“This is the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons,” remarked Setsuko Thurlow, who was a 13-year-old school girl when an atomic bomb was dropped on her hometown of Hiroshima. The leading activist for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) gave this statement during the closing session of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) negotiations.
The TPNW, adopted on 7 July 2017, marked the culmination of years of advocacy by civil society activists and weeks of intense negotiations by diplomats. This treaty does not only prohibit countries from developing, testing, possessing and threatening to use nuclear weapons, it also recognises the gendered impact of the use and testing of nuclear weapons and calls for victim assistance.
On 24 October 2020, marking the 75th UN Day, the TPNW reached the 50 ratifications mark required for it to trigger its entry into force. Ninety days later, on 22 January 2021, the Treaty will enter into force, making nuclear weapons illegal under international law. This is an historic moment and one activists have been working towards for over 75 years, since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.
The coalition of non-governmental organisations promoting adherence to and implementation of the TPNW, ICAN, is headquartered in Geneva. Second year master student Elizabeth Nakielny and recent graduate Gayathri Nagasubramaniam have been working at ICAN as active campaigners for the cause.
“My involvement in this campaign was a key reason why I chose to study Global Security in Geneva, which is a major hub for the disarmament and humanitarian communities”, Elizabeth said. Prior to her studies in Switzerland, Elizabeth participated in the Back from the Brink: The Call to Prevent Nuclear War task force in the United States. She also volunteered with Florida Physicians for Social Responsibility to raise awareness of the health and humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and advance the ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) cities appeal. “I have been able to continue my involvement with the Campaign by doing research for it and volunteering at events such as the ICAN Paris Forum”.
“Working with ICAN did not just inspire me to dwell deeper into understanding how the campaign influenced the treaty and its gender-sensitive outcome in my master’s thesis, but learning about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and the ways in which activists and a handful of states braved some of the most powerful in the world to achieve this treaty, transformed my conception of ‘security’ for the better”, explained Gayathri Nagasubramaniam. She joined ICAN as content intern in 2019 and provided digital communications support for TPNW advocacy and various grassroots campaigns at ICAN.
While the path to completely eliminate nuclear weapons is long and filled with challenges, this landmark treaty is indeed a crucial step in that direction.