After the Ban: 6 Questions for ICAN’s Rebecca Johnson

As previewed in last month’s column, on January 22, the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) – popularly known as ‘The Ban Treaty’ – became international law. Hailed by UN Secretary General António Guterres as “a major step toward a world free of nuclear weapons,” it was a moment decades in the making, marked with joy and pride around the world. In Canada, among other events, over 100 peace groups (including Peace Quest Cape Breton) issued a statement declaring:

The world was not adequately prepared for the Covid-19 pandemic. The International Committee of the Red Cross asserts that it is impossible to prepare for nuclear holocaust. Humanity’s only hope is prevention through the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Rebecca Johnson and Hiroshima-survivor Setsuko Thurlow embrace after the adoption of the Ban Treaty, 7 July 2017.

Rebecca Johnson and Hiroshima-survivor Setsuko Thurlow embrace after the adoption of the Ban Treaty, 7 July 2017.

Canada is one of only 41 states vehemently opposed to the Ban. Nine of this global minority are nuclear-armed: the five permanent members (P5) of the UN Security Council – China, France, Russia, UK, US – plus India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan. The rest are the 27 ‘non-nuclear’ members of NATO (all of whom regularly plan and practice for a nuclear first-strike); the former Soviet Republic of Georgia (eyeing NATO membership); America’s ‘Bomb shelter’ allies in the Asia-Pacific (Australia, Japan, South Korea); and Russian ally Belarus. Under the terms of the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) the P5 are accorded the dubious ‘status’ of nuclear-weapon states – but only on condition they negotiate not just the reduction but the elimination of their arsenals. It is their abject failure to do so, 30 years after the end of the Cold War, that is chiefly responsible for the advent of the new treaty they so revile (and perhaps fear).

To honor all those who helped make the new ‘Ban Treaty’ possible – and to gauge its chances of success in eliminating the nuclear threat – the Spectator interviewed the British peace activist Dr. Rebecca Johnson, founding co-chair of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for its role in reviving the long-languishing cause of a nuclear-weapon-free-world. In July that year, Rebecca was at the General Assembly for the adoption of the Treaty by 122 states, and participated in both the negotiations and the preceding ‘Humanitarian Initiative’ (2012-14), a series of path-breaking conferences shifting the paradigm of the debate from national to human security.        .

Rebecca, who rose to prominence in the 1980s as a member of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, protesting US nuclear weapons in Britain, is currently director of the London-based Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy and UK Green Party spokesperson on International Security and Peace. From 1996-2003, I had the honor of working for her as editor of the Acronym Institute’s journal, Disarmament Diplomacy. What follows is an edited version of our interview, conducted in the final days before – and first days after – the Bomb was banned.


Time running out

Sean Howard (SH): I was going to open by revisiting the beginnings of ICAN in 2007, and asking how much time you and your colleagues then thought it might take to achieve something as momentous as a Ban Treaty. But perhaps a more basic question is, how much time you thought the world had to avoid nuclear catastrophe?

Rebecca Johnson (RJ): From its inception, ICAN leaders understood the humanitarian imperative and need for a nuclear abolition treaty. They based their early campaign on listening to and centralizing the experience of the survivors of nuclear use and also uranium mining, nuclear testing and production. My contribution from 2009 was to develop the strategy to mobilize the nuclear-free majority of governments in the world to negotiate a nuclear ban treaty first, because that was achievable within a decade, even if the nuclear-armed states opposed.

UN adopts TPNW 7 July 2017

Jubilation as TPNW is adopted, United Nations 7 July, 2017. (Note the Hiroshima crane on the UK’s empty desk in the foreground.) Photo by Clare Conboy Acronym/ICAN.

From my years of reporting on and analyzing disarmament diplomacy, as well as the analysis I’d developed while working on my Ph.D., I became convinced that the immense structural power of the P5, and the dynamics of nuclear-possession by the four nuclear-armed states outside the NPT, were such that we needed the next step to be a ban treaty. The treaty needed to have clear prohibitions on the use of nuclear weapons and the main activities that would enable anyone to produce, acquire and deploy them; and it needed to state the requirement to eliminate nuclear weapons with some basic principles, legal pathways and adaptable, evolutionary structures for how this would be done.

This strategy – to go straight for a ban on nuclear weapons under International Humanitarian Law, negotiated in a forum that would be open to all governments but block-able by none (in other words, General Assembly rules) – was a challenge to many organizations in various countries’ peace movements. It came about because more and more people were feeling that time was running out.

I’d served on the Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists from 2001-2007, and so took part in the annual discussions on where the hands of the ‘Doomsday Clock’ should stand. With rising nuclear dangers, and growing awareness of climate destruction as an extinction-level threat requiring collective international action, we clearly didn’t have time to keep pandering to the nuclear-armed states who blocked most, if not all, practical steps proposed.

In essence, this was the game-changing treaty-based strategy that ICAN took forward. Behind the scenes, ICAN steering group members and a growing core group of diplomats and governments set the strategy in motion at the 2010 NPT Review Conference.  By 2012 I was convinced that we would achieve the treaty by 2020. When challenged by people who countered my determination to do this by saying “it will take a long time to ban nuclear weapons,” I’d reply: “It has already taken over 60 years, we’re nearly there.”



SH: There has been some talk lately of a more diplomatic approach to the Ban, now that it’s about to become law, from some of its opponents.  A December 7 article in War on the Rocks, for example, detected “softening rhetoric,” particularly from Canada and Belgium. With respect to Canada, it is worth noting that Prime Minister Trudeau has yet to reply to – or even acknowledge receipt of – a July 2020 letter from someone you know well, the prominent hibakusha (atomic-bomb survivor) and Canadian citizen Setsuko Thurlow, who in the run up to the 75th anniversary of the bombings, wrote to the leaders of all those countries yet to join the Ban. And on December 15, NATO issued a harsh statement stressing unified “opposition to this treaty,” falsely claiming it “is at odds with the existing non-proliferation and disarmament architecture.” What is your reading of the NATO tea leaves?

Ban supporters, Central Park NYC, 4 July 2017

Ban supporters, Central Park NYC, 4 July 2017 (Photo by Ralf Schlesener)

RJ: Essentially, the major obstacle to nuclear disarmament is that the P5 became addicted early on to the international status, domestic power, amplification of force projection (as they saw it), and so-called ‘rights’ they liked to believe nuclear weapons conferred. Their justifications, and the parading of their weapons, played major roles in driving proliferation, so that now there are nine nuclear-armed nations, and many more nuclear risks and dangers.

NATO started out as a US-led military alliance, but it was not inevitable it should also be a nuclear alliance. In the Cold War, US policies made nuclear weapons a central feature of NATO, but this was never core to the security purpose of the alliance, whose members have long been divided and conflicted about nuclear weapons and their doctrines and policies for deployment and use. For their own military-industrial and nuclear-economic reasons, the United States and UK are the main drivers for NATO to be a ‘nuclear alliance.’ (Nuclear-armed France uses different arguments, based on its humiliating occupation in the 1939-45 war.)

The TPNW was legally framed to make it possible for NATO members to join as long as they end prohibited activities such as stationing nuclear weapons. And recent opinion polls show strong and growing support for the treaty in many NATO countries, including the five that ‘host’ US nuclear weapons on their territory: Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands and Turkey. Regarding Canada, I’m shocked to hear Justin Trudeau did not reply to Setsuko’s letter. Boris Johnson didn’t respond personally either, but at least an unnamed staff member in HMG’s Counter Proliferation and Arms Control Centre sent a courteous reply, albeit with the usual stock responses, i.e. the tautological statement that the “nuclear deterrent exists to deter.”

HMG Response to Setsuko's letter to Boris ICAN 20200821


Fifty years after the NPT came into force, NATO members are still bleating about needing nuclear weapons until the conditions for nuclear disarmament are met – like drug addicts (and their enablers) that rebrand heroin as ‘H for happiness,’ they have branded nuclear weapons as ‘deterrents.’ Should we allow these addicts to simply carry on getting ‘high’ on the Bomb until they either kill themselves (and us), or agree with the other addicts and dealers on various ‘conditions’ that have to be met by others before they stop valuing, spreading and taking these drugs?  That would be absurd.


UK tide turning

SH: A question about our nuclear-armed homeland of Britain: in combination with Brexit, the consequent surge of support for Scottish independence, and the humbling impact of the pandemic on perceptions of social priorities, what impact might the Ban have on the debate over the future of the UK’s Trident submarine force, the so-called ‘independent deterrent’ (with American missiles!) based in Scotland?

RJ: The past decade has indeed been one of turmoil and upheaval. Following the cruelty of the Conservative-led austerity project from 2010, which favored South England over the other regions, Brexit and then COVID-19 have highlighted the dire straits of British democracy and governance, undermining Britain’s economy, internal cohesion, social structures, and standing in the world. And this decline, I believe, has served to erode the perceived, though always bogus, legitimacy attached to nuclear weapons.

Scottish Ban Treaty supporters, 7 July 2017. (Photo by Ralf Schlesener)

Scottish Ban Treaty supporters, 7 July 2017. (Photo by Ralf Schlesener)

This is a dominant factor now in Scottish politics, where nuclear warheads are stored at Coulport and deployed out of Faslane, two naval bases less than 50 miles from Glasgow. The yearlong blockade by ‘Faslane 365’ activists (including myself) in 2006-7 crystallized into political power for the Scottish National Party (SNP). In greater numbers than England and Wales, Scottish activists embraced ICAN from early on. But across the UK now, more and more people are coming round to our position that nuclear weapons are a security problem, not an asset; that they steal from our real, human security needs, such as preventing climate destruction and supporting our health, education, and social services. An opinion poll released by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) to coincide with entry into force of the Ban shows that 77% of people across Britain back ‘a total ban on nuclear weapons globally’, and of these, 59% want the UK to ‘sign up to the TPNW’. This is a massive shift.


Young get connections

SH: You are a prominent campaigner for both nuclear disarmament and climate justice, but while the profound links between these two existential dangers are clear to some, they are often neglected or overlooked. Do you believe the legal ‘birth of the Ban’ has the potential to raise awareness, particularly among young activists, of the monstrous threat to the climate and environment posed by nuclear weapons?

RJ: I love the passion, energy, and nonviolent activism of the young climate justice advocates, who remind me very much of young Greenham Common activists in the 1980s. Nuclear weapons and climate destruction are both existential threats to our planet. One doesn’t cancel the other out, and although I’ve sometimes been asked if nuclear winter would counteract global heating, the answer is No! They both result in billions dying from starvation because each in different ways will cause extreme shifts in our climate and weather systems. So we have to prevent both these extinction threats – and of course recover in green ways from the pandemic – as matters of utmost urgency. It’s not either/or but all. And from my experience campaigning in Extinction Rebellion (XR) locally and participating in the big rebellions of 2019, young activists really get the connections.

Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests, London, UK, April 2019. (Photo by Jwslubbock [CC BY-SA 4.0 ( via Wikimedia Commons)

Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests, London, UK, April 2019. (Photo by Jwslubbock CC BY-SA 4.0  via Wikimedia Commons)

As we built ICAN we made deliberate decisions to bring in younger leaders and a lot more women than were previously seen in post-2000 anti-nuclear campaigns. These younger campaigners added enormously to ICAN’s effectiveness, enabling their different ways of campaigning, ideas, outreach, and social media savvy to bring new dimensions to the expertise and experience of older health professionals, disarmament specialists, hibakusha and veteran peace activists. It was this combination that took the Ban over the line in 2017.

Many ICAN campaigners are part of climate justice movements in their own countries, just as I became involved in XR (and we’ve now formed XR Peace). In February 2020, ICAN organized a weekend forum in Paris that brought young activists from across Europe (mostly by train!). From school strikers, XR and climate justice campaigners, to racial justice advocates, it was incredibly inspiring to share ideas for the future and contribute our humanitarian disarmament campaign experiences as we listened to and learned from each other.


Feminist framing

SH: The Ban was inspired in large part by an alliance of feminists, indigenous activists, and the hibakusha. On the issue of gender, are you hopeful the new TPNW regime will strike a balance between what I like to call ‘representation’ and ‘re-presentation’: between ensuring more participation for women in disarmament diplomacy, and fundamentally reframing the ‘big picture’ of peace and security? Canada, for example, claims to have a ‘feminist foreign policy,’ yet pays far more attention to representation than re-presentation – and, indeed, is investing heavily in major new weapons systems while claiming the right to nuclear ‘protection’ from its macho neighbor to the south!

Embracing the base, Greenham Common December 1982 At noon on December 12th 1982, 30,000 women held hands around the 6 mile perimeter fence of the former USAF base, in protest against the UK government's decision to site American cruise missiles here. The installation went ahead but so did the protest - for 19 years women maintained their presence at the Greenham Common peace camp.

Embracing the base, Greenham Common December 1982 (Photo by ceridwen, CC by SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

RJ: Nuclear weapons are part of gendered institutions and structures underpinning patriarchal violence, including military-industrial systems, narratives and objectives. The humanitarian process and the TPNW text reflect the feminist-humanitarian analyses that made the Ban possible, and all of us involved are committed to seeing these principles honored and implemented as the meetings of states parties begin. Greater participation of women – as well as more respect for the experiences, expertise and insights women bring – is undoubtedly essential. But we’re also familiar with female leaders who fail to challenge patriarchal structures and attitudes. The peace and security we all need requires that everyone participate in reframing – to use your term, ‘re-presenting’ – security in feminist-humanitarian terms.

The feminist-humanitarian framing of disarmament changed the game from arms ‘control’, dominated by a club of weapons possessors, to abolition, in which nations and peoples collectively exerted their will to prevent nuclear weapons use and war. Instead of treating these vile weapons as high-value ‘assets’ considered attractive and powerful (in so-called ‘safe hands’), facts and evidence were marshalled to expose their actual costs and consequences.


Nonviolent actions

SH: I want to close with a question on tactics and strategies. In the last two years, I’ve reported on the case of the ‘Kings Bay Plowshares 7,’ a group of veteran Catholic activists who ‘symbolically’ disarmed the Kings Bay Trident base in Georgia. All seven have served time on remand, and five were recently – in the midst of a wildfire pandemic! – given custodial sentences. They are all fervent supporters of the Ban, but do you feel that such acts of civil disobedience still have a part to play in the nuclear abolition movement?

KBP7: The seven Catholic plowshares activists who entered Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in St. Mary’s, Georgia on April 4th, 2018. (via Facebook)

RJ: As you know, I have been involved in nonviolent actions against apartheid, militarism and nuclear threats since taking my first steps across the line in August 1982, not long after arriving at the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp.  In the five years I lived outside that nuclear airbase (until the weapons were eliminated by the INF Treaty) I did a lot of thinking about nonviolence and structural power – patriarchal, military-industrial, sexual, and legal/police power. I helped develop what we called ‘feminist nonviolence,’ practicing directly disruptive, preventive and transformational actions, risking and often experiencing arrest and imprisonment in order to change bad laws.

Between then and now, I’ve persisted in nonviolent actions to draw attention to various threats to peace and justice, including wars and violent oppression in Yugoslavia and the Middle East, nuclear production and deployment at British and NATO bases, as well as more symbolic actions with ICAN. Since 2019 I’ve participated in XR, though often in the support role of ‘legal observer.’

So I do indeed believe that nonviolent activism remains an important part of our moral, humanitarian and communications toolbox.

Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton and the Canadian Pugwash Group. He may be reached here.