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She’s Spent a Decade Fighting to Ban Nuclear Weapons. The Stakes Are Only Getting Higher


March 2017 was an exhilarating time for Beatrice Fihn. The executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was at the U.N. in New York City for talks with more than 120 countries to negotiate a treaty on banning nuclear weapons. One moment still stands out: Nikki Haley, then U.S. ambassador to the U.N., and a group of diplomats from several NATO countries held a press conference outside the General Assembly to protest the talks.

“It was such a hilarious role reversal,” Fihn tells me when we meet for lunch in New York this fall, referring to all the times nuclear-disarmament activists have been outside the corridors of power. “Now, we were in the driver’s seat.”

Fihn, 40, has been trying to shift these dynamics ever since she took the helm of the Geneva-based ICAN nearly a decade ago. In 2017, the charismatic Swedish lawyer was thrust into the spotlight when she accepted the Nobel Peace Prize for ICAN’s work to draw attention to the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and its efforts to establish the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Now ratified by 68 countries, mostly in the Global South, the ban treaty entered into force in January 2021—the first international legally binding agreement to ban nuclear weapons and associated activities, from testing to development.

However, since then, Fihn feels like things have backslid. Vladimir Putin’s threats have reminded the world that nuclear war is not just a Cold War–era concern. In a March poll, 7 in 10 Americans said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine increased the possibility of nuclear weapons being used anywhere. Polls in Poland and France reflected similar concerns. “There’s so much happening and it’s hard to keep up—a lot of anxiety and awfulness,” Fihn says. Growing great-power competition—from Kim Jong Un’s nuclear tests to China’s rapidly expanding arsenal—raises the stakes for Western democracies, she argues. “Nuclear weapons make us vulnerable to dictators that do not answer to their people.”

Though Fihn announced in November that she would step down as ICAN’s executive director at the end of January, she plans to remain involved and is optimistic about this moment, pointing to progress made after crises in the 1960s and 1980s when the world came to the brink of nuclear war. “People are talking about nuclear weapons more than they have since the ’80s. We have to use this to build a bigger movement—to double or triple in size—so we can set the stage for when the war in Ukraine is over,” she says. “Tomorrow just needs to be bigger than today.”………………………………………………………………………………

The ban treaty offers, in Fihn’s view, a way for countries to express their condemnation of a system that gives a handful of nations a monopoly on nuclear weapons while the rest will only bear their consequences. “Instead of just waiting for them to come to the table, our goal is to change the landscape,” Fihn says. “What can Jamaica do? What can Fiji do? How can they play a role rather than just waiting for the nuclear-armed states to be ready?”

ICAN also brings in ordinary citizens from countries that hold nuclear weapons, where public support for them is low. A 2019 poll of U.S. and Japanese residents found that a majority—64.7% and 75% respectively—wanted their governments to join the ban treaty; a 2020 poll of six NATO states not including the U.S. found overwhelming support for the same…………………………..

Fihn is undeterred. She was 6 months pregnant with her second child when she assumed her role. “I was worried that it would be too much,” she says, “and it’s been really hard, but I’m proud that I dared to take the job.” From Geneva, she has spent years trying to build a broad coalition of students, artists, lawyers, doctors, environmental activists, and racial-justice activists. ICAN now counts 652 partner organizations in 110 countries.

The Nobel Prize offered them a massive boost. “We weren’t heads of state, or big celebrities. We were just random people doing some petitions, seminars, panels, emailing parliamentarians, nagging politicians, holding meetings.

There are no TV shows about negotiators for a reason,” she laughs.

Though Fihn’s husband has often been the main caregiver, her 8- and 11-year-old kids have joined her for some of these meetings. That means they’ve heard more about nuclear weapons than she perhaps wishes. “I never want to lie to them, but I want to make sure it’s manageable for a child,” she says. “I always try to emphasize that nobody has used them since 1945 and that we just want to get rid of them to make sure there are no accidents.”

Nuclear weapons, Fihn says, are “pretty simple: big bomb goes boom.” What she wants to talk about is what happens afterward: the radiation, the firestorms; the cancers, the miscarriages, the stillborn babies; the collapse of health and food systems. What to do with hundreds of thousands of dead bodies. “I hate that our work is often called naive,” Fihn says. “We’re the ones actually talking about what happens if a bomb goes off. Thinking that we can just wait forever and someday the nuclear-weapon states will just agree? That’s naive.”

Fihn believes that amplifying survivors’ stories is critical to building a movement against nuclear weapons. During the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, she shared the stage with Setsuko Thurlow, an ICAN campaigner who was 13 when the U.S. attacked Hiroshima. “The first image that comes to mind is of my 4-year-old nephew, Eiji,” Thurlow said, “his little body transformed into an unrecognizable melted chunk of flesh…To me, he came to represent all the innocent children of the world, threatened as they are at this very moment by nuclear weapons.”

Fihn has also been successful in highlighting their effects on marginalized communities, from U.S. nuclear tests on the Marshall Islands to British ones on Indigenous lands in Australia. “Her work really opened the door to a much wider understanding of what nuclear-weapons testing has meant in different countries,” says Kate Hudson, the General Secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and a leading anti-nuclear campaigner in Britain………………………………………………………….



January 4, 2023 - Posted by | 2 WORLD, PERSONAL STORIES

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