ICAN's mission: Achieving a prohibition on nuclear weapons


ICAN, the partner organization of the Heinrich Böll Foundation which won the Nobel Peace Prize 2017, was initiated in Melbourne and launched internationally in Vienna in April 2007. Since ICAN’s founding, it has worked to build a powerful global groundswell of public support for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Signing ceremony for UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons
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Signing ceremony for UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in September 2017 - Beatrice Fihn, Executive Director of ICAN speaking

Until the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons had been the only weapons of mass destruction not subject to a prohibition under international law, despite the widespread and catastrophic humanitarian consequences of their intentional or accidental detonation. Biological weapons were banned in 1972 and chemical weapons in 1992.

On adoption of the treaty, ICAN’s executive director, Beatrice Fihn, said:

We hope that today marks the beginning of the end of the nuclear age. It is beyond question that nuclear weapons violate the laws of war and pose a clear danger to global security. No one believes that indiscriminately killing millions of civilians is acceptable – no matter the circumstance – yet that is what nuclear weapons are designed to do. Today the international community rejected nuclear weapons and made it clear they are unacceptable. It is time for leaders around the world to match their values and words with action by signing and ratifying this treaty as a first step towards eliminating nuclear weapons.

The adoption came following four weeks of negotiations in 2017, but the process has grown over the last several years — emerging out of the so-called Humanitarian Initiative. This was an effort driven by civil society and a growing group of states, to fundamentally reframe the discussion around nuclear weapons in order to allow progress to be made towards disarmament.

ICAN: The campaign that banned nuclear weapons

On the 7 July 2017, 122 states at the United Nations formally adopted a treaty categorically prohibiting nuclear weapons.

Consisting of 468 NGO’s in over 100 countries, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) has been the leading civil society coalition advocating for a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons. The work of ICAN partners from across the world was instrumental all the way from the first Conference on the Humanitarian Impact in Oslo in 2013. During the four weeks of negotiations in 2017, ICAN campaigners from all over the world came to New York to lobby governments to negotiate the strongest possible ban treaty.

ICAN was initiated in Melbourne, Australia and launched internationally in Vienna, Austria in April 2007. The campaign’s founders were inspired by the tremendous success of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and the Cluster Munitions Coalition, which achieved historic results prohibiting an entire category of weapons using a humanitarian-based approach.  

Since ICAN’s founding, it has worked to build a powerful global groundswell of public support for the abolition of nuclear weapons. By engaging diverse groups and working alongside the Red Cross and like-minded governments, ICAN has successfully reframed the debate on nuclear weapons and brought the movement to ban nuclear weapons to its fruition with the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in 2017. ICAN is the main civil society network working for implementation of the treaty and using it to bring about progress in nuclear disarmament.

ICAN works at multiple levels, from the multilateral diplomatic sphere at forums like the United Nations General Assembly to national parliaments to the grassroots, engaging directly with citizens.

By targeting governments directly with briefing and advocacy materials and bringing campaigners and activists from around the world to governmental conferences dealing with nuclear weapons, ICAN has developed an effective lobbying machine at multilateral forums. This has been widely acknowledged by governments and observers of the process as the key factor in bringing about the successful negotiations and ensuring their successful conclusion. With the ban treaty now in place, ICAN will amplify its efforts with parliamentarians to ensure rapid ratification of the treaty and to change policies related to nuclear weapons in those countries that are implicated in their continued deployment.

For more information about ICAN and how the campaign work, please visit www.icanw.org

Achieving the ban: a collaborative effort between civil society and governments

The push for a legally binding treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons – against the will of the nuclear weapon states – grew out of the movement to reframe the nuclear weapons debate around humanitarian principles, instead of outdated concepts of nuclear deterrence. This movement, known as “the humanitarian initiative” was promoted by ICAN and supported by like-minded governments, international organizations and civil society. In short, it sought to make the nuclear disarmament a discussion about people.

The basic starting point is the notion that any use of nuclear weapons would have catastrophic humanitarian consequences. At a review of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2010, all nations expressed their deep concern at the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences” of any use of nuclear weapons – a collective statement that led to the convening of three major conferences in 2013 and 2014 focusing on the humanitarian impact of nuclear detonations.

ICAN served as the civil society coordinator for these meetings, which brought together most of the world’s governments, along with international organizations and academic institutions.

In 2015 ICAN helped garner the support of 127 nations for a diplomatic pledge
“to fill the legal gap” in the existing regime governing nuclear weapons. Based on the outcomes of the humanitarian conferences, ICAN also campaigned for the establishment of a special UN working group to examine specific proposals for advancing nuclear disarmament. This body met in Geneva in February, May and August 2016. It issued a landmark report recommending that negotiations begin in 2017 on a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons once and for all.

ICAN then lobbied successfully for the UN General Assembly to adopt the resolution in December 2016 to launch negotiations on “a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons”. The resolution was supported by an overwhelming margin of UN member states.

Negotiations were launched in 2017 and took place over four weeks in March and June / July. States from all regions of the world participated in the negotiations despite the active efforts to undermine them by nuclear weapon states and their allies.

At the end of the negotiations, on the 7 July 2017, 122 states at the United Nations formally adopted the first treaty to ever prohibit nuclear weapons.

The treaty prohibits nations from developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, transferring, possessing, stockpiling, using or threatening to use nuclear weapons. It also prohibits them from assisting, encouraging or inducing anyone to engage in any of those activities. In addition, nations must not allow nuclear weapons to be stationed or deployed on their territory.

A State that possesses nuclear weapons may join the Treaty, so long as it agrees to destroy its weapons in accordance with a legally binding, time-bound plan. Similarly, a State that hosts another State’s nuclear weapons in its territory may join, so long as it agrees to ensure their removal by a specified deadline.

The treaty also continues the tradition of acknowledging the rights of victims and the responsibility to clean up the environment: States parties must provide assistance to victims of the use and testing of nuclear weapons and take measures to remediate contaminated environments. The Treaty’s preamble recognizes the unacceptable suffering that has resulted from nuclear weapon detonations around the world.

The birth of the treaty, looking ahead

On 20 September 2017, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons opened for signature at a formal ceremony at the United Nations in New York. UN Secretary-General António Guterres personally oversaw the proceedings, while the President of the UN General Assembly, the President of the ICRC, the President of Costa Rica and Executive Director of ICAN Beatrice Fihn also delivered opening speeches.

On the first day alone, 50 heads of state, heads of government, foreign ministers and other high-level government officials signed on behalf of their governments. The treaty will be open for signature indefinitely and will enter into force 90 days after its 50th ratification.

Obviously, the work does not end here. In many ways, it has just begun. ICAN will now focus on ensuring that this treaty enters into force, gets implemented and creates a strong norm against nuclear weapons that will lead to nuclear disarmament. This is long-term work, it won’t happen overnight.

ICAN will work to ensure that all countries committed to international humanitarian law and human rights match their values and words with action and sign the treaty.

Once that is done, ICAN will start a ratification campaign and make sure 50 states ratify the treaty quickly so it officially becomes international law. ICAN will also work in nuclear armed states and nuclear alliance states to change policies and behaviour.

The ban on nuclear weapons will establish an international norm against the possession of nuclear weapons, which will help to reduce the perceived value of such weapons. It will draw the line between those states that believe nuclear weapons are unacceptable and illegitimate, and those states that believe nuclear weapons are legitimate and able to provide security.


“This treaty represents the determination of the survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and nuclear testing around the world. And it establishes a legal obligation to address the harm that these weapons cause.” – Beatrice Fihn, Executive Director, ICAN

“The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is the product of increasing concerns over the risk posed by the continued existence of nuclear weapons, including the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences of their use. The Treaty is an important step towards the universally-held goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. It is my hope that it will reinvigorate global efforts to achieve it.” – UN Secretary General António Guterres

“The world today needs the promise of this Treaty: the hope for a future without nuclear weapons. Humanity simply cannot live under the dark shadow of nuclear warfare, and the immense suffering which we all know would result. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is a light for all humanity, illuminating a pathway towards a world without nuclear weapons.” – Peter Maurer, President, International Committee of the Red Cross
“This Conference [intended] to negotiate a Treaty inspired by ethical and moral arguments. It is an exercise in hope and it is my wish that it may also constitute a decisive step along the road towards a world without nuclear weapons. Although this is a significantly complex and long-term goal, it is not beyond our reach.” Pope Francis

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