ICAN Members Dimity Hawkins, Tim Wright and Tilman Ruff

The road to the Nobel Peace Prize for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons began in 2005, with both “intense frustration”, and inspiration.

The frustration — when the Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and the United Nations World Summit failed to agree to disarmament at two separate occasions that year.

And the inspiration — the International Campaign to Ban Landmines was finding success in getting more countries to sign on, with a model of non-government organisations working together to get governments to sign a treaty.

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It was these factors, says ICAN founder Tilman Ruff, that led to a group of Melbourne doctors to make the first steps in an international movement, which would focus on humanitarian language and the effects of nuclear weapons and attempt to move away from the politics and language of nuclear-armed states, which instead dominated a conversation about deterrence and balance. The idea came from Malaysian obstetrician and former co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War Ron McCoy, and soon other doctors and activists including Ruff, Torquay doctor Bill Williams, activist and academic Dimity Hawkins and professor Fred Mendelsohn were putting together the organisation in Melbourne.

Back to the beginning

The group was launched at Parliament House in Melbourne in April of 2007, with former PM Malcolm Fraser saying that nuclear-armed countries like North Korea and Iran would only disarm if Western leaders took up the charge.

“(Governments) get into a great lather about the actions of North Korea or Iran, whom they’re concerned about, but they don’t recognise the reality,” AAP reported Fraser saying at the time.

“There will be proliferation, they will not be able to stop it unless the major nuclear states make up their minds that nuclear weapons must be abolished.”

“At the moment, countries like North Korea, I’m sure, and Iran and there would be many others, believe that the original nuclear powers are just trying to preserve their own superiority,” he said.

The funding came from a grant from the Poola Foundation, which allowed Felicity Hill (now known as Felicity Ruby) to be employed to run it. The organisation was supported by the Australian branch of the Medical Association for the Prevention of War, with office space and resources, giving ICAN a way to skip “fuss and bureaucracy” Ruff says. MAPW is the Australian affiliate of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, and it is through these organisations that the campaign was able to grow, and circumvent the power of the nation-states that were quite happy with the status quo just as it is. 

Diplomats make way for doctors

Ruff says it’s important that the message to ban nuclear weapons has come from doctors and not political players, with the theme of “horror, humour and hope”. The message focused on just what nuclear weapons do to victims, and put the voices of survivors at the forefront, but “you also need to leaven that with hope and with the humour” says Ruff. 

“It’s been crucial because basically nuclear disarmament and the whole debate and discussion about it has been completely hijacked and dominated by nuclear armed states,” he says. Disarmament had become a “kind of circus”, where language of “deterrence and balance and parity and governments having them (nuclear weapons) for stability.”

Through this language, and a series of international meetings across 2013 and 2014, more and more countries talking to ICAN about a treaty to ban nuclear weapons, with an agreement reached by 122 countries in New York on July 7 this year, and the treaty opened for signatures on September 20.

So how do they know it’s working? States with nuclear weapons don’t like what’s happening.

Australia, the US, the UK and many other countries didn’t take part in UN talks earlier this year on the treaty to ban nuclear weapons, and Ruff says their aggression in working against the treaty is in a perverse way a sign of success.

“They’re on the defensive. They very aggressively tried to discourage other governments from signing the treaty. They know that this will change the game for them.”