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An anti-nuclear weapons group won the Nobel Peace Prize. The timing couldn’t be better.

ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, explained.

Nuclear disarmament group ICAN coordinator Daniel Hogstan, executive director Beatrice Fihn, and her husband Will Fihn Ramsay pose with a banner bearing the group's logo after ICAN won the Nobel Peace Prize on October 6, 2017, in Geneva.
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

The 2017 Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), an international advocacy group that helped bring about the landmark 2017 United Nations nuclear weapons ban treaty.

“The organization is receiving the award for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons,” the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which awards the prize, said in a press statement.

In a Facebook statement accepting the award, ICAN wrote, “This prize is a tribute to the tireless efforts of many millions of campaigners and concerned citizens worldwide who, ever since the dawn of the atomic age, have loudly protested nuclear weapons, insisting that they can serve no legitimate purpose and must be forever banished from the face of our earth.”

“By harnessing the power of the people, we have worked to bring an end to the most destructive weapon ever created — the only weapon that poses an existential threat to all humanity,” the statement continued.

But coming just one month after North Korea detonated its most powerful nuclear bomb yet, and just a few days before President Donald Trump is expected to decertify the Iran nuclear deal, potentially destroying the international accord and prompting Iran to restart its nuclear program, the award has struck many as absurd. After all, what good is a treaty banning nuclear weapons if it hasn’t actually been able to, you know, ban nuclear weapons?

What follows is a brief guide to what the group has actually accomplished — and what it hasn’t.

ICAN is part of a much longer tradition of anti-nuclear activism

ICAN is a coalition of nongovernmental organizations from more than 100 different countries all working together to eradicate nuclear weapons from the face of the earth. The group, which today is based in Geneva, Switzerland, was founded by another group of anti-nuclear activists, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.

That group — which itself won a Nobel Peace Prize back in 1985 — was a joint project launched by physicians from the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War whose mission was to “[spread] authoritative information” and “[create] an awareness of the catastrophic consequences of atomic warfare.” In 2007, they decided to launch a new campaign specifically aimed at bringing about an international treaty banning and eventually abolishing nuclear weapons around the globe — and thus, ICAN was born.

As ICAN explains, the founders modeled their new organization on the International Campaign to Ban Landmines — a group that a decade earlier had worked to bring about an international treaty banning the use of anti-personnel land mines globally. The idea was to bring together like-minded activists and NGOs to try to do something similar with nuclear weapons.

And they succeeded: On July 7, 2017, after two rounds of negotiations, the United Nations General Assembly conference that was in charge of the negotiations adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons by a vote of 122 to 1, with one abstention. The Netherlands was the only country involved in the conference to vote against the treaty, while Singapore abstained from the vote.

The legally binding treaty “prohibits a full range of nuclear-weapon-related activities, such as undertaking to develop, test, produce, manufacture, acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, as well as the use or threat of use of these weapons.”

But the United States, the United Kingdom, and France — all countries with nuclear weapons — were not involved in the conference that negotiated the treaty, and they immediately issued a joint statement vowing that they "do not intend to sign, ratify or ever become party” to the treaty.

A number of other countries rejected the conference (and the treaty) as well — including North Korea. (Iran did participate, and voted in favor of the treaty.)

International treaties are not super effective. But they’re not meaningless, either.

Just because there’s an international treaty banning nuclear weapons does not mean that nuclear weapons have gone away, or will anytime soon. That’s mainly because the treaty only applies to the countries that sign and ratify it. Want to keep the nuclear weapons you already have? Want to develop new nuclear weapons? Just don’t sign or ratify the treaty.

And if you did sign it but decide later on that you want to develop nuclear weapons after all, you can simply withdraw from the treaty.

But that doesn’t mean the treaty is totally meaningless. The main rationale for such a treaty is to help create international norms — standards of acceptable behavior — against the use or possession of nuclear weapons. Having nearly two-thirds of the world’s countries sign on to a treaty banning nuclear weapons sends a powerful message to the rest of the world.

And the more countries that sign on to the treaty, the louder that message gets.

That’s what ICAN is working on now. “Our focus now is on persuading nations to sign and ratify it, and then to work for its full implementation,” the group says on its website.

Celebrating a group for its efforts to ban nuclear weapons at a time when the threat from nuclear weapons feels higher than it has since the end of the Cold War may seem like a farce. But what better time could there be to highlight the catastrophic threat nuclear weapons pose?

As ICAN stated in its acceptance message, “This award shines a needed light on the path the ban treaty provides towards a world free of nuclear weapons. Before it is too late, we must take that path.”

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