One year ago, Beatrice Fihn, the executive director of the Nobel Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), was in Nagasaki, Japan, when an alert about an incoming ballistic missile sparked widespread panic in Hawaii.
It was a false alarm; the alert turned out to be the result of human error. But for Fihn, it was a poignant reminder that, more than 70 years after Nagasaki was devastated by an atom bomb, the threat of nuclear warfare still looms large.
In fact, in her speech accepting the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of ICAN, a coalition of hundreds of grassroots organizations, Fihn warned that the risk posed by nuclear weapons is even greater today than at the end of the Cold War. Fihn pointed to terrorism, an increase in the number of nuclear armed states and the prevalence of cyber warfare as factors that make us all less safe.
“People were terrified and rightly so,” Fihn said, describing the fear that swept through Hawaii, which was already on edge because of increasing tensions between the United States and North Korea. “With this crisis between America and North Korea, Hawaii is a target. People were wondering what to do with their last 20 minutes of life.”
Human rights organizations like Amnesty International have long considered nuclear weapons to be the most inhumane, destructive and indiscriminate weapons ever to be created and have supported the work on the ICAN coalition.
For more than a decade, Fihn, a 36-year-old Swedish activist, has been fighting for nuclear weapons to be banned and eliminated. She speaks candidly about the prejudice she faces as a rare female face in a field that is dominated by men.
“It can be a challenge being a woman in this field,” she said.
“Taking what you want is considered very masculine, a positive thing, something to be admired. Finding a compromise is seen as a weak, feminine strategy. Having more women in power and challenging the gendered nature of these discussions is extremely important.”
Growing up in Gothenburg, Fihn was always interested in politics and international affairs. She later interned for one of ICAN’s member organizations, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, in Geneva, where she sat in on United Nations (UN) meetings and listened to Russia, the United States and China debating nuclear weapons.
“I got so excited about the campaign [to abolish nuclear weapons] and I was attracted to changing power dynamics and challenging the most powerful countries in the world,” she said.
There are nine nuclear-armed states in the world: the United States, Russia, UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. Together they possess around 15,000 nuclear weapons, which are capable of causing destruction on a catastrophic scale.
The United States, which was the first country to develop nuclear weapons, and Russia, which was the second, maintain roughly 1,800 nuclear weapons on high alert, ready to be launched within minutes of a warning. Most are many times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
Fihn believes there is insufficient understanding amongst politicians and the public that these weapons could wipe out millions of lives in minutes, and should not just be used as props in government power games.
Without a doubt, Fihn’s proudest moment since taking the helm of ICAN in 2013 was seeing the Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons adopted at the UN in July 2017. The culmination of years of campaigning, the treaty currently has 70 signatories and 21 states parties, and will come into force 90 days after 50 countries have ratified it.
“The adoption of the treaty was an amazing moment. There were so many people who didn’t think it would happen,” Fihn said.
“We took on an issue that some of the most powerful countries were very much against and wanted to stop. Yet we managed to get a treaty.”
Fihn credits ordinary people, campaign groups and NGOs for the startling achievement.
Fihn emphasized the importance of organizations like Amnesty International in countering attacks on human rights, humanitarian law and international institutions, such as the UN Human Rights Council, by “nationalistic interests”.
“Organizations like Amnesty and ICAN need to use this moment to engage in campaign work and exercise our power. Everything we do as civil society can have an input and shape society. Organizations like Amnesty need to be strengthened because that’s how we solve the threats we’re facing now.”
Katie Nguyen is a news writer and editor at Amnesty International.