to do—we have to stop it. And this is a good way to do that.
And Beatrice mentioned the mythical power of nuclear weapons, and I think… you know, we talk about the use of the word “nuclear” and we talk about even our closest family as a nuclear family. There’s been a long-time focus of making these somehow acceptable; making it somehow okay to risk global annihilation, okay to risk catastrophe. And now, since this re-focus on the consequences, it has become apparent to an overwhelming majority of governments that this is not okay. And they’re ready to do something, so they’re going to negotiate in March.
ARIEL: So one of the questions that I have is… the majority of countries don’t have nuclear weapons. There’s only a handful of countries that actually have nuclear weapons, and the U.S. and Russia have most of those. And it doesn’t look like the U.S. and Russia are going to agree to the ban in any case. So, if it passes, what happens then? How does it get enforced? Susi, I know you’ve done a lot with stigmatizing nuclear weapons, so I was hoping you could weigh in a bit on this as well, since I’m assuming the stigmatization factor will play a role. But, what happens? How do we deal with countries that do have them and don’t want the ban to exist?
SUSI: Well, thanks Ariel. I mean, with this ban, again it comes down to negotiations, what actually is prohibited? But if you prohibit the making, having, using of these weapons and the assistance with doing those things, we’re setting a stage to also prohibit the financing of the modernization—financing of the weapons. And that’s one way that I believe the ban treaty is going to have a direct and concrete impact on existing nuclear arsenals. Because all the nuclear weapon possessors are modernizing their arsenals, and most of them are using private contractors to do so. And by stopping the financing that goes into these private contractors, we’re going to change the game.
One of the things we found in talking to financial institutions, is they are waiting and aching for a clear prohibition because right now the rules are fuzzy. Some can have them, some can’t… it just doesn’t make any sense, and it doesn’t lead to a clear and strict policy. So that’s one of the things that’s really important when it comes, and that will have a direct and concrete impact when we’re done with the negotiations. And that’s even if… it doesn’t matter if the U.S. and Russia sign on to have that kind of impact, because financial institutions operate with their headquarters in lots of other places. And those other places will likely be pushed by their democratic societies to get on board with the ban, and they’re going to have to stop letting the money in. We’ve seen with other weapons systems that as soon as they’re prohibited, financial institutions back off, and producers know they’re losing the money because of the stigma associated with the weapon. It’s time to make that stigma a legal reality, and that’s one of the things the ban is going to do.
ARIEL: And Beatrice, did you have anything that you wanted to add?
BEATRICE: Yeah. I think that sometimes we forget that it’s more than nine states that are involved in nuclear weapons. Sure, there’s nine states: the five kind of recognized nuclear weapon states in the NPT, it’s U.S., U.K., Russia, France, and China. And then of course you have the other states: India, Pakistan, Israel, and today also North Korea. These states have nuclear weapons.
But there are also five European states that have American nuclear weapons on their soil: Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, and Turkey. And in addition to that, all of the NATO states and a couple of others—such as Japan, Australia, and South Korea—are a part of the U.S. nuclear umbrella. In NATO, for example, they exercise together, military exercises practicing how nuclear weapons missions go about. They modernize the nuclear weapons in these five European countries. So there’s a lot of countries that are involved in this, and outside those there’s even more countries that have somehow accepted nuclear weapons, and sort of felt that, well, it is the way it is. And I think that’s what the ban treaty is going to do—it’s going to make a clear line between those countries that think nuclear weapons are acceptable and okay to have, okay to use in some circumstances, and those countries that say they are unacceptable, no matter what the security situation is. The humanitarian consequences are so grave for civilians that we can’t justify these under international law. And that will just create a lot of pressure I think.
It already has, in a way. We’ve exposed these NATO states and nuclear umbrella states, as we call them, for being a bit hypocritical. They like to think that they are promoters of disarmament, but they are ready to have nuclear weapons being used on others on their behalf. So, even countries like Norway, for example, who are a part of a nuclear weapons alliance and say that, you know, ‘the U.S. could use nuclear weapons to protect us.’ On what? Maybe cities, civilians in Russia or in China or something like that. And if we argue that people in Norway need to be protected by nuclear weapons—one of the safest countries in the world, richest countries in the world—why do we say that people in Iran can’t be protected by similar things? Or people in Lebanon, or anywhere else in the world?
So I think it’s really… this treaty, it makes it really clear who is okay with nuclear weapons and who isn’t. And that will create a lot of pressure, I think, on those states that enjoy the protection of nuclear weapons today, but are not really comfortable admitting it.
ARIEL: That actually ties into some questions and things that I noticed. If you look at a map of the countries that opposed the resolution back in October vs. the countries that either supported it or abstained, there is very much a Northern Hemisphere vs. Southern Hemisphere sort of thing, where the majority of countries in North America, and Europe and Russia all oppose a ban, and the rest of the countries would like to see a ban. And I thought that was sort of interesting because it seems to me, and maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that if a war were to break out between nuclear weapon countries it would impact these northern countries more than the southern countries. I was wondering, is that the case? Are countries in South America or Africa actually at more risk than we realize?
BEATRICE: Yeah, I think it goes two ways. I think people that have nuclear weapons or countries that have nuclear weapons somehow imagine that they are safer with them. But it makes them targets of nuclear weapons as well. It’s unlikely that anyone would use nuclear weapons to attack Senegal, for example. So I think that people in nuclear-armed states often forget that they are also the targets of nuclear weapons, and somehow they feel safer with this. It’s a little bit like handguns. People feel safer with them, although it increases the risk of yourself being shot, in a way. So I think they just don’t think logically about that.
But, in terms of looking at the map, I find it very interesting as well. In some ways, we see this as a big fight for equality. A certain type of country—the richest countries in the world, the most militarily powerful with or without the nuclear weapons—have somehow taken power over the ability to destroy the entire earth. Some countries possess this ability and threaten the rest of the world with it. And now we’re seeing that other countries are demanding that that ends. And we see a lot of similarities to other power struggles—civil rights movements, women’s right to vote, the anti-Apartheid movement—where a powerful minority oppresses the rest of the world with the tools of their power in a way. And when there’s a big mobilization to change that, there’s obviously a lot of resistance. And you see that from European states, Northern Hemisphere states… they’re very upset with this; they don’t want to let go of their power.
And I think that that’s also one of the keys to our strategy, is to prohibit nuclear weapons even without them. It’s because the powerful will never give up that absolute power that they have, voluntarily. No one really does that. It wasn’t white people in South Africa who just decided one day that they would let black people be free. It wasn’t white people in America who fought for civil rights, it’s sort of the oppressed people that have to get together, mobilize themselves, and demand that things change. I think that’s really what this treaty is about at this point.
I see a lot of similarities. Racism… I mean, I’ve had a conversation with representatives from very small European states… tiny… and they dismiss 130 states very easily because, you know, it’s just small, insignificant countries they say. Countries like Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria—some of the biggest countries in the world, of course. And they’re not seen as serious, these countries. They’re not seen as relevant; only the white European states or Northern Hemisphere states are really important actors in their mind. It has, of course, a lot to do with colonialism as well, and those kind of power structures.
It’s an interesting thing to think about also in terms of other big social movements. And the idea that this also harms these countries… they think that they have all the power, but they don’t understand that they are worse off as well. It’s, again, like… certain men might not realize that equality would benefit them, too, because they only see the power that they would have to give up, and not what they would get through living in a more equal society.
SUSI: I think that Beatrice really lays this out well. The history… when they write the history of how nuclear weapons were prohibited and eventually eliminated, it’s going to be an interesting relationship. Cultural anthropologists are going to find fascinating parallels between the women’s rights movement, the civil rights movement, and this movement to effectively ban the bomb, all of which, in a lot of ways, had some interlocking origins in some interlocking organizations throughout history as well.
It’s also… a lot of it is tied to money, to wealth and to an unequal distribution of wealth, or unequal perception of wealth and the power that is assumed with that unequal distribution. It costs a lot of money to make nuclear weapons, develop nuclear weapons, and it also requires an intensive extraction of resources. And some of those resources have come from some of these states that are now standing up and strongly supporting the negotiations towards the prohibition. It is an interesting thing to look at, and I’m curious how this will be written up.
ARIEL: So the other thing that I thought was really interesting looking at the map… because we had that really interesting distinction that you guys have both been talking about between North and South, and the different power structures. But just looking at the nuclear weapons countries, I thought it was very interesting that China, India, and Pakistan abstained from voting, and North Korea actually supported a ban. And I was wondering if you guys could weigh in on that as well. Were we expecting nuclear weapons countries to not have anything to do with it, or to support the ban? Did that come as a surprise? What does it mean - does it mean anything at all, or is this just me trying to read into something?
BEATRICE: I think it definitely means something. Often when we talk about this issue, and we say the nuclear-armed states do not support this, NATO states do not support this, people like to lump in all those countries as a block of opposition. But they’re actually very different, and I think that that’s… and all countries are different. The countries that support the ban treaty are also supporting it in different ways for different reasons. There’s a lot of dynamics going on in this, which means also that the positions are not fixed. I think countries like Pakistan, India, and China have traditionally been very supportive of the UN as a venue to negotiate disarmament. They are states that perhaps think that Russia and the U.S.—which have much more nuclear weapons—that they are the real problem. They sort of sit on the sides with their smaller arsenals, and perhaps don’t feel as much pressure in the same way that the U.S. and Russia feel to negotiate things.
And also, of course, they have very strong connections with the Southern Hemisphere countries, developing countries. Their decisions on nuclear weapons are very connected to other political issues in international relations. We saw last week there was the first kind of organizational meeting where they looked at the rules of procedure for the conference in March. China and India attended that. China has been rumored, that they might come to the negotiations. India is thinking about it. They have some concerns with—they would like rules of consensus. China isn’t a big fan of civil society having a lot of access to the negotiations, and things like that. But I think that there is still a chance that we could see some nuclear-armed states come.
And when it comes to North Korea, I don’t know. It’s very unpredictable. We weren’t expecting them to vote yes, I don’t know if they will come. Obviously, as a civil society campaign, we don’t have much contact with North Korea, they’re not open to civil society, they barely understand what it is that we’re doing in our work. So, it’s quite difficult to predict. Yeah, we were quite surprised, but, who knows, maybe they will show up.
ARIEL: So I actually want to follow up with that quickly. What should we expect with the negotiations? I mean, for someone who knows nothing about the United Nations or how negotiations work or what’s involved in a treaty process, what does start happening in March? Who is part of the talks, how does that work?
BEATRICE: Well, I mean we’ve been working on this for many years, and we kept saying ‘we need to negotiate a treaty now, now, now.’ And now it’s happening, and I’m like, ‘whoa! That’s a bit fast.’ March is coming very quickly, and this is a very sort of big and serious issue, and governments are going to need to do a lot of work in these negotiations if we’re going to be done within a year. What we’re hoping… and we saw already last week at this first meeting that was just meant to elect the President of the negotiations, which is an ambassador from Costa Rica—she’s going to be the Chair—and to propose the rules of procedure and some issues like that. And immediately, governments, doing what they love to do at the United Nations, is to start complaining about the rules of procedure, suggesting changes, and using all these procedural ways of either slowing down or diverting attention, and things like that. So I think negotiations are tricky, and it can look a bit boring and bureaucratic for outsiders. It’s a lot of heated debates over comma signs and asterisks and footnotes, and things like that.
But what we’re really hoping for is that in March there will be five days where governments get to lay out how they see the treaty, what they believe should be in the treaty, and also civil society will be able to speak, so we will also give our message and what we want to see in the treaty. And after that week… and they will debate different issues around the treaty—scope and how it will relate to other instruments… hopefully we can start seeing a common view emerge of how this treaty would look like. And after that, we hope that the President of the negotiations—ambassador Elayne Whyte from Costa Rica—that she will produce a draft text. It might not be complete; there might be some blank spaces here and paragraphs that are left to be negotiated. But an overall review of the treaty, how it will look. And then we come back in June for a 3-week negotiation session and start working on the words, in a way. And it’s going to be a lot of bickering, pressuring, long evenings, early mornings… that kind of thing. I think it’s going to be fun.
And we’re hoping, of course, that as many governments as possible participate. We are going to definitely work to make sure that all countries that voted yes participate, we’re working to make sure the countries that are abstaining participate. And some of the countries that did abstain on the vote, that didn’t vote yes or no, have already said that they will come. And we’re working hard on all countries that voted no as well to come.
SUSI: Yeah, if I could just add to that. So what Beatrice is saying, and I agree very much with what she’s saying… It’s quite exciting to be living in a country that has both abstained from the vote—the Netherlands abstained in October—and hosts U.S. nuclear weapons on its soil. And the Foreign Minister has stated clearly that the Dutch government will participate in the negotiations. So we have this whole kind of good guy/bad guy dichotomy going on every day in talking to people about what’s coming. It’s quite a lot of fun… in some ways. And the March session, I’m excited because I think we’re going to talk… I’m hoping to hear governments really say clearly what exactly they want this prohibition to cover, how they want to cover it, and then, like Bea said, the relationship with other instruments. Because there is an existing regime around nuclear weapons, and we have to figure out how all that comes together. We’ve so far failed to make them illegal, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t made some good progress in at least regulating them somewhat. We don’t want to lose the progress we have made so far; we want to build on it. And so I think that’s going to be an exciting five days, and then coming back in June… it’s just going to be everything in the mix and, you know, I’m excited for a knockdown, drag out, amazing three weeks of negotiations that results in a hardcore prohibition.
ARIEL: I like that. So if you are someone who is not a government employee or part of an NGO that’s active in this, is there stuff you can do to help encourage your government to support a ban? Is there anything you recommend sort of the general public can do?
BEATRICE: Absolutely, there’s plenty of things to do. I think it’s always easiest to work to change your government when you work together with other people. So, even if you’re not a member of an organization, you can still reach out to organizations that do work on this issue and find out what they’re doing nationally. ICAN has partners in almost 100 countries, I think exactly 100 countries right now, because we just got a new partner organization in Iceland. So we have exactly 100 countries that we are represented in, and on our website—icanw.org—you can find a list of partner organizations. I think it’s hard to do something or to feel like you can contribute when you’re alone, and it’s difficult to know where to start. But together people can do a lot of really, really amazing things. So I think it’s good to find organizations that work on this.
We also have a website that is sort of aimed to the public, to find out a little bit more about this. We can also send an email to your Foreign Minister and tweet to your Foreign Minister and things like that, it’s called nuclearban.org. And there you can find information about the negotiations, what the treaty is, how it would work, some common questions that we get about the treaty. And we’ll also make sure that the negotiations, when they’re webcast, that we’ll share that link on that website.
SUSI: Yeah, that’s a great question. There’s always… everybody wants to be part of history, and there’s so many things we can do right now to be a part of this historical moment. The easiest thing in the world to do that actually will have quite a big impact, is to give money. People who want to see an end to nuclear weapons, they can chip in a little bit, and it’s easy because it doesn’t take a lot of time and it actually has a tremendous impact. And so that’s something. There’s a way to do that on nuclearban.org and people can connect. It’s a great thing to do because just by giving a couple of bucks you’re going to help make history happen. And I think that’s something.
There are other things—also, people can look at what their own money is doing. You can tell your financial institutions… make sure your bank, your pension fund… tell them to get out of this game—the ban’s coming. And on dontbankonthebomb.com we have lots of information and easy ways to do that as well. This is a time where everybody can get involved, everybody can do something. And no one person will do everything, but if every one person did something, we’re going to win this.
ARIEL: Nice. So the next thing is… so that’s for people who want to help. What do you guys say to people who do think we still need nuclear weapons.
SUSI: I ask them why. Why do they think we need nuclear weapons? Under what circumstance is it legitimate to use a weapon that will level a city? One bomb that destroys a city, and that will cause harm not just to the people who are involved in combat, but… there will be some survivors. Their kids will be affected, their grandkids will be affected if they are so lucky and they survive, because this can have a significant impact. What justifies that kind of horrible use of a weapon? And what are the circumstances that you’re willing to use them? I mean, what are the circumstances where people feel it’s okay to cause this kind of destruction?
And whenever I ask that question, it tends to cause people to be a bit uncomfortable because nobody has really come back to me with an answer. People talked at one time about using the weapons on the battlefield to stop an encroaching Soviet army, and basically to bomb Germany. That’s why the U.S. has nuclear weapons in Europe, it was to bomb Germany to stop the Russians. This is not something that is logical anymore, and when you think it through logically, there is no reason. So that’s where I’d start is… why?
BEATRICE: Yeah, and I agree completely with Susi. They really make no sense, nuclear weapons, when you think about it. They were developed in another time. I mean, nuclear weapons are meant to destroy entire cities—that’s their inherent quality, in a way. They mass murder entire communities indiscriminately very, very fast. That’s what they are good at, nuclear weapons. And that’s not really how we do warfare anymore. Today we’ve moved to smart weapons, these fully autonomous weapons—which are also a very bad idea, by the way—but warfare is not about killing the most civilians anymore. We’ve changed the way we behave in warfare. And I’m not saying that civilians don’t get harmed today, definitely it’s horrible. But the weapon itself is meant to kill civilians, and I think that is unacceptable.
And most people that defend nuclear weapons, they admit that they don’t want to use them. They are never supposed to be used, you are just supposed to threaten with them. And then you get into this sort of illogical debate, about how, in order for the threat to be real—and for others to perceive the threat—you have to be serious about using them. So they could be used, and you have these nuclear weapons today on high alert status. They could be launched within just a few minutes. They’re standing there every day pointing at, probably, cities on the other side of the world, full of people. And it’s just not logic that we will never see a detonation if we keep them around forever, that we’ll never see a mistake happen, an accident, an intentional detonation, a world leader that loses his temper, not referring to anyone specific, but... I think it’s just really, it’s very naive to think that we will get away as a civilization without them being used if we keep them around forever.
SUSI: And if I could add a little bit more to what Beatrice is saying. There’s a reason that nuclear weapons have not been used in war in over 70 years: the horror they unleash is too great. There’s a reason for this. And even military leaders, once they retire from the military and are free to speak their minds, say very clearly that these are not a good weapon for military objectives. There are accidents—a study was released just a couple of days ago. There have been over 100 accidents and incidents in the U.K., and in the last few years, and that’s almost half of their arsenal has had some kind of accident or incident. The risk is too great. The weapons are aging, and this prohibition is an excellent face-saving opportunity to avoid the tremendous investment that it’s going to take to keep the weapons from being accidentally launched over the next years. And that’s something else that really important… it’s something good to think about. The nuclear-armed states, by kind of stepping back and letting this prohibition go ahead, are in a great space to say, ‘well, you know what, now they’re illegal weapons, and even if we don’t join the prohibition ourselves, maybe we just won’t invest in making new ones, or making new types, or making them a little bit less dangerous. Still city-leveling, but smaller city-leveling so that we can use them in conflicts’… and this prohibition gives them an out. And with the state of the world, I think having a nice face-saving way to step away from nuclear weapons is also a benefit we haven’t really explored yet, or not much.
ARIEL: So I’m still sort of going back to this—it’s been 70 years and we still haven’t accomplished anything until now. Why haven’t we tried things like the face-saving methods that you’re talking about, Susi? Or Beatrice, I know you did a lot of work to help bring this about, you mentioned that it’s taken years. I’m still not sure I’ve got my head wrapped around it. Why now? Why are we having success now?
BEATRICE: I think it’s very important to remember that we’ve had successes before, and very big ones as well. In 1970 the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, I think, entered into force? Susi probably knows the year… I think it was signed in ’68 and entered into force in 1970. And that is the treaty that prevents proliferation of nuclear weapons. So that was the treaty that said, ‘okay, we have these five states, and they’ve already developed weapons, they’re not ready to get rid of them, but at least we’ll cap it there, and no one else is allowed.’ And that really worked quite well. Only four more countries developed nuclear weapons after that. So four countries said ‘that treaty is not for us, we are going to go and develop our own weapons.’ But the rest of the world understood that it was a bad idea. And the big bargain in that treaty was that the five countries that got to keep their nuclear weapons only got to keep them for a while—they committed, that one day they would disarm, but there was no timeline in the treaty. So I think that was a huge success. Managing to prevent a huge number of countries to develop nuclear weapons was a really big achievement, and it was thanks to very active governments, and lots of civil society pressure.
And then as the Cold War continued and the nuclear arms race continued as well, in the ‘80s for example we saw these huge, huge public mobilization movements and millions of people demonstrating on the street trying to stop the nuclear arms race. And they were very successful as well. They didn’t get total nuclear disarmament, but they got… the nuclear freeze movement achieved a huge victory.
And we saw, so we were very, very close to disarmament at the Reykjavik summit with Gorbachev and Reagan, and I think that the world has probably never been so close to nuclear disarmament in that way. And so that was also a huge success. And in the ‘90s, the environmental concerns over nuclear testing really rallied a huge number of people around the world as well. And, again, looking at the impact of weapons, looking at the environmental consequences in the Pacific for example, or in Kazakhstan where the Russians had tested, in Nevada where the U.S. has tested. And the governments negotiated the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which prevents countries from testing nuclear weapons. And that hasn’t entered into force yet, that treaty, but almost all states have signed it. It has not been ratified by some key players, like for example the United States, but the norm is still there, and it’s been quite an effective treaty despite that it’s not yet entered into force. Only one state has continued testing, and that’s North Korea, since the treaty was signed.
So I think we’ve had these huge victories and we’ve made a lot of progress along the way and just, you know, I think it’s not like nothing has happened in 70 years. But somewhere along the way we got very focused on non-proliferation and trying to stop the testing, stop them producing fissile material, and we forgot to work on the fundamental delegitimization of nuclear weapons. We forgot to say that nuclear weapons are unacceptable. So that is what we’re trying to do right now, and to work with the ban treaty to make sure that nuclear weapons are prohibited and that they start to be stigmatized, and that governments get to choose yes or no to nuclear weapons.
SUSI: Beatrice really makes a good point here. It’s the fundamental delegitimization. And I don’t think the scope and the space has been there to have that conversation in this quite fundamental way, because we’ve dealt with a lot of other issues—and really significant, dramatic issues—of justice, of balance. But the world is different in a lot of ways than it was in 1945. The UN is different in a lot of ways. Remember, one of the purposes of the UN at the outset was to help countries decolonize and to restore them to their own people, and that process took some time. In a lot of those countries those former colonized societies are kind of coming back and saying, ‘well, we have a voice of global security as well, and this is part of ensuring our security.’
So I think that is an important shift that has also taken place, and it’s something to consider. But as Beatrice said, there are nine countries that have possession of these weapons. There are a total of maybe 34 countries that consider them somewhat useful, and at varying degrees. That is a very small number considering what was predicted when the weapons first came into being and people thought, ‘oh, they’re going to be everywhere and people are going to be using them for all sorts of things.’ Heck, the Non-Proliferation Treaty said, you know, ‘let’s talk about how we can use them for peaceful things.’ And people talked about, ‘oh, maybe we could use them to expand canals… like the Panama Canal, maybe we can make it bigger using nuclear explosions.’ Times change. We’ve done some great things, and this is the moment where this perfect storm has come, where it’s time to… we’re prohibiting illegitimate weapons. There’s been progress to do so, and this one is one that we’re just going to make illegal. It’s going to be fun.
BEATRICE: And I just want to add as well, that civil society has changed as well, and I think, in particular, after the Cold War. As Susi said, a new world has sort of developed since the Berlin Wall fell. It’s no longer two superpowers fighting with each other. It’s a multipolar world with lots more dynamics and lots more actors on the international stage, including civil society. And I think that we’ve been very inspired in ICAN by the campaigns to ban landmines and the campaigns to ban cluster munitions, because they were a different type of treaty. Obviously chemical weapons were prohibited, biological weapons were prohibited, but the landmine and cluster munition processes of prohibition that were developed on those weapons were about stigmatizing the weapon, and they didn’t need all states to be on board with it. They created a strong norm, and civil society worked very closely with international organizations and governments in those processes. And we saw that it worked. Just a few years ago, the United States—who never signed the landmines treaty—announced that it’s basically complying with the treaty. They have one exception at the border of South Korea. That means that they can’t sign it, but otherwise they are complying with it. The market for landmines is pretty much extinct—nobody wants to produce them anymore because countries have banned and stigmatized them.
And with cluster munitions we see a similar trend. It entered into force in 2010, it’s quite a new treaty, and I think they just broke 100 states last year or something that have signed onto the treaty. And yet it has a huge impact, even on states like the United States and Russia that aren’t part of the treaty, that weren’t part of the negotiations. They have changed their behavior. Textron, an American weapons company, announced last year that they would stop producing cluster munitions because of the increasing stigma around the weapon and also the difficulties of getting financing for it, because the banks have divested from cluster munitions production.
So I think it’s… We’ve seen those two treaties work, and I think that’s also why we feel confident that we can move ahead this time, even without the nuclear-armed states onboard. It will have an impact anyway.
ARIEL: Excellent. And so we’re starting to run out of time now. Is there anything that you guys wanted to mention that I didn’t ask about?
BEATRICE: I don’t think so… Susi, anything? I mean, I can talk for hours, but…
SUSI: Yeah, I know, that’s the thing, it’s kind of easier, but this is an issue that I think both Beatrice and I have been attached to for a while, and so we do wind up in these late-night conversations about the ban. I’ve been alienated from parties because I just, you know, get talking about the ban and then they’re like, ‘ah no, you gotta go, talk about something else.’
BEATRICE: It is not fun party talk.
SUSI: No, it’s really not.
I really do appreciate the stuff that the Future of Life Institute has been doing, and it’s been great to work with you guys on a lot of issues, including stigmatizing these weapons and now working together to get their prohibition. Because, like I said before, this is a significant moment in history, and everybody can be part of it. And there’s lots of ways to do so, the easiest is to give some money—go to nuclearban.org to do that.
ARIEL: Alright. So yeah, nuclearban.org, icanw.org, is that right?
BEATRICE: Yep, icanw.org.
ARIEL: Okay, excellent. Yeah, we’ll have links to those on the site, and thank you both so much for doing the interview with me today.
BEATRICE: Thank you so much, it was really great fun.
SUSI: Yeah, thanks Ariel.
To learn more about the ban and how you can help encourage your country to support the ban, visit nuclearban.org and icanw.org.