Basking in that Oslo glow

Bonnie Docherty on the reinvigoration of humanitarian disarmament advocacy and next steps after ICAN's Nobel Peace Prize celebrations

2017 was a year of notable accomplishments for Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC), and for Bonnie Docherty ’01, associate director of Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection and lecturer on law at HLS. Alongside Clinical Instructor Anna Crowe LL.M. ’12 and a small team of clinical students, Docherty partnered closely with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) during negotiations at the U.N. in early 2017, as ICAN worked toward the adoption of a treaty aimed at eradicating nuclear weapons. The team provided legal advice and successfully lobbied for obligations to address the humanitarian and environmental harm caused by nuclear weapons. Their work with ICAN culminated in the adoption of that treaty, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and the ultimate recognition of that triumph came on Dec. 10, when ICAN was presented with the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for their work toward achieving a world without nuclear weapons.

Here, in a post reprinted from the IHRC blog, Docherty recounts her experience at the ceremony, and in the days surrounding the event in Oslo, Norway.


The Nobel Peace Prize Celebrations: Recognition and Reinvigoration for Humanitarian Disarmament Advocates

On December 10, 2017, at 1 p.m., uniformed musicians on the grand staircase of Oslo City Hall brought their gleaming trumpets to their lips and the audience to its feet. The clarion salute they sounded heralded the arrival of the king and queen of Norway and a new era of nuclear disarmament.

In front of dignitaries, diplomats, and dozens of civil society campaigners, myself included, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) received this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

The award honors ICAN for having “given the efforts to achieve a world without nuclear weapons a new direction and new vigour.” In particular, the prize recognizes the civil society coalition’s “ground-breaking” work to realize a treaty banning nuclear weapons.

More than 70 years after the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons makes clear that nuclear weapons are illegal as well as immoral and increases the stigma against them. It also shows that real progress in nuclear disarmament is possible.

I had the honor of attending the Nobel ceremony as part of ICAN’s delegation because, along with Clinical Instructor Anna Crowe and a team from the International Human Rights Clinic, I partnered closely with ICAN during last summer’s treaty negotiations. We provided legal advice and successfully lobbied for obligations to address the humanitarian and environmental harm caused by nuclear weapons.

Basking in that Oslo glow

Credit: Ralf SchlesenerIn 2017, members of the IHRC team, including (from right) Bonnie Docherty, Anna Crowe and Lan Mei ’17, attended a UN negotiating session for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

I can best describe my four days in Oslo as magical. In addition to the ceremony, the celebrations included a torchlight parade, a concert in ICAN’s honor, and the opening of a museum exhibition on the coalition. Nobel Peace Prize banners hung from street lamps on the city’s main boulevard, and the lights on a Ferris wheel alternated flashing the Nobel medal and the ICAN logo.

The experience was made all the more meaningful because I shared it with friends from around the world with whom I’ve advocated for humanitarian disarmament for more than 15 years.

The genesis of the nuclear weapon ban treaty exemplifies the power of a humanitarian approach to disarmament. After the 1996 adoption of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, there was minimal progress in advancing the law on nuclear weapons; international discussions continued but produced no tangible results.

In 2010, ICAN and other proponents of a new treaty began to reframe nuclear weapons as a humanitarian, rather than national security, issue. Publications from ICAN and its member organizations highlighted the horrific harm caused by use and testing. A resolution from the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement called for using “the framework of humanitarian diplomacy” to work toward a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. In 2015, 127 states endorsed the “Humanitarian Pledge,” committing “to promote the protection of civilians against risks stemming from nuclear weapons” and to strive for a world free of nuclear weapons.

This shift in the debate broke the international deadlock. The following year, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution to initiate treaty negotiations, and on July 7, 2017, 122 states adopted a global ban on nuclear weapons. Only one country voted against, and one abstained.

As I explained at a legal seminar held during the Nobel celebrations, the influence of humanitarian disarmament is evident in the treaty’s text as well as the process behind it. The preamble recognizes the overwhelming human and environmental consequences of the weapons, and acknowledges the disproportionate impact on women and girls and indigenous peoples.

To prevent future humanitarian harm, the instrument bans the production, stockpiling, transfer, testing, and use of nuclear weapons as well as assisting a state not party with any of those activities.

The treaty also obliges countries to mitigate the damage caused by use and testing of nuclear weapons. In particular, affected states must assist victims and remediate contaminated environments, and other states parties, especially those that used or tested the weapons, must provide them the support necessary to do so.

Those of us who advocated for the ban treaty understand that complete elimination of nuclear weapons remains a challenge. The nuclear weapon states and most NATO countries boycotted the process.

Nevertheless, the Nobel Committee’s recognition of ICAN shows that the treaty is a crucial step forward. The Peace Prize should provide added impetus to countries to join and implement the instrument.

For veterans of the humanitarian disarmament movement, attending the Nobel ceremony inevitably brought to mind the 2008 signing ceremony of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which also took place in Oslo City Hall. I vividly remember not only the chills the event gave me, but also the behind-the-scenes buzzing and the oft-repeated question: “What next?”

Some advocates and diplomats argued that the answer was clearly nuclear weapons, while others in Oslo saw banning nuclear weapons as an unrealistic goal. Nine years later, the visionaries proved the skeptics wrong.

My humanitarian disarmament colleagues and I continue to look to the future. The next steps are to use the new treaty to advance the goal of eliminating nuclear arms, and apply the humanitarian approach to other inhumane and indiscriminate weapons. After a week of recognition and celebration, we stand reinvigorated for the road ahead.

For more information on the content and legal impact of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, see remarks I made at a legal seminar held in conjunction with the Nobel Peace Prize celebrations.


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