Beatrice Fihn: “As long as we have nuclear weapons, nuclear war will always be an option”

Beatrice Fihn: “As long as we have nuclear weapons, nuclear war will always be an option”

Beatrice Fihn, chief executive of ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons), photographed during a working visit to Brussels on 6 September 2019.

(Equal Times/Marta Checa)

“Nations must disarm or perish”. These startling words are inscribed at the entrance of the Conference on Disarmament, the world’s only permanent, multilateral disarmament treaty negotiating body, based in Geneva, Switzerland. And rarely has this statement been as urgent as it is today. There are currently five nuclear-weapon states under the terms of the landmark Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States – in addition to three countries in possession of nuclear weapons (India, Pakistan and North Korea) and Israel, which is also believed to be a nuclear power. In fact, the risk posed by nuclear weapons is greater today than it was at the end of the Cold War.

Years of advocacy by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a coalition of NGOs with a presence in more than 100 countries, is behind the world’s first legally-binding treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Adopted by a vote of 122 countries in July 2017, the year in which ICAN won the Nobel Peace Prize for its “groundbreaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition on [nuclear] weapons”, so far, the treaty has been signed by 70 states and ratified by 26, but is 24 signatories short of the number required for the treaty to enter into force.

Ahead of a high-level ceremony for further signatures and ratifications to be held at the United Nations headquarters in New York on 26 September, Fihn talked with Equal Times about the urgency of the coalition’s efforts to ban nuclear weapons, and the catastrophe that awaits us all if disarmament fails.

In 2017 the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was adopted; then, this year the two countries that hold 90 per cent of the world’s 14,000 nuclear warheads – the US and Russia – walked away from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a move which is likely to accelerate the development of new missiles. Additionally, in 2021, the New START arms reduction treaty is up for renewal, although there is no guaranteed that this will be successful. What’s behind all this instability?

As with many other issues – like democracy, racism and gender equality – it seems like there is a split between two parallel worlds. While most states support [the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons] and are taking further steps to stop them, you also have the nuclear-armed states that are breaking these old treaties and threatening to use nuclear weapons.

The problem is that some of these states were never serious about getting rid of their weapons. Also, before Trump was elected, people felt that “we don’t have to worry, no one is going to use nuclear weapons”. But, as long as we keep nuclear weapons, nuclear war will always be an option. We have to remove them.

But we should also remember that we have seen breakthroughs happen at the highest moments of tension. The NPT [signed in 1968] was negotiated just after the Cuban Missile Crisis [in 1962]. And the INF treaty was negotiated just after the huge tension between [US president Ronald] Reagan and the Soviet Union in the 1980s. So, moments of crises also come with opportunities.

The last Stockholm International Peace Research Institute report said that all nuclear weapon-possessing states continue to modernise their nuclear arsenals, while at the same time, there was an overall decrease in the number of nuclear warheads in 2018. What is your analysis of this?

What we are realising is that if we don’t prohibit nuclear weapons, we can’t rely on governments to do it themselves. We say that nuclear weapons “are very powerful and they keep us safe” but also that “we should get rid of some”. At some point we have to say: “Why?”. If they keep us safe and secure why are we getting rid of them? The world has to choose: either they are good for security or they are bad for security. They can’t be both.

Are you seeing any real movement towards prohibition from the world’s nine nuclear-armed nations?

Politically no, but in terms of the public, then yes. Most people do not like these weapons. In the UK, for example, they are located in Scotland, and the Scottish people want them out. Plus now with the Brexit, if Scotland goes independent, the UK will not have a place to put their submarines.

But there are more than the nine nuclear-armed countries; you also have five NATO states that host nuclear weapons in their territories: Belgium, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands and Turkey.

The change starts with the countries in the middle. The countries that are part of the nuclear weapons’ alliances but that are uncomfortable defending nuclear weapons. For example, Belgium, Germany, Norway: these are countries that like to see themselves as defenders of human rights and humanitarian law, and yet they participate in military plans that are meant to mass murder civilians.

That’s really where we really can see a change in perception. The stigmatisation is really working and makes it harder for such governments to justify those kinds of policies. I am also convinced that one day there will be an opening with the nuclear allied states and the nuclear armed states. I don’t know when, or how, but there will be a moment where there is a possibility for change, and we need to be prepared. We need to have the treaties, so that we have legal options. We need to have a mobilised civil society, we need to have cities and trade unions and all these people on our side so that when we see a chance to get a government to change its mind, we go.

The climate emergency is more present than ever in the public conscious. How is it that the issue of nuclear weapons doesn’t seem to be part of the environmental debate?

Climate change and nuclear weapons are the two things that could pretty much end humanity. For both issues, we are not going to see the impact until it is too late, and we can’t fix it after it has happened. That’s what makes it difficult for people to act. These last years the movement on climate change has grown stronger but I think it is because people have really started to notice that the climate is changing; they see the hurricanes, the fires in the summer, the heatwaves, and all these changes in the climate. Suddenly that makes it feel more real.

With nuclear weapons, it is hard for people to visualise their impact. But, like climate change, nuclear weapons know no borders. These are international issues that need multilateral solutions with everyone onboard.

Why isn’t the general public as terrified of the threat of nuclear war as it was at the end of the Cold War, even though the threat now is greater?

There was an intentional shift after the Cold War to make the nuclear threat as technical as possible, and I think this has made people feel that they can’t change things. It is disempowering: there is no point in engaging in something that you can’t change, so you ignore it.

But in some places, in Asia for example, the nuclear threat is definitely not being ignored. South Koreans, the Japanese…they are very aware of the threat. And with regards to the INF Treaty, a lot of Europeans are now starting to understand that these missiles are not only going to impact the US or Russia – they are meant for use on cities in Europe.

Of course, there are so many things that we have to protest and fight against today, from refugee [rights] to democracy, to workers’ rights, #MeToo, climate change. It is easy to spread ourselves too thin and to try to fight everything at once. But we must work together and try to stand in solidarity to connect these issues, rather than pit them against each other.

You have spoken about challenging the gendered nature of our concepts of statecraft and diplomacy. What impact would more women leaders and heads of state have on the campaign for disarmament?

It’s not just about having more women, although this is part of it. We also have to challenge what things are considered to be masculine and feminine ‘traits’: compromise and negotiating are seen as ‘soft’, when in actual fact, negotiation and compromise are the realistic, rational, strong alternative. Keeping nuclear weapons is an emotional, naïve and weak strategy. We know that societies that invest a lot in weapons, in the military, are more unsafe and violent. We also know that societies that invest in education and healthcare are more peaceful.

You have raised the question of power and privilege vis-à-vis nuclear weapons before: can you elaborate on this?

Take the US, for example. There is no country that needs nuclear weapons less than the US. It is by far the biggest military power in the world. So, what we are really talking about here is the power to destroy everything very, very quickly, and to say: “I should have the power but you shouldn’t”.

If you say that we should all have nuclear weapons – which I disagree with, of course – then at least that would be logical. But if you say that it is very important that the US should have these weapons to protect itself but that North Korea or Iran can’t have them, that’s hypocritical, and it comes from this idea that there are some governments that are better than others. That with these arms some governments are more reasonable and more restrained and responsible than others, and if you look at the countries that have nuclear weapons, it is mainly western governments.

Some of the decision-making around South Africa giving up its nuclear programme [in 1989], was because it was at the end of the apartheid regime, and things were going to change. It is on the record that the apartheid regime did not want a black government to have nuclear weapons.

Also, if you look at the nuclear testing. Where did all these countries test their weapons? They tested them on their colonies, on the land of indigenous people – not outside Paris, or in the suburbs where the rich elites live. Every nuclear armed state has tested its weapons on communities that are not adequately represented, and the legacy of that is still harmful.

ICAN is currently investigating the money behind nuclear weapons. How are things progressing?

We are trying to make people realise how many actors are involved in this. It is not just the nine nuclear-weapon states: there are governments, companies, banks and pension funds that invest in the companies that produce nuclear weapons. So we have this Don’t bank on the bomb report that lists the companies that produce nuclear weapons, their contracts, the profits they make, and which banks and investment funds continue to lend our money to nuclear weapon producers.

We are trying to get people to react to that. We would not think that it is OK to lend our money to chemical weapons producers or biological weapons producers, so why are we lending our money to our eventual doom?

We are also trying to get these banks and pension funds to divest, to create policies that mean they will no longer invest in illegal weapons, and several have answered. Every year we update the list and we can see the movement is growing. People want ethical investments. People care more and more about what companies do today.