On 6 October 2017 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), with the Nobel committee Chair commending the group’s “ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty prohibition” on nuclear weapons. This new treaty marked the first step towards a global recognition that nuclear weapons are illegal, and came at a time when the threat of nuclear weapons is more pressing than ever in recent memory.

This Nobel award gives added momentum to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons adopted at the United Nations by more than 120 states on 7 July 2017, and should boost the process of ratification, with 50 states needed in order for the treaty to come into force. The treaty puts nuclear weapons on the same footing as the other weapons of mass destruction – chemical and biological weapons – that were already prohibited through specific legal instruments. As well as making it clear that nuclear weapons are illegal, it also contains positive obligations to address the needs of victims of nuclear weapon use and testing and to address environmental contamination that has been caused.

ICAN, whose steering committee Article 36 is a member of, campaigned and worked in partnership with governments and the International Committee of the Red Cross for the development of the treaty, focusing attention on the humanitarian and environmental impact that the use of these weapons would cause.

For decades, discussions on nuclear weapons were dominated by the few nuclear-armed states – states that continue to stockpile and maintain over 16,000 warheads. But over the past few years, renewed momentum grounded in concerns over the consequences of any nuclear weapon detonation, drove forward the humanitarian initiative on nuclear weapons. It prompted fundamental change in the conversation, with non-nuclear armed states leading the way in a discussion on the actual effects of the weapons. ICAN led the way in campaigning for an international treaty to outlaw nuclear weapons, even if the nuclear weapon states did not participate.

Survivors of the nuclear weapon attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and of testing, including aboriginal survivors of UK nuclear weapon testing in Australia, participated in the treaty negotiations – even whilst their governments boycotted discussions. Indeed, the treaty was adopted despite strong opposition from states that currently possess nuclear weapons, including the UK. The passage of the treaty and initial flurry of signatures sent a strong message that a significant number of states have grown tired of the kinds of brinkmanship that threaten hundreds of thousands of lives, and do not trust the claims of nuclear possessors to be working for disarmament when actually they are modernizing their nuclear arsenals

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