The Desperate Symbolism of the Nobel Peace Prize

ICAN is a great organization, but the Nobel Peace Prize will do little to further its mission.

Oct 6 2017, 7:37pm

ICAN coordinator Daniel Hogstan, executive director Beatrice Fihn and her husband Will Fihn Ramsay after winning the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. Image: Getty/AFP/Fabrice Coffrini

Today a committee of five Norwegians announced that the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) is the 2017 recipient of the prestigious, and basically meaningless, Nobel Peace Prize.

According to the Nobel website, the group was awarded 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 treaty-based prohibition of such weapons."

ICAN was founded a decade ago by another Nobel Peace Prize-winning group, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). It has since become an international grassroots anti-nuclear movement focused on raising popular awareness of the threat posed by nuclear weapons.

ICAN's main claim to the Nobel, however, was its instrumental role in brokering the UN nuke prohibition treaty signed this summer, which represented the culmination of a decade's worth of tireless effort to rid the world of the most destructive weapons ever created.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is a legally binding international agreement that was approved by 122 United Nation members this past July. The treaty prohibits signatories from development, deployment, and stockpiling of nuclear weapons, or if the country is already in possession of nuclear weapons, commits that country to the total elimination of their nuclear program.

The only problem is that of the 122 countries that voted in favor of the treaty language, not a single one was in possession of a nuclear weapon. Every single nuclear-armed country on Earth did not vote on the treaty—except for the Netherlands, which voted against it. The two biggest nuclear powers, the United States and Russia, as well as a number of NATO members, expressed explicit opposition to the treaty.

In a press statement after the adoption of the treaty, the United States, France, and Great Britain said they "do not intend to sign, ratify or ever become party to it." Russia issued a statement saying "the emergence of a Treaty for the prohibition of nuclear weapons will not change reality in the field of strategic stability that mandates us to exercise utmost caution and responsibility with our evaluations of the future of nuclear disarmament." In other words, keeping nuclear weapons is necessary for national security because a number of other countries have nuclear weapons and no intention of relinquishing them.

ICAN is not naive, however. In a statement after the receipt of the peace prize, the organization's executive director Beatrice Fihn said she had no illusions that the prize would change the minds of world leaders about nuclear disarmament.

"It doesn't work like that," Fihn said at a press conference. "The treaty is meant to make it harder to justify nuclear weapons, to make it uncomfortable for states to continue with the status quo, to put more pressure on them. It isn't going to happen overnight, of course."

The problem is that all the powers with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo are not party to the agreement. As for nuclear prohibition not happening overnight, this is something of an understatement.

ICAN Executive Director Beatrice Fihn with actor Michael Douglas in 2016. Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1968, the UN ratified the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons as a way to approach nuclear disarmament by depleting nuclear stockpiles over time, rather than an outright ban. While this has resulted in a steady decrease in nuclear weapons around the world, the US and Russia each have roughly 7,000 nukes in military service, accounting for over 90 percent of the total nuclear warheads in the world.

Although this treaty has been active for nearly 50 years, we're still far from total disarmament, and the United States and Russia have both explicitly said they don't see this as a realistic goal. Its unclear how the Prohibition Treaty will do anything to change this, since no nuclear power agreed to it.

This doesn't necessarily mean all hope is lost for ICAN's mission, however. Two signatories to the treaty, South Africa and Kazakhstan, were previously nuclear powers who gave up their weapons, proof that the elimination of a nation's nuclear weapons program is possible—kind of. Kazakhstan gave the 1,400 nukes it had inherited from the USSR back to Russia in 1995, which means that South Africa is the only country to ever voluntarily dismantle the six nuclear weapons the country had created.

Saudi Arabia and Iran also signed on, a bright indication that the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is actually working. As the BBC reported in 2013, there are indications that Saudi Arabia funded Pakistan's nuclear program in exchange for the option to buy nukes should Iran ever develop a nuclear weapon. By signing the nuclear prohibition treaty, this suggests that both countries are still partially committed to never turning this possibility into a reality.

Still, if working to "draw attention" to the fact that nukes = humanitarian disaster is the best we as a species have done to foster peace on our planet in the past year, it hardly seems like enough. I support ICAN's mission and have no doubt that $1.1 million in prize money will be put to good use by the organization (I reached out to ICAN for comment on how it plans to use the prize money and will update this post with the response), but the award feels desperately symbolic given the current geopolitical climate.

For the past few months, President Trump has been making increasingly explicit threats about deploying nuclear warheads against North Korea. At the same time, North Korea has been ramping up its tests of nuclear warheads and deployment vehicles. Even more distressing, however, is Trump's assertion that the 2015 Iran nuclear deal hasn't been working, despite overwhelming consensus among international watchdog groups that it's been a phenomenal success. Next week, Trump is expected to abandon the deal, which could possibly result in renewed sanctions against Iran and heightened nuclear security problems in the Middle East.

It is argued that it is precisely these current nuclear tensions that justify the award going to the group since it serves as a "timely reinforcement of the opprobrium and concern that should be attached to nuclear weapons," according to the BBC. But a brief look at the history of the Peace Prize is enough to understand that a "timely reinforcement" will do almost nothing to further nuclear disarmament.

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The Nobel Peace Prize was one of six prizes established in the will of the wealthy Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, who apparently felt guilty that he had amassed most of his fortune by manufacturing weapons. According to Nobel's will, the peace prize should be awarded to the people who "have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses."

The contradiction of an arms manufacturer funding a major international peace award seems to be baked into the prize, which has recently been awarded to people who aren't exactly sterling examples of peace ambassadors.

In 1994, the peace prize was shared by the Palestinian National Authority president Yasser Arafat, Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres, and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The following year, Israeli defense forces killed 42 Palestinians, Palestinians killed 9 members of the Israeli military, a string of suicide bombings left dozens of Israeli civilians dead, and Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist who was opposed to Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. These groups are no closer to a lasting peace today.

In 2007, Al Gore shared the peace prize for making a documentary about climate change, which many members of congress still don't believe is real. In 2009, Barack Obama, who greatly expanded America's overseas drone war, won the peace prize. The European Union inexplicably won the peace prize in 2012, despite accounting for a third of global arms exports. Last year, the peace prize was awarded to Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, who was defense minister when the extrajudicial killings of guerilla fighters in the country for reward money was revealed in 2009.

This is not to disparage the efforts of ICAN, which has done about as much as any other organization could do in the perennially stagnant arena of international nuclear disarmament policy, and has done it without also making the world a worse place. Rather, it's to acknowledge that the Nobel Peace Prize has become little more than a nice thought at best, and a hypocritical participation trophy at worst.

I sincerely hope ICAN is successful in its nuclear abolition efforts before a world leader has the chance to repeat the nuclear humanitarian disasters of the 20th century. If it does, however, this will be the result of the tireless activism of its members rather than its recognition by an increasingly meaningless award.