An ever clearer message from civil society

Comments, Vienna

This weekend (6-7 December), more than 600 civil society actors from all corners of the world met in Vienna, Austria, to discuss what to do about nuclear weapons. The overall message was unequivocal: It is time for states that are committed to the elimination of nuclear weapons to come together and negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons.

During two days of panel debates, workshops, speakers’ corners, lightning speeches, and breakout sessions, the participants at the ICAN Civil Society Forum heard to testimonies from victims; learned more about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons; discussed the risk associated with these weapons; considered their military utility; and last, but not least, posed the key question: What needs to be done?

The programme of the first day featured names such as Tetsuko Thurlow, (Hiroshima survivor), Tony de Brum (Foreign Minister of Marshall Islands), and Eric Schlosser (author of the book Command and Control). The participants were presented with vivid images of the human horrors of the use and testing of nuclear weapons, as well as disturbing facts about near-misses, and a critical assessment of whether nuclear weapons could possibly serve a useful military purpose. The only logical response to all of this: nuclear weapons must be eliminated.

On day two of the forum, the attention turned towards political responses to the unacceptability of nuclear weapons. The main panel before lunch—featuring Gry Larsen (Former State Secretary, Norway), Jorge Lomónaco (Mexican Ambassador to Geneva), Jan Kickert (Political Director, Austrian MFA), and Breifne O’Reilly (Director for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, MFA of Ireland)—discussed the need for political leadership in order to move the nuclear weapons agenda forward. In the afternoon, a panel of parliamentarians from Europe and North America also shared their views on the nuclear weapons challenge.

The last session of the forum was dedicated to the question of why, when and how nuclear weapons should be prohibited. The panel laid out some of the practical implications of a comprehensive nuclear ban treaty, including the normative pressure it would generate and the stigmatizing effect it would have on anyone from possessors and ‘hosters’, to producers and investors. It would also serve as a critically important tool for civil society campaigners in their efforts to convince nuclear-reliant governments of making the shift to a non-nuclear security doctrine.

To make this happen, it was underlined that there was need for resolute normative leadership on the part of non-nuclear-weapons states. One could not expect states possessing nuclear weapons to initiative a process to prohibit a category of weapons that still constitutes a key element in their own security policies. Equally important, however: one did not have to. The rationale for a ban treaty dictated that it would not require the participation of the nuclear-armed states in order for it to fulfil its purpose. If the aim of the exercise is to establish a norm of political unacceptability, the question of whether or not a country possesses nuclear weapons should be irrelevant.

The overall message from the Civil Soviety Forum was unequivocal: Time has come to negotiate a ban on nuclear weapons.

As the Third Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons is getting under way, it is difficult to gauge the political relevance and practical significance of this message, and of a gathering of 600 civil society campaigners in a centuries-old building in the middle of Vienna. If hundreds of thousands of people protesting in the streets in the 1980s did not succeed in ridding the world of nuclear weapons, what could we reasonably expect a few hundred well-behaved spectators at a panel debate to achieve?

Possibly nothing—possibly everything.

Over the past couple of years, the gravitational power of the conceptually simple idea of a ban treaty has been pulling an ever-greater number of civil society organizations and campaigns onto the same ban(d)wagon. What must have sounded like calming cacophony of dismissible demands and suggestions only a few of years ago, is now turning into a single strong voice that may become very difficult to ignore—for nuclear-armed and nuclear-weapon-free states alike.

What the ICAN Civil Society Forum represents is perhaps the power of converging opinions

What the ICAN Civil Society Forum represents is perhaps the power of converging opinions. It suggests that even for an issue that has been stuck on the agenda of the international community for nearly seven decades, there is still room for new thoughts and ideas. What we are witnessing among NGOs working on nuclear weapons today is not a mass mobilization of frightened populations, but a positive mobilization around an idea with massive potential.

The question—is whether its time has now come.


Torbjørn Graff Hugo