Culmination of a decades-long struggle
The Humanitarian Initiative and the process leading to the conclusion of the TPNW negotiations in 2017 can be characterised as a period in which a strong set of arguments was created, re-framing the nuclear weapons discourse in a humanitarian direction. This, and the resulting challenge to the nuclear status quo, was achieved through cooperative and complementary activities by State and civil society actors, using their respective available fora and strengths effectively. The combination of arguments around human security, responsibility and legitimacy generated significant momentum for change and a stronger sense of agency for non-nuclear weapon States.
Certainly, this momentum was limited to non-nuclear weapon States, disenfranchised by the NPT process, and who looked for new ways to strengthen the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime. The Humanitarian Initiative created a sense of empowerment for these States and provided a cogent new representation of their longstanding nuclear disarmament priorities. Moreover, the fact that the Humanitarian Initiative could be pursued without the sanctus of the nuclear weapon States, who usually exert full control over proceedings on this issue, was attractive. These factors, together with the excitement and expectation generated by the ICAN campaign, created a funnel effect, as more and more non-nuclear weapon States embraced the idea of supporting a ban treaty.
Moreover, the boycott of and lack of engagement in the Humanitarian Initiative by the nuclear weapon States, and the not very convincing counterarguments (discussed in the following section) added rather than sap momentum towards ban negotiations. They not only underscored the pertinence of the arguments and conclusions that the Humanitarian Initiative had developed. Their vehement and sometimes over-the-top opposition to the ban idea also de facto served as a potent antidote for the still sceptical non-nuclear weapon States that a ban that did not include the nuclear weapon States would make no difference. As a consequence,
the more the nuclear-weapon states dismissed humanitarian perspectives and their allies sought to apply the brakes on the slippery slope toward prohibition negotiations, the more it appeared to strengthen the ICAN narrative, underlining the dissonance between those states’ statements in support of a nuclear-weapon-free world with their lack of progress toward it.39
The adoption of the TPNW on 7 July 2017 represents a culmination of a decades-long struggle for nuclear disarmament. This was expressed in the many statements on that day i.e. “groundbreaking, historic, a triumph for multilateralism and a significant step forward”.40 At the Signing Ceremony for the TPNW at the United Nations in New York on 20 September 2017,41 after speeches by the UN Secretary General, the President of the UN General Assembly, the President of Costa Rica, the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Executive Director of ICAN, 50 States signed and three, Thailand, the Holy Sea and Guyana ratified the TPNW.42 UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres welcomed the treaty as an “historic milestone towards the elimination of nuclear weapons ... [and urged that] we cannot allow these doomsday weapons to endanger our world and our children’s future”. ICRC President Peter Maurer called the TPNW “a light for all humanity”.43
For ICAN, the unrivalled recognition was the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. The Norwegian Nobel Committee decided to award ICAN the Peace Prize for
its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treatybased prohibition of such weapons.... The coalition has been a driving force in prevailing upon the world’s nations to pledge to cooperate with all relevant stakeholders in efforts to stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons. To date, 127 states have made such a commitment, known as the Humanitarian Pledge.44
The award ceremony on 10 December 2017 was a worthy celebration and recognition of a dramatic change achieved in a relatively short period of time. The ICAN Nobel lectures were jointly delivered by Beatrice Film, ICAN Executive Director, and Setsuko Thurlow, Hibakusha survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Film stated that
Nuclear weapons, like chemical weapons, biological weapons, cluster munitions and land mines before them, are now illegal. Their existence is immoral. Their abolishment is in our hands. The end is inevitable. But will that end be the end of nuclear weapons or the end of us? We must choose one. We are a movement for rationality. For democracy. For freedom from fear.
Thurlow urged "To every president and prime minister of every nation of the world, I beseech you: join this treaty; forever eradicate the threat of nuclear-annihilation”.45
The Nobel Peace Prize Award in 2017 was undoubtedly also the high point in terms of public recognition of the TPNW and the humanitarian arguments that underpin it. While the negotiations and the adoption of the TPNW received relatively limited coverage in the media, the Nobel Peace Prize was globally reported, including by practically all so-called mainstream media.46
Amidst the jubilation about the Nobel Peace Prize came the news that France, UK and US would not send their ambassadors to attend the ceremony in Oslo “to express their reservations towards ICAN and the global treaty to ban weapons of mass destruction”.47 This quite unprecedented diplomatic move on the part of the three Western nuclear weapon States, vis-à-vis the Norwegian Nobel Committee hosts, did not spoil the celebrations but was a reminder that the Humanitarian Initiative, the TPNW and, more generally, nuclear disarmament, remained fiercely contested. With the TPNW adopted and ICAN awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the opposition against this challenge to the nuclear status quo would only become more determined.