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How to ban bombs and influence people

Scottish CND's Janet Fenton reports from the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons' Paris Forum, which took place pre-lockdown from 14 - 15 February

Day one of the ICAN Paris Forum. Photo: Orel Kichigai | ICAN

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, ICAN to its friends, opened its Paris Forum in lively style with a welcome from ICAN France’s Jean-Marie Collin and ICAN’s executive director, Beatrice Fihn. Beatrice flagged up the green nature of the housekeeping arrangements, the hashtags and ICAN’s ability to throw a great party. They weren’t kidding and no one was napping at any point in the intensive and immersive experience over two days with a party in the evening between.

The nature of nuclear weapons was set firmly in the context of the urgent climate emergency and the interconnectedness between these threats was unpicked, explored and explained.

ICAN’s capacity for encouraging a can-do approach ensured that people were ready for future action and acquiring the necessary tools.

The 200 people who attended were mostly young. While many of them were inexperienced in nuclear disarmament campaigning, everyone was engaged and active and committed to a better way to do things than the current status quo.

ICAN’s capacity for encouraging a can-do approach ensured that people were ready for future action and acquiring the necessary tools. The panels and workshops were moderated to encourage conversation and dialogue across age and experience.

There was thorough exploration of intersectionality in relation to the need for social and economic justice, especially to do with race and gender.

Putting the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) into this much wider context meant hearing some difficult truths about the risks we face, and some harrowing accounts of what people have experienced. These stories are an important part of understanding the existential threats, and how our work could change that.

On the front line
Beatrice introduced the first speaker, Setsuko Thurlow, who described what happened to her in Hiroshima when she was aged 13, just as she had described her experience to the United Nations in the conference that adopted the TPNW.

For those of us who have heard Setsuko, watching the impact of her testimony on those hearing it for the first time added further poignancy to the terrible history she has relived over and over again for 75 years.

Setsuko was joined by indigenous community organizer Leona Morgan. Our Scottish CND co-ordinator was especially moved by how heartbroken Leona felt about the minerals extracted from their Sacred Mountain contributing to the suffering of so many people.

New Mexico is the USA's nuclear cemetery. The first nuclear weapon in the world was tested there in 1945, and the uranium mines, enrichment plant and plutonium-contaminated waste dumps are historical and planned.

Leona’s people are at the frontline and need support and encouragement. Her community do not use talk of a ‘nuclear cycle’, but the ‘nuclear chain’, producing power that is not renewable and can’t be recycled but continues to do ongoing harm.

Indigenous communities are using technology to communicate local developments and form a global network that is stronger than federal government structures. Building meaningful transnational communities was an important strand we returned to over both days of the Paris Forum.

Packed schedule
The first day covered other realities of the nuclear experience including the inherent racism, risks, toxic diplomacy and patriarchy which are integral to the nuclear framework, with panels and workshops on how lobbying can challenge assumptions and the role of the arts in changing perceptions.

Throughout both days, sessions were moderated by ICAN’s own staff or Steering Group and panellists were balanced across an age and experience spectrum, drawing on expertise and enthusiasm from anti-nuclear, climate, diplomatic, political and academic disciplines.

Conversation prevailed over presentation, with engagement and questions actively encouraged. A ‘Campaign Aid Booth’ allowed participants to book a slot for direct feedback on their own projects in three areas; media advice, digital tools and direct action.

This gave a cue to Forum participants to feel comfortable approaching panellists informally, and the plentiful supplies in the cafe, the backdrops for photos and the wonderful ICAN France volunteers helping people to find their way all ensured plenty of interaction and networking. The volunteers were also active at the evening informal party, which lived up to Beatrice’s promise.

On the final day, Saturday, challenges to the existing powers of colonialism, military might, corporate business and patriarchy were explored. Panellists shared experiences of strategies that had worked, and workshops provided a chance for discussing transferable campaign skills, and ways to interlink and learn about the issues

Climate change increases the likelihood of nuclear weapons being used. Severe weather crises cause food and fresh water scarcity. Increasing rates of human migration adds pressure on fragile governments, and these factors all increase conflict that could escalate to proxy nuclear weapons use even between non-nuclear-armed sates.

The panel on developing communication skills helped to keep the discussion focused on what we want and need to say, rather than on what we are told, and another workshop was on how activists, scientists and academics can work collaboratively and increase effectiveness.

The ‘Future of Activism’ session in the afternoon was a great sharing opportunity for Forum participants and diverse panellists from the climate change movement, professional organisations and coalitions working for change.

A new and intersectional and transnational approach to nuclear disarmament does not require us to win over recruits from the climate camp or find special strategies to engage young people. It’s time for the nuclear disarmament movement in the UK to engage with the climate crisis and recognise racism and patriarchy in our own movements in a collegiate and constructive way.

Work for elimination!

It was a final sobering reminder of why it's not enough to have won the TPNW.

The TPNW complements earlier treaties, with a clear route to prohibition and elimination. Of the 200 participants attending from around the world, there were 15 from Scotland, and there is a good reason for that high percentage given the size of the place. While the Scottish government and parliament support the treaty, they are disregarded by the UK government.

Yet the UK depends on the Scottish location for deploying its nuclear weapons. This was and remains a key issue in the debate on Scottish independence, and amplifying the Scottish message in the rest of the country weakens the UK government claim of a democratic mandate for nuclear weapons.

Before the conference closed, panellists and participants and volunteers together watched a short extract from ‘Hiroshima Monster Girl’. This is a performance from Sachiko Hara which will be on tour around the Hiroshima 75*th* anniversary later this year. (You can find a short trailer on Facebook.)

It was a final sobering reminder of why it's not enough to have won the TPNW. We need to work for elimination once the treaty becomes a binding prohibition.

Coronavirus may give us some time for reflection. Consider how quickly things can go badly wrong when something unexpected happens, and also think of how people can respond to a clearly defined threat, and change their usual behaviour overnight.

Janet Fenton is vice chair of Scottish CND and parliamentary liaison for Scottish WILPF. Videos of speakers and sessions are on the ICAN Paris Forum website:

Topics: Nuclear Weapons