#PeacefulMondays: The people-powered light of a nuclear-free world

The room erupted in thunderous applause.

It wasn’t because a celebrity, pop icon or politician had played to the crowd. Or because something witty had just been uttered.

The applause burst forth from acknowledging that we, the human race, had had enough. It was applause from everyday people, to begin the march toward a world without nuclear weapons.

On Sunday Dec 10 2017, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) “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”.

I’d watched recordings of past Peace Prize ceremonies. They were solemn, stately affairs, graced by the Royal Family of Norway and political dignitaries. This year’s solemnity was punctuated by something more – a distinct sense of grassroots fervor, of a group of concerned global citizens making their voice heard in the hushed halls of elite power. As Berit Reiss-Andersen, Chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, mentioned in her award ceremony speech:

ICAN arose as a protest against the established order. Nuclear weapon issues are not solely a question to be addressed by governments, nor a matter for experts or high-level politicians. Nuclear weapons concern everyone, and everyone is entitled to an opinion. ICAN has succeeded in generating fresh engagement among ordinary people in the campaign against nuclear weapons. The organisation’s acronym is perhaps not a coincidence: I CAN.

But it wasn’t Ms Reiss-Andersen’s words that drew the thunderous applause. That came later, when the Nobel Laureates delivered their passionate calls for a nuclear-free world.

In a year when North Korea has been sabre-rattling early and often, and where the USA hasn’t explicitly taken its threat of nuclear force off the table, the world is on edge. For the first time since the Cold War between the USA and the former Soviet Union, we are now more keenly aware of the “15,000 objects of humankind’s destruction” that exist around us.

Ms Beatrice Fihn, ICAN’s Executive Director, filled her Peace Prize lecture with gratitude for the 468 organizations in ICAN’s coalition, and with sharp words for nuclear states who haven’t worked hard enough to disarm per the goals of their 1970 non-proliferation treaty (NPT).

As of this writing, ICAN’s work has led to more than 55 nations signing a July 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, the treaty has been boycotted by all nuclear weapons possessing states, most NATO countries, and many military allies of nuclear weapons states. Proponents of the Treaty have hailed it as an important step in delegitimizing nuclear weapons and reinforcing the norms against their use, while opponents have criticized the Treaty as political grandstanding which could undermine the NPT.

At a human level, far from the political wrangling around such treaties, it has been 72 years since atomic bombs decimated Hiroshima and much of Nagasaki. At a human level, we’re beginning to forget what it actually means to wage a nuclear war. Who suffers, how, and for how long.

This was when and why thunderous applause at the 10 Dec ceremony erupted.

Ms Setsuko Thurlow was in the room to deliver the second half of the Peace Prize lecture. She was 13 years old when Hiroshima was bombed, and when she found herself pinned under post-bomb rubble in a fight for her life. Her classmates were burned alive, and her 4-year-old nephew’s “little body transformed into an unrecognizable melted chunk of flesh. He kept begging for water in a faint voice until his death released him from agony.”

Ms Thurlow’s 85-year old body is frail, but her voice and conviction are strong. She has been a tireless champion for nuclear disarmament, because her agony is real. She shared the reality of a post-nuclear world as only she can:

Through our agony and the sheer struggle to survive – and to rebuild our lives from the ashes – we hibakusha became convinced that we must warn the world about these apocalyptic weapons. Time and again, we shared our testimonies.

But still some refused to see Hiroshima and Nagasaki as atrocities – as war crimes. They accepted the propaganda that these were “good bombs” that had ended a “just war”. It was this myth that led to the disastrous nuclear arms race – a race that continues to this day.

Nine nations still threaten to incinerate entire cities, to destroy life on earth, to make our beautiful world uninhabitable for future generations. The development of nuclear weapons signifies not a country’s elevation to greatness, but its descent to the darkest depths of depravity. These weapons are not a necessary evil; they are the ultimate evil.

It can be hard to consider the possibility of a nuclear-free world, when so many nations are eager to jump on the nuclear bandwagon in a show of force or false bravado.

But, in an age where we yearn to disrupt the status quo, to shake things up, to break the systems that no longer serve us…surely the disruption of a nuclear norm is one well worth pursuing.

Beatrice Fihn and Setsuko Thurlow certainly think so.

And based on the thunderous applause that rippled through the room when they spoke, so can we.

If a nuclear-free world matters to you, take action and stand with ICAN here.

(featured image of Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony from Reuters.)

Questions to ponder



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About the author

Maya Mathias

Maya Mathias is a peaceful leadership advocate, spiritual biographer and soul guide, with a life and career spanning 3 continents and 5 inspired self-reinventions. She is a global leadership veteran, bringing her unique blend of East & West to her leadership development and innovation management practice. Maya’s life began with a lower-middle class upbringing in Asia, surrounded by poultry & vegetable farms and the ‘simple life’. She doesn’t forget her humble roots, and her body of work seeks to bring more equality, justice and personal purpose in troubling times. Learn more about Maya here.

Peter DuMont

Thank you for this skillfully written article on an urgent topic that simply cannot be exaggerated in importance!

    Maya Mathias

    Thanks Peter! Feel free to share this article with others engaged in peace work.

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