In the final week of March, representatives from more than 130 governments began work on a United Nations treaty to prohibit the most inhumane and destructive devices ever created: nuclear weapons. The historic talks, which will continue in June and July, bring an end to more than two decades of paralysis in multilateral nuclear disarmament efforts – and mark a decisive turning point for the international community.
A large and diverse team of ICAN campaigners participated actively in the March session at the UN headquarters in New York, presenting our ideas on how to establish the most robust and effective treaty possible. In addition, many hundreds of campaigners around the world organized local actions to draw attention to this major diplomatic initiative and to build public and political support for the treaty.
The chair of the conference, Costa Rican ambassador Elayne Whyte, has conveyed her confidence that the treaty can be concluded by 7 July – the final day of the second round of negotiations – describing this as “an achievable goal”. In light of today’s dire international security environment, which places us within a hair’s breadth of nuclear catastrophe, our task is all the more crucial and urgent.
A coordinated effort
On the weekend before the negotiations, ICAN campaigners gathered for a two-day meeting to exchange ideas and coordinate our efforts. We set up teams that would focus on advocacy, monitoring the debates, holding actions, generating media attention, sharing our message through social media, and documenting the process. In partnership with Religions for Peace, we launched a handbook for the negotiations.
“We should together seize the moment to work for the establishment of a clear international norm – in the form of a global treaty – to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons.” – Dr William F Vendley, Religions for Peace
Addressing the conference
ICAN and our partner organizations delivered several statements during the plenary meetings, outlining our views on what elements the treaty should include. We presented ideas for the preamble, for the core set of prohibitions, for positive obligations such as stockpile destruction, environmental remediation and victim assistance, and for institutional arrangements to ensure the treaty’s full implementation.
Setsuko Thurlow, a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, delivered ICAN’s opening statement – an impassioned plea to delegates to bear in mind the victims of these horrific weapons and to work for a comprehensive, unambiguous ban. Sue Coleman-Haseldine, an Aboriginal nuclear test survivor from Australia, echoed her call, urging governments to include in the treaty a provision on victim assistance.
During a unique interactive panel debate, ICAN representatives and others offered expert advice on the elements for the treaty, answering questions and responding to comments by diplomats. Many nations praised the contributions of civil society organizations, noting that these negotiations would never have been possible without our dedicated efforts over the past few years to put this issue on the global agenda.
“Your task this week, and again over three weeks in June and July, is to establish a clear, new, international standard – to declare, in no uncertain terms, that nuclear weapons are illegitimate, immoral and illegal.” – Setsuko Thurlow
Throughout the week, campaigners organized vigils and other actions near or at the United Nations. We distributed hand-folded paper cranes – a Japanese symbol for nuclear disarmament – to government delegates and left them on the empty desks of nations boycotting the talks. As the conference began, several hundred activists protested outside military based in Europe where nuclear weapons are currently deployed.
Reaching out to delegates
In between the negotiating meetings, campaigners met with members of most of the government delegations present. We coordinated our advocacy in regional teams, outlining our expectations for the content of the treaty and the negotiating process. We handed diplomats briefing materials and encouraged them to speak in support of certain proposals. We also met with officials from several of the nations boycotting the process.
“The case for prohibiting nuclear weapons is clear: they are by nature inhumane and indiscriminate. Weapons that cause unacceptable harm to civilians cannot remain legal or be considered legitimate options for states in warfare.” – ICAN paper
Monitoring the debates
ICAN closely monitored the debates throughout the week. We published live updates on our blog and wrote reports for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Our partner organization Reaching Critical Will published Nuclear Ban Daily – a detailed account of who said what, combined with analysis and side event reports. Several other ICAN partner organizations also published blog posts and articles.
ICAN’s social media team helped spread our message far and wide. Tens of thousands of people viewed our daily videos of the negotiations. We were active on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, among other platforms. In several countries, #nuclearban was a trending hashtag on social media. We provided opportunities for people all around the world to contribute to the success of the conference.
We organized several side events to focus delegates’ attention on particular topics, such as the need to prohibit the financing of nuclear weapons and ensure that assistance is given to the victims of nuclear detonations. We also launched a report on the role that Pacific island states have played in advancing a global ban. The Pacific region continues to suffer the impacts of more than 300 nuclear tests.
“Pacific islanders continue to experience epidemics of cancers, chronic diseases and congenital abnormalities as a result of the radioactive fallout that blanketed their homes and the vast Pacific Ocean.” – ICAN report
Global parliamentary activity
In the lead-up to and during the March session, parliamentarians in many countries – including countries armed with nuclear weapons or under a so-called nuclear umbrella – voiced their strong support for a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons. Some publicly quizzed their foreign ministers on why they had chosen to boycott this historic UN process, which aims to enhance the security of all nations.
Lawmakers in Australia, Belgium, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy and elsewhere tabled motions urging their governments to participate in the conference. There was significant parliamentary activity also in Canada, Norway and Japan in relation to the negotiations. More than 800 elected representatives from 42 nations had helped ICAN build support for this UN process by signing our parliamentary appeal.
“The Senate urges the Australian government to participate constructively in the conference [to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination].” – Australian parliamentary motion
Widespread media coverage
At a press briefing on the opening day of the conference, ICAN’s executive director, Beatrice Fihn, described the urgent humanitarian imperative to outlaw nuclear weapons and the historic significance of these negotiations. Many of the world’s largest news outlets, including the New York Times, Bloomberg, Reuters, Al Jazeera, CNN and the Guardian, used quotes from our campaign in their reports.
“The treaty will finally ban weapons designed to indiscriminately kill civilians, completing the prohibitions on weapons of mass destruction. It will have an impact even on countries that fail to participate – by setting international norms of behaviour and removing the prestige associated with nuclear weapons.” – Beatrice Fihn
Significant progress made
On the final day of the March session, representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Mexican and Irish delegations spoke at an ICAN event assessing the progress made during the talks so far. Speakers noted the positive atmosphere and strong convergence of ideas among governments. They agreed that the week’s debates had set the stage well for the negotiations in June and July.
Thanks to our donors
We wish to convey our sincere thanks and deep appreciation to the many donors who made our activities during the March session possible, and who helped us reach this critical point. In particular, we acknowledge the generous contributions of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, PAX, Religions for Peace, Soka Gakkai International and the Swedish Physicians against Nuclear Weapons.