Rather awkwardly for a world grown used to the shameless promotion of hypocrites and warmongers, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to people who really deserve it. The Australian-founded International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) received the prize for its work advocating global nuclear disarmament.
The campaign achieved a breakthrough in July, when two-thirds of the 193 UN member states signed on to its Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The treaty does not constitute a ban on nuclear weapons under international law. But it’s a step towards that goal.
The treaty will come into force once 50 countries have formally ratified it (so far, the number is just three). Nuclear weapons would then be in the same legal category as other prohibited weapons such as landmines and chemical and biological weapons.
The idea to establish ICAN came in 2005 from Malaysian doctor Ronald McCoy, a member of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). McCoy had until then believed that negotiations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) were the main hope for global disarmament.
The NPT, which came into force in 1970, was supposed to set out a path to “general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control”. Some progress has been made towards that goal, with the number of nuclear weapons now significantly lower than at the height of the Cold War.
However, by 2005, with the “war on terror” ramping up and countries such as the US looking to modernise their nuclear arsenals, negotiations under the NPT reached a dead end.
In a letter to all international affiliates of IPPNW, McCoy suggested a new approach. Rather than rely on the existing mechanism of the NPT, they should follow the example of the campaign to eliminate landmines, which succeeded in 1997 in having them formally banned through the UN.
This new approach would focus on signing up the many non-nuclear-armed states, rather than trying to pressure nuclear-armed powers directly.
McCoy’s proposal to establish ICAN received a positive response. The IPPNW’s Australian affiliate, the Medical Association for the Prevention of War, took the initiative and gained funding to put together a team to organise the launch of ICAN in Vienna in April 2007.
ICAN quickly took off. By 2011, it had opened an office in Oslo and received funding from the Norwegian government to establish an international campaign headquarters in Geneva. Today it has grown into a network of 468 affiliates in more than 100 countries.
The case for disarmament
Gem Romuld from ICAN Australia told Red Flag the group’s success has been based on their ability to convey the human cost of nuclear weapons: “Of central importance are the testimonies of survivors of nuclear war and nuclear testing. Such people can attest to the impacts of the weapon, making them real”.
In Australia’s case, this has included eyewitness accounts from Sue Coleman-Haseldine and Karina and Rose Lester, who have testified to the impacts of the British nuclear testing program on Indigenous people in South Australia.
Given what we know about the devastating potential of nuclear weapons, it shouldn’t be necessary for those directly impacted by them to “make the case” for disarmament. You don’t need to have experienced such weapons to know that if even a small fraction of the world’s 15,000 nuclear bombs were used, it would be catastrophic for humanity.
It’s estimated that 150,000 people died as a result of the US bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. The figure for Nagasaki is 75,000. Today’s weapons are far more powerful than those used by the US in Japan. The total yield of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was 15 kilotons. The yield of the largest nuclear weapon ever tested by the US, “Castle Bravo”, is 15 megatons – 1,000 times as powerful. Were a nuclear conflict to break out today, tens of millions could lose their lives in a matter of days. Not to mention the radioactive fallout that would poison land, air and water for many years after.
Such devastation cannot be ruled out. As the Nobel committee’s chair Berit Reiss-Andersen commented on awarding the prize to ICAN, “We live in a world where the risk of nuclear weapons being used is greater than it has been for a long time”.
In a sane society, these weapons would never have been developed in the first place. But capitalism is far from sane. At the heart of the system is a global scramble in which nations compete against each other for military and economic supremacy.
The world’s nine nuclear-armed states are loath to give up their weapons because they know they’re crucial to maintaining their status within this “great game” of imperialism. That’s why countries such as Russia, Britain and the US have obstructed efforts towards full global disarmament, forcing organisations like ICAN to fight tooth and nail to make even limited progress.
It’s also why the threat of a new nuclear arms race is never far away. Take North Korea. Its determination to join the “nuclear club” is a fairly rational response to the sabre-rattling of the US over many decades, but particularly since the beginning of the “war on terror” in the early 2000s.
The invasion of Iraq in 2003 wasn’t a lesson in what happens if you have “weapons of mass destruction”. It was a lesson in what happens if you don’t. In a context where Donald Trump has threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea, is it any wonder that a dictator like Kim Jong-un would seek a credible deterrent?
The US-North Korea tensions are far from the only potential nuclear flashpoint in the world. As Derek Johnson, executive director of US anti-nuclear NGO Global Zero, told the BBC earlier this year: “From Ukraine and the Korean peninsula, to South Asia and the South China Sea and Taiwan, all of the nuclear-armed states and their allies are tangled up in conflicts and crises that could go nuclear at any moment”.
An awkward silence
Ordinarily, achievements by Australians on the international stage are heavily promoted by the media and government. But the response to ICAN receiving the Nobel has been muted, to say the least.
“Winning the Nobel Prize has put a spotlight on Australia’s hypocritical position”, Romuld told Red Flag. “Our foreign minister is very active in criticising the North Korean nuclear weapons program, while at the same time declaring that these weapons of mass destruction are essential for Australia’s security.”
Peace is okay, in other words, so long as it’s only people we don’t like who are expected to be peaceful.
Australia was among a minority of countries that boycotted negotiations leading to the new UN treaty. The reason for its opposition is that Australia’s role as the dominant imperialist power of our region is bolstered by its status as a close ally of the nuclear-armed US.
According to Romuld, “The US has instructed its allies not to sign on to the treaty, knowing that the weapons’ legitimacy will be eroded further with every new signatory”. The Australian government, however, would not have been an unwilling participant in the boycott. Far from being a subservient “lap dog” for US interests, Australia is more like an aggressive “younger brother”, constantly egging on the US to ramp up its military presence in the region.
This dynamic has been on clear display in the case of North Korea. Turnbull, foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop and others haven’t just gone along with Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric; they’ve welcomed it. Following a phone call with Trump in early September, Turnbull said they were “of one mind” on North Korea and described the conversation as “very warm”.
Turnbull’s attitude sums it all up very neatly. In his mind, Trump’s threats to inflict “fire and fury like the world has never seen” on North Korea are A-okay, while ICAN’s efforts towards nuclear disarmament are a national embarrassment best passed over in silence.
A world without nukes?
Will the efforts of ICAN and others pushing for a UN ban succeed in ridding the world of nuclear weapons for good? Romuld is optimistic: “The treaty increases the moral, political and legal pressure on states to remove any role for nuclear weapons from their foreign and defence policies and to disarm … It’s not only possible, but essential, that we rid the world of nuclear weapons”.
Given the history of global conflicts over the past century, however, it seems doubtful that “moral, political and legal pressure” alone will be enough.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US-led “coalition of the willing” was, from the perspective of the UN, clearly illegal (in 2004 then UN secretary-general Kofi Annan said in an interview with the BBC that the war was “not in conformity with the UN charter” and that “it was illegal”).
The invasion was opposed by large majorities of people in most of the countries involved. Despite all this it went ahead – with predictably disastrous consequences – because the US, as the dominant global superpower, was determined to see it through.
There is a lesson in this. The people who occupy the commanding heights of the economy and politics won’t change course – whether on nuclear disarmament, climate change or anything else that threatens the future of society – just because it’s the right thing to do.
To win a world without war, and the other horrific technologies of destruction that have been created, we need to declare a “war on war”. Above all, this means challenging the competitive dynamics of capitalism that drive conflict and building movements of international solidarity that can disrupt the operation of the global war machine at every point.
ICAN is a deserving winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. But the struggle against war still has a long way to run.