Every year, just as the summer is nearing its end, the world remembers. We remember the unconscionable use of the world’s deadliest weapons—nuclear weapons—seventy-three years ago, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
This year, unlike in the years past, we no longer should be comforted solely by “never-agains” in speeches and statements of government officials marking the event. This year, for the first time in world’s history, there exists a credible and widely supported framework to deliver on the promise of the nuclear-weapons free world. A group of bold women played an essential role in its delivery.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (the Ban Treaty) came into existence in July 2017. This ambitious document spelled out a commitment to a world without nuclear weapons. It banned the making, testing, possession, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons.
More than 120 countries participated in its drafting, most of them from the global south – including the small island states whose populations are still reeling from the consequences of nuclear testing. Absent were, unsurprisingly, nine possessors of nuclear weapons (U.S., U.K., France, China, Russia, Pakistan, India, North Korea and Israel) and their respective allies (including almost all NATO members).
As of now, more than sixty states have signed onto the Treaty and fourteen have ratified it, slowly inching closer towards the goal of 50, when the treaty would become operational.
The road to the Treaty’s existence was a culmination of political courage and skillful diplomacy. But it is also the result of the decades of tireless advocacy by civil society movements, like the International Coalition to Ban Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), recognized with a Nobel Peace Prize last year for its work.
ICAN follows the long line of anti-nuclear efforts which span as far back as the invention of the atomic bomb itself. They feature a diverse cast of characters, movements and well-meaning individuals from the U.S. and abroad. They have included environmentalists, hippies, young people, lawyers, physicians, scientists, and even committed nuns – Sister Megan Rice who broke into the high-security nuclear facility in Tennessee as an act of protest being among the most well-known.
Women have played an integral part in anti-nuclear activities in the U.S. and across the world. They organized and attended protests, produced scholarship and were instrumental in pushing for past diplomatic breakthroughs on nuclear testing ban treaties. They were also key to bringing about the Nuclear Ban Treaty.
Many of the civil society activists who took part in negotiations were women. ICAN’s leadership is made up of passionate and committed women and led by Beatrice Fihn, a proud mother of two. Setsuko Thurlow, a survivor of the nuclear blast in Hiroshima, also played an outsized role in speaking against nuclear weapons. She was a constant presence in the halls of the UN headquarters for the past several years, sharing her story of survival and lobbying diplomats to support the Ban.
Women were well represented in many country delegations negotiating the Treaty. The diplomats from Ireland stood out in this regard, for their team was composed solely of female Ambassador, experts and policy advisers. Despite this, women remain grossly underrepresented in disarmament diplomacy
Women who have delivered the Ban Treaty and are now working to mount a large coalition to ensure the Treaty ratified by as many countries as possible. Their work should be supported, the role they played in bringing about the Treaty should be celebrated more widely known.
At a time when the number of social justice causes calling for our attention is ever-increasing, we must prioritize the call of the anti-nuclear weapons activists. Responding to their calls will provide for safety and security of our planet for many years to come.