Australians can be very proud. The winner of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), started in Melbourne. It began when the Medical Association for the Prevention of War (MAPW) recognised that nuclear weapons, the very worst of the weapons of mass destruction, were still "legitimate". This contrasted with chemical weapons, biological weapons, cluster munitions, land mines – even dumdum bullets, which all have been made illegal by UN treaty, with impressive results.
The late Dr Bill Williams, a key member of the founding group, wrote: "After the energetically anti-nuke eighties and the end of the Cold War, nuclear holocaust – always unthinkable – became almost unmentionable. A mass self-censorship, a mental no-fly zone, a cone of silence descended. Little wonder: no sane person wants to contaminate their dreams with this ultimate horror. But to finish this journey of survival – to abolition – we need to penetrate the fog of fear and denial, informing ourselves and our neighbours without inducing psychological paralysis."
In 2006 he was part of the founding group of MAPW members, along with Tilman Ruff, Dimity Hawkins, Sue Wareham and others. The highly successful landmines campaign was taken as a model. For MAPW this was a bit like giving birth to a gorilla; ICAN very successfully brought together existing humanitarian organisations, clearly identifying nuclear weapons as a humanitarian issue, not a political one.
ICAN now has 468 partner organisations in 101 countries. It was pivotal to the UN adopting the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) on July 7 this year. In 2007, IPPNW (the 1985 Nobel Prize-winning group the International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War) adopted ICAN as a core campaign. Locally the Poola Foundation helped ICAN get established, and later a major contribution came from the Norwegian government.
ICAN and its many partners worked tirelessly, educating governments about the urgent need for action. In 2013 and 2014, Norway, Mexico and Vienna hosted intergovernmental conferences, attended by more than 150 countries.
Throughout the campaign graphic stories from the "Hibakusha", the survivors of the bombs in World War 2 and survivors of nuclear weapons testing, brought home the appalling personal costs of these weapons. The Red Cross emphasised the only possible option is prevention, given all doctors, ambulances and hospitals are destroyed in a nuclear blast. Any meaningful response is impossible.
The longer term impacts of a limited nuclear exchange are also devastating. So much atmospheric dust would be created that a "nuclear winter" would follow, reducing crop yields for more than a decade and causing a famine putting two billion lives at risk.
It is horrifying that North Korea now has nuclear weapons. But also horrifying are the existing 15,000 weapons, with 1800 ready to launch. There have been numerous very close calls, where human and technical errors have brought us perilously close to nuclear war.
After nearly 50 years the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has stalled, with the entrenched need for consensus blocking effective action. South Africa likened the situation to apartheid; with the nine nuclear weapons states having a different set of rules for themselves compared to the rest of the world – effectively holding the rest of the world to ransom.
ICAN offered a new way forward, aiming for a UN General Assembly based process. Thus the nuclear possessing states could no longer block the wishes of the majority of nations. This treaty deliberately harmonises with the NPT, both working towards a common goal.
Shamefully, Australia's government has worked to undermine this process. The Australian delegation at the UN working group last year was described in the press as "Weasels", much to their chagrin. A key strategy of the ICAN campaign has been "humour, horror and hope", so typically ICAN provided photogenic sign-carrying "weasels", helpfully greeting Australian politicians as they continued their anti-ban treaty arguments.
On July 7 the TPNW was resoundingly adopted: 122 countries in favour, one against (the Netherlands), and one abstention (Singapore). Finally nuclear weapons will be clearly on the same footing as biological and chemical weapons.
This will not be a fast process. It will take a couple of decades to steadily and verifiably reduce stockpiles. But the TPNW has been recognised by the Nobel Prize Committee as critical in making the world a much safer place.
Australia's government is refusing to sign the treaty, but both the Australian Labor Party and the Greens support a nuclear weapons ban. Australians strongly support it too. Both Labor and Liberal voters are more than 70 per cent in favour in a poll taken last month. Given the appalling and indiscriminate impacts of these weapons, denial is not acceptable. Australia needs to show leadership and sign this treaty.