Amidst Nuclear Tensions, Anti-nuke Group wins Nobel Peace Prize

By Mark Cebert

On Friday October 6, the Nobel Committee announced the winner of the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize. This year’s recipient was the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, or ICAN for short. According to the Norwegian Nobel Committee, “The organization is receiving the award 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.”[1]

ICAN is an activist group campaigning for the disarmament of the world’s nuclear arsenal. The group, which began in Australia, officially launched in Vienna, Austria in 2007, before moving permanent headquarters to Geneva, Switzerland. ICAN is a coalition of non-government organizations that work with different groups, governments, and organizations to move the world towards a post-nuclear future.[2] Significantly, ICAN is behind the July 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. This treaty potentially prohibits nations from developing, stockpiling, testing, or using nuclear weapons, and provides a path for nuclear powers who sign the treaty to destroy their nuclear arsenals. Thus far, 53 nations, including Brazil, Mexico, Cuba and Austria have signed the treaty, and 3 have ratified it. Signature of the treaty is a statement of intent, but does not bind nations to the treaty’s clauses. Once 50 nations ratify the treaty, it will become international law.[3]

Giving the prize to ICAN may seem like an unusual move, given the group’s reputation in the eyes of many of the big nuclear powers. The United States reacted to the award, claiming that the treaty “will not make the world more peaceful, will not result in the elimination of a single nuclear weapon, and will not enhance any state’s security.”[4] In fact, the major nuclear powers, including the United States, France, Britain, and South Korea, boycotted the negotiations.[5] Although ICAN is clearly not without its critics, the humanitarian and globalist aspect of the group and their treaty made the group a likely candidate for the prestigious prize. It should also be noted that choosing ICAN represents a partially ideological move on behalf of the committee. Though ICAN claims to potentially save millions of lives, there has been little concrete or measurable humanitarianism represented in their efforts. A similar dynamic was apparent in the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to President Barack Obama, who, in the infancy of his tenure in office, won the award mostly on the basis of ideals, like nuclear non-proliferation, outreach to the Muslim world, and climate change (notably prior to his landmark involvement in 2016 Paris Agreement), without actually having had concrete achievements at that point. While the recipients in these cases are certainly deserving, they also send an overt message to the international community.

This message seems to be an obvious one, given the nuclear tensions involving the biggest nuclear power, the United States. Over the summer, President Donald Trump has been engaged in a war of words with North Korea that many fear may increase the likelihood of nuclear war. Earlier this year, President Trump threatened to totally destroy North Korea, stating that the nation “will not be around much longer” if they continued their hostile rhetoric.[6] Many in the international community have warned that the President’s aggressive approach to Pyongyang could lead both nations closer to nuclear war, and reports suggest that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been working backchannels with North Korea to circumvent the President’s incendiary public comments and to reach a diplomatic solution.[7] Frustrations over Trump’s rhetoric towards North Korea and his broader foreign policy agenda has reportedly contributed to a remarkable feud between the President and his chief diplomat. An NBC report published in early October claimed that in July that Tillerson called Trump a “moron” at a Pentagon meeting about U.S. military preparedness and considered resignation. Although both Tillerson and Trump disputed the report, Trump has publically criticized the ineffectiveness of negotiating with Pyongyang, which reflects negatively on approach of his Secretary of State.[8]

Amid this apparent dysfunction, it is possible that the international diplomatic community, through the Nobel Committee, is attempting to display world leadership in place of the traditional world leaders, the United States. Awarding arguably the most prestigious prize in the world to anti-nuclear activists in a year where headlines about potential nuclear war evolve almost daily is a clear statement of intent. The Committee, through ICAN, is calling for a diplomatic answer to the world’s nuclear threats. Although the Committee’s chairwoman insisted that the award was not a slight to the American president, ICAN’s director Beatrice Fihn was more direct, saying that Nuclear weapons do not bring us stability and security…We can see that right now.”[9]

[1] Rick Gladstone, “Nobel Peace Prize Goes to Group Opposing Nuclear Weapons,” The New York Times (October 06, 2017): Accessed October 16, 2017.

[2] “Campaign Overview,” ICAN: Accessed October 16, 2017.

[3] “Signature/ratification Status of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” ICAN: Accessed October 16, 2017.

[4] Edith M. Lederer, “Nobel Winner says Goal is to Make Nukes Unacceptable,” AP (October 9, 2017): Accessed October 16, 2017.

[5] Somini Sengupta and Rick Gladstone, “United States and Allies Protest U.N. Talks to Ban Nuclear Weapons,” The New York Times (March 27, 2017): Accessed October 16, 2017.

[6] Rebecca Savransky, “North Korea Labels Trump a ‘Strangler of Peace,'” TheHill (October 15, 2017): Accessed October 16, 2017.

[7] “U.S. and North Korea are in Regular Contact Through Back Channel Diplomacy,” USA Today (August 11, 2017): Accessed October 16, 2017.

[8] Carol E. Lee, Kristen Welker, Stephanie Ruhle, and Dafna Linzer, “Tillerson’s Fury at Trump Required an Intervention From Pence,” (October 04, 2017): Accessed November 16, 2017.

[9] Gladstone, “Nobel Peace Prize Goes.”

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