Nobel Peace Prize laureate: ‘We are going back to the 1980s’

Beatrice Fihn, director of International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), speaks on stage during the Nobel Peace Prize Concert to honor the peace prize laureates, Norway, 11 December 2017. [EPA-EFE/Berit Roald]

Bringing a 1950s radioactive technology capable of wiping out cities into a high-tech environment is a recipe for suicide, says 2017 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Beatrice Fihn. She spoke to about nuclear deterrence, arms control ambitions and the current INF Treaty debate.

Beatrice Fihn is the executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). Together with Hiroshima survivor Setsuko Thurlow, she accepted the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for her organisation’s efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of nuclear weapons.

Fihn spoke to EURACTIV’s Alexandra Brzozowski on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference 2019.

The Doomsday Clock, which warns about the likelihood of a man-made global catastrophe through dangerous technologies of our own making, says it is ‘two minutes to midnight’. Are you concerned?

Very much. In a way, we are going back to the 1980s. The last couple of years have shown that the situation is turning for the worse. Firstly, because of the rhetoric and new steps that have been taken out of a pure wish to ruin established treaties, which we were agreed for a good reason – the INF Treaty, the Iran nuclear deal – and secondly, because of the increased engagement in a new nuclear arms race.

Since your organisation won the Nobel Peace Prize, there has been growing support for your Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). However, we have also seen major setbacks for important arms-control agreements. How would you assess the progress towards nuclear disarmament?

I think we have to look at two parallel developments, even two parallel realities: One is that there is a progressive movement of countries, concerned about what is happening, which are signing and ratifying the nuclear ban treaty in response. But then, of course, you have the other side, the nuclear-armed states themselves with hostile rhetoric, anti-democratic trends, trying to unilaterally assert their power by threatening the use of nuclear weapons.

This divide is extremely concerning. But we should not be too depressed. Everyone looks at Trump and Putin, but there is a lot of good things happening as well.

It is a bit like with climate change: you have the US pulling out of the Paris Agreement, but you also have mass mobilization with more people caring more about this issue than ever. There is tension and dynamic and hopefully we can achieve similar results in nuclear disarmament.

What are those positive trends then?

Definitely the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons as such, adopted by 122 countries in 2017. We have 70 signatories, 21 ratified already, more are about to ratify. Ambitiously spoken, we hope to reach the 50 required for entering into force in about a year.

But then we are also using the treaty in the countries that have not yet said that they want to sign it. For example, we have seen divestment: German and Dutch banks, Japanese and even American banks start thinking ‘Ok, this is a weapon which is going to be prohibited under international law, we are not going to invest in its producers anymore.’

We see a lot of pressure on the producers, we see parliamentarians in Europe who are rightly freaking out about the INF Treaty. We see cities and mayors taking action, because cities and civilian populations are the targets of these weapons. Let us be clear, you are meant to wipe out cities with them. This is what they are designed for. We have a lot of cities all over Europe and the world that are committing to the treaty and calling on their national governments to do the same. We try to support this bottom-up approach.

Is there an option to impose sanctions against nuclear weapon states or companies that trade in nuclear weapons?

Not yet. And I think for European countries to try and sanction the United States is very unlikely to happen. But you can stigmatise those weapons. It worked very well with cluster munitions. Although the US, Russia and China did not join the respective prohibition treaties, they shifted their behaviour and stopped using them, their companies even stopped producing them. The last American company stopped producing those weapons in 2016. The growing international stigma, the divestment campaigns are a reason why it is no longer good business – and this is what we are trying to do with nuclear weapons, too.

Can you share your thoughts on why the United States pulled out of the Iran deal and the INF Treaty?

With Trump, we have a president – and advisors to the president – that does not respect international law, but believes in bullying and pressuring. And we can witness how the European countries are reacting – like bullied kids.

We heard US Vice President Pence encouraging European countries to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal – an agreement that is working well as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirms, and in which Europe has invested so much effort and leadership negotiating. I cannot underline enough how lucky we were to get this deal through. It was a huge accomplishment and to see this falling apart is very frustrating. Especially, because we might not be able to convince Iran to something similar at a later time, we cannot let it fail now. European countries need to stand strong.

European security experts fear that the INF Treaty withdrawal could start a new nuclear arms race. Recent talks revolve around whether to start negotiating a new agreement, which could include states like China, too. Do you see this happening?

We heard Chinese representatives already saying ‘no’. But we should definitely aim for all nuclear-armed states to negotiate towards nuclear disarmament. One problem is that there has been no comprehensive prohibition of nuclear weapons so far. The paradox is, we aim for arms control and reducing nuclear weapons, but at the same time value them and believe they are great for our security.

This is the main problem we have with the INF Treaty: ‘If Russia isn’t complying, then we shouldn’t be in this treaty at all’. This mindset means that you secretly think that more nuclear weapons are better. It is a very dangerous path.

Europe is shielded by this “nuclear umbrella.” What is our responsibility?

Europeans have to own up to their role and complicity. We hear that the US should do this, Russia should do that, but what should we Europeans do? Every country needs to look at the following: Are we prepared to mass murder civilians? Is Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands or Norway, are we prepared to wipe out civilians with weapons of mass destruction, poison survivors, cause intergenerational harm, cancer, all for a security gamble?

We created the Geneva Conventions, human rights treaties, we committed to the laws of war and the fact that civilians should not be a target. European countries have such a big role to play in helping to stigmatise, delegitimise nuclear weapons and to pull countries like Russia and the US with them.

It is a popular belief that the reason the world has seen less traditional, interstate war in recent decades is because the risk of nuclear war makes states less likely to use force against each other.

No matter if you believe this or not, the risks outweigh the benefits. In particular, because we are standing in front of a huge technological revolution in military means: artificial intelligence, cyber warfare, non-state actors, all developments that are going to change the security calculations drastically. The pace of warfare is going to change, the way we carry it out.

In case of a cyber attack – do we respond with nuclear weapons? Can we take out their nuclear weapons before they get used? Can they take out ours? Should we launch first then? Those are crazy mind-games. They have to stop being hypocritical because if you want to avoid a nuclear war, you have to get rid of nuclear weapons.

We have been so close to nuclear war before.

Indeed, if you, for example, think about Stanislav Petrov, lieutenant colonel of the Soviet Air Defence Forces, who became known as “the man who single-handedly saved the world from nuclear war” during the 1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident. His information said there were incoming missiles. Would this have been an automated system, there wouldn’t have been a doubt there. This is just one of many such examples.

We are now putting in place the nuclear weapons modernisation programmes that are going to last for another 80 years – longer than we have had nuclear weapons so far. As technological development is accelerating exponentially, who knows where we will be technologically in the same period of time? Bringing a 1950s radioactive technology capable of wiping out cities into a high-tech environment is a recipe for suicide. European governments, even if they believe it deters, have to seriously re-evaluate this strategy.

In two years from now, the New START Treaty, another nuclear arms reduction treaty between the US and Russia runs out. Could it suffer the same fate as the INF Treaty?

I am very worried it could, but we have two years to start lowering the value of the role nuclear weapons play. The more we boost nuclear weapons as a status symbol, the more legitimacy we give to Putin, to Kim Jong-Un, to Trump. European countries, in order to save the New START Treaty, have to help us to shift the mindset about nuclear weapons and start talking about risks and consequences of nuclear weapon use in a more serious way.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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