As tensions between the U.S. and North Korea escalate, two University of Toronto graduates are working with an international coalition to ban nuclear weapons before it’s too late.
And for those efforts, the group was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last week.
Ray Acheson, a U of T graduate who had been trying to build support for a nuclear disarmament treaty for more than a decade, was fast asleep when the Peace Prize recipient was announced around 5 a.m. local time on Oct. 6.
She woke up to the sound of her cellphone pinging with unread messages and missed calls.
“I thought something bad had happened at first because that's where our minds tends to go these days with the nuclear issue,” she told U of T News in a phone interview from UN headquarters in New York City.
Instead, she was informed The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a coalition of NGOs in 100 countries, received the prize for advancing the negotiations leading to a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. Two-thirds of the 192-member United Nations adopted the agreement last summer – though the nine nuclear-armed powers and their close allies, including Canada, opted out of the talks.
Acheson leads the disarmament program of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and was one of 10 representatives in ICAN’s steering group. She and her colleague Allison Pytlak, also a U of T alumna and program consultant at WILPF, made recommendations outlining a strong treaty, drew up backgrounders for diplomats and organized marches in support of disarmament.
Acheson and Pytlak work on a short video about an anti-nuclear march in New York (photo courtesy of Allison Pytlak)
The Nobel Committee praised 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.”
The announcement appears timely given U.S. President Donald Trump’s comments about nuclear war and his threat to jettison the Iran nuclear deal. Less than a week after Trump’s inauguration, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved its Doomsday Clock forward
to two-and-a-half minutes to midnight, saying “the probability of global catastrophe is very high.” According to ICAN, there are around 15,000 nuclear weapons in existence.
Nevertheless, Acheson says she is optimistic the world will be nuclear weapon-free eventually. “The only solution is diplomatic, it's co-operation and dialogue, because the alternative is literally slaughtering millions of civilians.”
While getting 122 nations to back an anti-nuclear weapons treaty was no small feat, there remains the challenge of persuading more countries, particularly those with nuclear arsenals, to join.
Acheson said ICAN expected nuclear-armed states to boycott the negotiations, but added the treaty serves other purposes. “We always wanted this treaty to be a tool to achieve the elimination of nuclear weapons, to change public mindsets and make it clear that these weapons are categorically outlawed.” The agreement also makes it easier to argue for divesting from companies involved in nuclear weapons production, she said.
Long before making the case for disarmament in the corridors of the UN, Acheson took peace and conflict studies at U of T. She initially wanted to be a journalist, but was drawn to activism. While still in university, she interned with Randall Forsberg, a pioneer of the nuclear freeze movement and organizer of one of the largest demonstrations in U.S. history, a protest against nuclear arms in Central Park in 1982.
Thomas Homer-Dixon, who taught political science at U of T until moving to the University of Waterloo in 2008, remembers Acheson as a stand-out student with “an unerring moral compass and tremendous drive.” The treaty, he said, “has been rejected and even ridiculed by the nuclear powers. That was to be expected. But it establishes a powerful international norm against the possession of nuclear weapons and establishes the necessity of their elimination.”
Acheson says the work leading to the treaty offers a lesson in perseverance. “The most important thing is to get involved, to be active and not give up when people are telling you that what you're doing is silly and will never work,” she said.
“If we had listened to them, we wouldn't have a treaty, we wouldn't have a Nobel Peace Prize and we wouldn't have an alternative right now to what we're seeing in the world, this level of crisis.”