home News, Opinions A Cautionary Celebration: Nuclear Weapons and ICAN’s Nobel Peace Prize

A Cautionary Celebration: Nuclear Weapons and ICAN’s Nobel Peace Prize

“We live in a world where the risk of nuclear weapons being used is greater than it has been for a long time.” Berit Reiss-Andersen, the leader of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, made this statement to justify giving the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) the Nobel Peace Prize in early October. ICAN officially launched in Vienna in 2007 after its start in Australia, organizing a coalition of grass-roots NGOs in over 100 countries to stop the threat of nuclear weapons.


Notably, ICAN recently helped lobby for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which was passed in July. Also known as the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty, it comprehensively prohibits nuclear weapons with an aim towards eliminating them in the future. While the Treaty gained wide-spread support from African and Latin American countries, no nuclear-armed nation (including United States, Russia, and China) supported the ban. Other nations, such as Japan, Australia and several NATO countries, were hesitant because they believe the presence of nuclear weapons enhances security.


ICAN’s Nobel Prize not only rewards the group for their important work in creating the Treaty, but also flags the growing issue of nuclear weapons on the international stage. The Nobel committee explicitly stated that they were not sending a political message to a specific country. However, their comments on the modernization of nuclear arsenals, and the procurement of nuclear weapons by more countries, certainly reference dangerous tensions between countries. For instance, the Trump administration’s decertification of the Iran deal, the heated exchange between the US and North Korea, and the growing conflict between India and Pakistan.


In mid-October, the Trump administration officially decertified the Iran nuclear deal, which was meant to lift economic sanctions on Iran in return for limitations to the country’s nuclear program. Trump consistently criticized the deal during the election and while in office. Decertification does not automatically bring back the sanctions, but it does allow the US Congress to reimpose sanctions after a vote. If the Trump administration successfully sanctions Iran, there may be little incentive for Iran to keep its end of the deal.


The decertification falls in the shadow of the heated exchange between Trump and North Korea over the summer. On July 4th, North Korea successfully launched an intercontinental ballistic missile powerful enough to reach mainland US, and has continued to test its nuclear weapons despite criticism from the international community. On August 5th, the UN Security Council adopted harsh economic sanctions against North Korea in response to its missile tests, which effectively blocked coal, iron, and other commodities from being exported. To worsen relations, Trump stated that “any more threats to the United States” will prompt “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”


Although the threat of nuclear weapons seems to be coming predominantly from the US and the Trump administration, other countries are also accountable for growing tensions. India and Pakistan are still present, with nuclear arms experts estimating India’s nuclear arsenal to number 110-120 warheads and Pakistan’s to be around 120-130. Of particular concern to some security experts are the potential misuse of these weapons by non-state actors. India and Pakistan have the third and fourth highest rate of terrorist attacks in 2016, with 927 and 734 reported attacks respectively. The fear is that independent groups may gain access to these weapons, especially when they are being moved.


The threat of nuclear weapons has generated criticism from the human rights community for years, with deep roots in the Cold War. The clearest violation in the event of actual conflict would be the right to life, which obliges states to respect, protect, and fulfil its enjoyment.

However, others include human rights violations to humane treatment, to a healthy environment, and to the highest attainable standard of health to justify bans.


Although some may criticize this form of activism as soft, claiming that pragmatic pressures like national security and economic sanctions are the main levers of change, human rights have historically played a role in informing these debates. Indeed, the idea of “humanitarian disarmament,” which builds on international humanitarian and human rights laws in order to protect civilians from suffering during conflicts, is also long-standing within the international community. Similar to ICAN, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines also won the Nobel Prize two decades ago with a similar international coalition to stop the suffering of innocent civilians by these weapons.


Although ICAN and the Treaty should be praised for their effort in moving the conversation forward, their work is definitely far from over. It seems clear that countries armed with nuclear weapons will continue to ignore the international community’s condemnation of these stockpiles and programs. Only time will tell, however, whether our collective efforts using human rights, pragmatism, and diplomacy will do any good.



This article was published as part of the Osgoode chapter of Canadian Lawyers for International Human Rights (CLAIHR) media series, which aims to promote an awareness of international human rights issues.


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Jerico - ICAN Nobel Prize