At the end of 2017, The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for contributing to the adoption, at the United Nations, of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. ICAN’s Executive Director, Beatrice Fihn, came to Scotland last month. Her visit provided an opportunity to meet with ICAN’s Scottish partner organisations and campaigners to discuss the disarmament agenda and how it can be furthered. Dagmar Topf Aguiar de Medeiros details what was discussed.
The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) is a civil society organisation. The fact that it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize is a testament to the importance and strengths of grass roots activism. The visit to Scotland of ICAN’s Executive Director Beatrice Fihn, in March, provided a welcome opportunity to celebrate this achievement with ICAN’s Scottish partners, and to discuss how the campaign can continue to make gains.
Another purpose of Ms Fihn’s visit was to engage with the Scottish government and Scotland’s parliament. While First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was in London for Brexit negotiations, Fihn was invited to meet with Scottish government Ministers Fiona Hyslop, Joe Fitzpatrick, Keith Brown, and Paul Wheelhouse. She also met with parliamentarians from across the political spectrum at Holyrood to consider the development of the anti-nuclear campaign since the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) by the United Nations in July 2017.
Scotland’s position in relation to nuclear disarmament is unique. And it has a distinct relationship with the TPNW. When the Treaty was being negotiated in the summer of 2017, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon expressed her public support for it, declaring that nuclear weapons are an “issue of existential concern to all of the peoples of the world”. Scotland, she said, “as a host to the base for the entirety of the nuclear arsenal of the United Kingdom has a particular interest in the outcomes of the conference in working towards the achievement of effective legal measure to attain and maintain a world without nuclear weapons.”
Whilst Scotland can’t sign the Treaty, it can support it through word and action. And since a cross-party majority of MSPs in Edinburgh have signed ICAN’s international parliamentary pledge, Beatrice Fihn’s visit was an excellent opportunity to engage with those parliamentarians directly, and strengthen Scotland’s message of support for disarmament.
As a non-sovereign nation, Scotland is unable to sign and ratify the TPNW, whatever the convictions of its elected First Minister, her government, or the widely-held views which exist across the Scottish parliament. TPNW is a UN Treaty relating to international humanitarian law, meaning that only UN Member states (or officially recognised observers, like Palestine) can become formal parties to the legally binding agreement. As such, the Treaty falls outside the scope of Scotland’s devolved powers. The UK, which can make itself a signatory, has taken an official stance of boycotting the negotiations and has dismissed the Treaty.
Whilst Scotland can’t sign the Treaty, it can support it through word and action. And since a cross-party majority of MSPs in Edinburgh have signed ICAN’s international parliamentary pledge, Beatrice Fihn’s visit was an excellent opportunity to engage with those parliamentarians directly, and strengthen Scotland’s message of support for disarmament. Indeed the visit also enabled direct communication, and lively engagement, between Beatrice Fihn, in her role of Executive Director of ICAN, and the many campaigners who represent Scotland’s perspective on nuclear weapons.
A key part of the day’s events was the meeting between Beatrice Fihn and Dr Lesley Orr, the feminist historian, writer, and activist, currently based at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Theology and Public Issues (CTPI). Dr Orr’s research interests include war resistance, conscientious objection and peace activism in Scotland between 1914-1918, the history of Women’s Aid, and the wider movement to address gender-based violence in Scotland. Lesley was aware of Beatrice’s previous work with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF).
Founded in 1915, WILPF envisions a world free from violence and armed conflict in which human rights are protected, and women and men are equally empowered and involved in positions of leadership at the local, national, and international levels. Dr Orr said she was interested in discussing the part that Reaching Critical Will – the disarmament programme of WILPF – had played in securing the TNPW.
During a 30-minute conversation in the Edinburgh office of Engender – the Scottish feminist organisation which has been working to advance gender equality over the last 25 years – Orr and Fihn discussed campaigning strategies, women and disarmament, and Scotland’s role in the movement towards global nuclear disarmament.
Ms Fihn discussed the work and impact of ICAN, a civil society organisation with hundreds of partner organisations made up of ordinary people. ICAN’s work includes everything from lobbying parliaments to social media output, as well as the necessary high-level research and diplomacy required to achieve an international Treaty on prohibiting nuclear weapons. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to ICAN means that many thousands of people from across the world can feel pride in, and ownership of, ICAN’s mission, and can recognise the role that ordinary citizens can play in pushing towards the goal of global nuclear disarmament.
WOMEN IN CIVIL SOCIETY
Dr Orr highlighted the important role women have played, and continue to play, in civil society and the disarmament context in particular. She cited Edinburgh’s Chrystal MacMillan, and her determination and effort to replace war with ongoing negotiation from the start of the First World War.
In response, Beatrice Fihn stressed that it was not about having a woman in charge, or about the misconception that women are inherently more peaceful than men. Rather, it is about including women at all levels of decision-making to allow women’s voices to be heard, and have their concerns addressed. She suggested that since women are often still are raised as caretakers, teachers, home-makers, they are particularly impacted by war and conflict.
While decision-making around nuclear weapons is heavily dominated by men, it is women who would carry many of the long-term consequences of any nuclear exchange.
In other words, while men drop the bombs, women are the ones to pick up the pieces and rebuild broken societies. This differentiation exists not because of gender-specific genetic impulse, but because the roles women have been cast in have conditioned – or forced – them to take on such responsibilities. This creates the disparity that while decision-making around nuclear weapons is heavily dominated by men, it is women who would carry many of the long-term consequences of any nuclear exchange.
REDEFINING STRENGTH AND WEAKNESS
It was agreed that involving women at every level can help to create a shift in the narrative surrounding strength and power because they can contribute an alternative, positive narrative. By including women in decision-making, a persistent and continuous pushback would be built into a system which persistently synonymises ‘strength’ with violence and domination, whilst simultaneously associating negotiation and compromise with ‘weakness’. Gender diversification would offer a strong challenge to these ingrained conceptions of ‘strong’ and ‘weak’, and could prove crucial in developing processes that can lead to sustainable and lasting peace.
By including women in decision-making, a persistent and continuous pushback would be built into a system which persistently synonymises ‘strength’ with violence and domination, whilst simultaneously associating negotiation and compromise with ‘weakness’.
Dr Orr linked the relationship between women’s human rights and their efforts for disarmament back to Scotland in particular. Scotland has a rich history of women’s involvement in peace movements. Chrystal MacMillan was, additionally, a suffrage campaigner and pioneering lawyer when she played a key role in organising the International Congress of Women in 1915, to discuss how women could influence political leaders to resolve international disputes through peaceful mediation.
This Congress led to the initiation of WILPF which then played a part in establishing both the League of Nations and the United Nations. Women activists in Scotland at that time were at the forefront of struggles on issues around rent, education, and reform of working conditions. They understood all too well the causalities between these issues and the role that women could – should – play in addressing them.
A key issue in this discussion was the concept of ‘security’. The male-dominated narrative which prevails around international affairs has long told the world that nuclear weapons are necessary for ‘our security’. This is a narrative which needs to be challenged.
Beatrice Fihn highlights the importance of asking the question: ‘whose security?’ She emphasised that if the general public is sacrificing so much in terms of health, money, and rights protection in order to allow nuclear weapon states to maintain their status, then who are the nuclear weapons actually protecting? And how are they doing so?
As Fihn went on to point out, since women have more soft tissue, ionizing radiation does more damage to their bodies. People who have been affected by nuclear weapons tests have horrific stories to tell about the impacts that radiation has had on their lives. But women suffer especially: they lose their fertility, have miscarriages, and can suffer the trauma of giving birth to so-called ‘jellyfish babies’. This renders absurd the argument that nuclear weapons ‘protect’.
The discussion closed with the women in the room agreeing that a Scotland without nuclear weapons would be a saner and safer place for women, and that the best contribution Scotland’s women could make to international peace and justice would be whatever they could do to achieve the nuclear disarmament of the UK.
Dagmar Topf Aguiar de Medeiros is a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh, researching the concept of legitimacy in the process of international law-making. She is also a tutor of International Law and Critical Legal Thinking at the University of Edinburgh. Dagmar has been an intern at the United Nations House Scotland and participated in the Scottish Parliament Conference: ‘Humanitarian and Environmental Costs and Responsibilities of Nuclear Weapons’. In July 2017, she formed a part of the Scottish civil society delegation to the headquarters of the United Nations in New York, where she worked with ICAN and its campaigners from all over the world to ensure the negotiation of a strong nuclear weapons prohibition treaty.
Feature image: Beatrice Fihn, executive director of ICAN, addresses the UN open-ended working group on nuclear disarmament. Geneva, May 2016. Image: Tim Wright [CC BY 2.0]