Courage, Conviction and Collective Action

Program Coordinator Erin Hunt spoke at the PEGASUS Conference on April 28. Here are her remarks.

Thank you for having me today.

When I was preparing for this talk, I looked into the land I would be visiting as part of personal efforts towards reconciliation and I learned that the land we are on today is the subject of the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Iroquois Confederacy and Confederacy of the Ojibwe and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes. The Covenant recognized that we have to share the responsibility of ensuring the shared dish (this territory) is never empty, which includes taking care of the land and the creatures we share it with. That idea that we all eat out of one dish with only one spoon is crucial to the story I want to tell you today.

This is the story of how ordinary people combined conviction, courage and collective action to do the impossible - to ban the bomb and take humanity one step closer to world without nuclear weapons.

At the heart of ICAN’s work and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is a simple conviction: due to their humanitarian impact nuclear weapons must be prohibited then eliminated and we all have a role to play in that process.

We heard a convincing case for why nuclear weapons must be prohibited and eliminated from Ira. Regardless of your knowledge of medicine, nuclear physics, arms control, international law or diplomacy, it is easy to see that an indiscriminate weapon whose impacts cannot be contained poses an existential threat to us, the land and the creatures we share it with and is therefore unacceptable. If we all eat of out of one dish with only one spoon, we should never use or possess a weapon that could contaminate the dish for centuries.

For too many decades, the global conversation about nuclear weapons was something for the experts and most of the time those experts were men with security or military backgrounds. For the majority of the past 70 years the rest of us and our opinions were something to be humoured – maybe – but nuclear disarmament and deterrence was “serious” work for “serious” people and couldn’t be tainted with humanity or emotion. Actually discussing what nuclear weapons would do to people was considered a weakness.

Talking about what nuclear weapons do to people, bringing the evidence to the table was one of the key ways ICAN and like-minded members of the international community was able to break through the diplomatic deadlock. More importantly talking about the humanitarian impact of these abhorrent weapons allowed all of us to have a say. No longer was an in-depth knowledge of warhead yields required to advocate for disarmament. The mere recognition of the global catastrophic humanitarian harm that nuclear weapons could cause is enough to justify any of us speaking out on the issue. Every person and every state has a stake in nuclear disarmament and we no longer were willing to wait around for the nuclear weapon states to disarm.

One of ICAN’s advocacy videos produced in the lead up to the negotiations reminded viewers that “It takes courage to change the world.” Having conviction means little unless you have the courage to stand up for it. Campaigners faced naysayers in almost every country around the world - even here in Canada. The nuclear armed states and their allies were angry. Diplomats supporting the ban treaty were confronted and pressured to not attend the humanitarian initiative meetings, to vote against the start of negotiations and to not attend the negotiations. Ban proponents were accused of undermining the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and of dividing the international community. One particularly memorable example was an informal statement by the United Kingdom that made allusions to the UK and the US causing problems for the NPT if states went ahead with the negotiations and condescendingly disregarded ban states’ security concerns related to the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons as not real. Long standing colonial power dynamics were resurrected and used to coerce states. Funding to civil society organizations like ICAN was cut and some former champions of nuclear disarmament, like Canada, went strangely silent.

Campaigners and states alike gathered their courage and persisted despite the pressure and difficulty. At the end of 2016, a majority of the UN General Assembly voted to start negotiations on a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. In July 2017, 122 states adopted a treaty text and in September over 50 states signed the treaty. We now have 51 states who have signed and another 7 who have ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

The reason we were able to achieve a treaty relatively quickly after decades of diplomatic deadlock is collective action. ICAN worked closely with a core group of states as well as the United Nations and the Red Cross movement throughout the process. Within ICAN, partner organizations collaborated at the international and national level to bring states on board with the ban treaty and make sure they were ready for negotiations. In many countries, parliamentarians, mayors and other decision makers were included in actions. A success in one country brought energy to the whole campaign. A shared goal made the partnerships between organizations stronger and helped motivate campaigners. We recognized that we all eat out of one dish so we have to work together to protect it.

Collective action was also a key part of civil society’s plan for the negotiations. ICAN followed the model of many humanitarian disarmament campaigns and worked both regionally and thematically. Campaigners were divided up according to the regions they were from and those regional teams worked to share messages and do advocacy with the states of that region. The thematic teams worked specifically on particular parts of the treaty. I was part of the positive obligations team which focused on ensuring that assistance to victims of nuclear weapons use and testing, environmental remediation and international cooperation were included in the treaty. Obviously the fact that Canada boycotted the negotiations was a disappointment but being part of this successful positive obligations team was an incredible experience.

Collectively campaigners wrote working papers, delivered statements, worked with government delegates on language, organized stunts outside the UN, did media interviews, strategized, analyzed texts and kept the world updated through social media. Besides the adoption of the treaty there are two images that will stick with me from the negotiation process.

  • Analyzing the new preamble on a midtown sidewalk with ICAN’s director and my colleague from Harvard Law School at 10pm one night. Beatrice had just been handed a hard copy at a dinner when we ran into her on the street so of course we had to stop and read it under a streetlight.
  • Crowding on a couch in the UN basement with the posobs team and using whatsapp and emails to communicate with two supportive diplomats in the closed door small group negotiation session on the positive obligations and successfully getting problematic language fixed and good language put in.

Hopefully those images should give you a sense of the negotiations. What I can’t show you as easily is the energy of the ICAN delegation which included youth and the elderly survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, physicians and lawyers, teachers and students, faith leaders and academics, advocates and indigenous peoples – in short ordinary concerned citizens from around the world. This diverse group acting collectively is the reason we see some very important and often overlooked language in the treaty.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has some of the strongest language on gender in a disarmament treaty – not only recognizing that nuclear weapons have different effects on men, women, girls and boys, but also promoting the participation of women in the treaty’s decision making processes and implementation. The recognition that nuclear weapons activities have had a disproportionate impact on indigenous peoples in the Treaty’s preamble is ground-breaking. This is the first disarmament treaty to recognize the rights of indigenous peoples due to the hard work of Australian, Pacific and American indigenous activists whose land is still contaminated from nuclear weapons tests a half century ago. The impacts of nuclear colonialism continue to be felt and these provisions give voice to marginalized populations who have been excluded by the nuclear deterrence narrative for decades. Acting collectively brought the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons into existence and ensured it was an inclusive and pragmatic step towards the elimination of nuclear weapons.

On July 7 2017, we collectively held our breath as the votes to adopt the text came up one by one on the screen and collectively we applauded, cried and hugged when the votes showed an overwhelming majority of states in favour. Later in the year, we collectively celebrated the treaty being opened for signature and then the Nobel Peace Prize. With courage, conviction and collective action, this group of ordinary people had changed the world.

Previous humanitarian disarmament treaties show that getting the treaty (and even winning a Nobel Peace Prize) is actually the easy part and the hard work comes now.

So what’s next and how can Canada and Canadians play a role?

The treaty needs 50 ratifications to enter into force so the priority for the next year or two is to get states to sign and ratify the treaty. Canada should be one of those first 50 and Canadians should, of course, be encouraging our government to join the Treaty as soon as possible.

Canada may not have participated in the negotiations or signed the Treaty yet but there are ways for Canada to contribute to its implementation. Canada should participate as an observer in all treaty meetings until we join. Before Canada joins and even after we should be focusing on the positive obligations provisions in the treaty.

These provisions on victim assistance and environmental remediation in the treaty mean that the moment it enters into force it will begin to have an impact on the lives of people.

It is these provisions that offer Canada and Canadians the opportunity to engage meaningfully with the treaty. We have the skills, knowledge and resources to make a real difference to affected communities.

Our feminist international assistance policy and Canada’s work toward the sustainable development goals can help support victim assistance services or environmental remediation in nuclear weapons affected communities of the South Pacific, Algeria and Kazakhstan. Not only do we have to protect the dish we share but we also have to protect and help those we share it with.

Canada says it is committed to ensuring gender equality and to pursuing reconciliation with indigenous peoples. Engaging with the treaty will help us reach these goals.

In order to make these changes, parliamentarians need to hear from Canadians that this is an important issue. In some of our allies, parliament is the main force driving reviews of the treaty and its compatibility with NATO. So get out there and tell people what you have learned today and what you want to see.

When I started I said I wanted to tell you the story of ordinary people who used conviction, courage and collective action to achieve the impossible. So far we have been more successful that we dared dream but the story is just getting started and we need you to help us write the next chapter.

Thank you.