Interview with Ray Acheson, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom

The 2010 NPT review conference looked, for
the first time, at the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, and that was really the
initiative of the Swiss and Norwegian governments that pushed for the inclusion of that in the
review conference, and once that was included in that document, that there were humanitarian
impacts and that everybody was obliged to comply with international humanitarian law
in this context, that really opened up space for an examination of the humanitarian effects
of nuclear weapons once again. And so this took off with a series of conferences
hosted by Norway, Mexico and Austria over 2013 and 2014, and they used that as a launching
point to educate a new generation of diplomats and government officials, as well as activists,
on the humanitarian costs of nuclear weapons. So looking at the effects of an explosion,
what this does to human bodies, what this does to cities, but also what it does to our
economies and our way of life, looking at the connections between the impacts and also
the risks that we currently face, both in terms of intentional use of nuclear weapons,
but also the risks from failures and command and control structures or accidental use of
nuclear weapons. And so it was a very broad way to examine
the issue, and what it helped us do was take back some of the language and create a new
narrative around nuclear weapons. In the 1960s and in the 1980s we had had a
lot of focus particularly from activists on nuclear famine, nuclear winter, there was
a widespread knowledge-sharing amongst citizens of the world that nuclear weapons would have
grave impacts on our lives, and a lot of that has disappeared since the end of the Cold
War. So the humanitarian initiative was really
a way to reopen that and to challenge the mainstream security discourse that treat these
as tools of international security, the language of deterrence, treating these weapons as something
that prevents conflict, instead of actually examining them for what they are. So we wanted to bring reality back to this
conversation and look at nuclear weapons as weapons once again, that do very grave harm. And so this is the motivation in the background
really for the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. This is what re-energized so many governments,
particularly in the global South, to take this issue up again, the idea that nuclear
weapons do not respect borders, that even a single detonation would affect everyone
everywhere, was something that was very significant to these countries that have security interests
when it comes to nuclear weapons. So after the Austrian pledge which was announced
in December of 2014, the next step was the next review conference of the non-proliferation
treaty and that was in 2015. In between those two things the Austrian pledge
actually morphed into what became known as the humanitarian pledge and so the Austrians
opened it up for other countries to endorse, so that everyone was sharing that goal of
wanting to work towards the prohibition, elimination of nuclear weapons through new law. And it wasn’t really specific at that point
about what that new law would look like but just the understanding that we needed to fill
the legal gap in order to deal with these weapons, and so during that phase we had over
well over 100 countries sign on even before the NPT review conference, and when that conference
failed to produce an outcome document, that inspired even more countries to endorse the
humanitarian pledge which led then countries at the UN the following October to adopt a
resolution to start an international process to look at what kind of law we would need
to deal with nuclear weapons through a legally binding treaty. And so that led to the establishment of an
open-ended working group on nuclear disarmament and that met in Geneva throughout 2016, and
that’s really where for the first time we had countries going on the record to say that
they wanted to negotiate a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons even if it meant the nuclear-armed
States would not join the treaty. And the nuclear-armed States boycotted that
meeting in Geneva, many of their allies did come, for example North Atlantic Treaty Organization
States came, Australia, Japan, South Korea, these are all countries that say they rely
on US nuclear weapons for their security but they did participate in these talks. They were not supportive of a prohibition
treaty approach, but the overwhelming majority of countries were, and so by the end of this
meeting in 2016 we had well over a hundred countries going on the record saying that
they wanted the General Assembly to negotiate a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons. We learned a lot from the campaigns to Ban
Landmines and Cluster Munitions. First of all we learned a lot about process,
so the ways in which like-minded governments can work closely with civil society activists,
campaigners to take a process, even when it’s opposed by some of the most powerful states
in the world, states that are using or producing these weapons, and how we can make progress
on these issues by really working together, strategizing together about how to make that
work. We also learned lessons in terms of the effects
of stigmatizing weapon systems and the normative impacts that can have. So that was really helpful when it came to
nuclear weapons in the context of the humanitarian effects, because we could look at how these
weapons are indiscriminate, how they cause harm to civilians, how they should be made
illegal on the basis of their humanitarian impact, and we also learned that the stigmatizing
effect goes beyond law, so it helps us set up a process to establish new law in these
weapons, but it also can have economic impacts which are extremely powerful when we dealing
with the production and sale of weapon systems. And so in the context of cluster munitions,
for example, the process to ban cluster munitions also inspired an economic divestment process
in which banks and pension funds were withdrawing money from companies that produce cluster
bombs, and we saw that this had an impact even in the countries that did not support
the treaty. So for example in the United States, the very
last company that was producing cluster munitions announced, in 2016, that it would no longer
do so, because it no longer had an economic incentive, because of the divestment process
and so of course when it comes to nuclear weapons with nuclear weapons being manufactured,
designed by corporations, the nuclear weapon laboratories in the United States are all
run by private corporations, we can see how there could be a similar effect. And when we talk to our banks and pension
funds, even those ones that had divested from land mines or cluster bombs, we asked them
why they hadn’t yet divested from nuclear weapons, and this was a few years ago, and
they said, “Well, nuclear weapons aren’t illegal.” And so we could see the direct connection
between having a treaty that prohibited these weapons and encouraging financial institutions
to withdraw their money. And we’re starting already to see the impacts
of that. So women have always been at the forefront
of anti-war activism, and the Women’s International League for peace and freedom was actually
founded in 1915 during a war, during World War I, and it was founded by women from all
over the world, countries that were at war with each other, in neutral countries, managed
to organize, before the internet existed, to come together in The Hague in the Netherlands,
and they developed a peace plan to end World War I, and actually several points from that
plan were, in the end, used in the peace plan between the warring nations
And WILPF has been a strong advocate for peace, nonviolence, disarmament, civil rights, women’s
rights, women’s right to vote, all through our history, and we’ve always combined the
goals of peace and reconciliation, non-violence approaches to conflict, together with our
anti-racism work, our women’s rights work, our environmental justice work. So seeing an interconnection between all of
these facets of social justice, we’ve also been part of the anti-nuclear movement since
the Atomic Age began, and women in general have been in the forefront of the anti-nuclear
movement as well. Women were instrumental in the 1960’s campaigning
for a nuclear weapon test ban treaty, collecting baby teeth to show the effects that atmospheric
nuclear testing was having on the environment, and on children and on citizens throughout
the world. Women were also at the forefront of the nuclear
freeze movement in the 1980’s. One of the leaders of that movement was Randy
Forsberg who drafted the call for the nuclear freeze between the Soviet Union and the United
States. And this wasn’t a freeze in the sense of let’s
freeze armaments where they are, because at that point there was about 70,000 nuclear
weapons in the world, but it was a call to stop the arms race, to stop building these
weapons and then to disarm together and to abolish nuclear weapons completely. And part of that vision for her was really
about the abolition of war and looking at how the drawdown of armaments, the stigmatization
of this type of violence, of massive nuclear violence, could help us also critique war
in general. And so again, women bringing the bigger picture
to bear on the nuclear weapons issue. In the course of the humanitarian initiative
and the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons again women have been instrumental. We had several women diplomats that were leaders
for their countries. We had some all women delegations also participating
in the negotiations. We had women that were very active in the
international campaign to abolish nuclear weapons. We also had a lot of queer representation
in this process and renewed interest also from people of colour, from those from the
global South, from young people. So I think where we’ve grown the anti-nuclear
movement is really to pay attention to issues related to intersectionality of identity,
to the importance of diversity and the importance of making the anti-nuclear issue really relevant
for people’s lives, and other interests that they’re working on in the context of social
justice. So the ways in which women are disproportionately
affected by conflict isn’t necessarily that women are the main victims, direct victims
of conflict-related violence, in fact men are the ones that kill each other the most
often, but this plays out in a number of ways that affects women. So for one thing conflict and violence don’t
just take place on a battlefield in a conflict situation if there is war. If there is conflict this usually is taken
back to the households where women can experience a disproportionate amount of violence, particularly
where there’s widespread access to small arms and light weapons as well. We also see the ways in which displacement
can affect women differently in terms of the risk of sexual violence, forced trafficking
and the ways in which society in general is reshaped by conflicts. The violence that comes out, the discrimination
that comes out as societies is affected at large by conflict. In the context of nuclear weapons, women are
physically affected differently by nuclear weapons, our bodies are more susceptible to
the ionizing radiation from nuclear weapons which means in cases where nuclear weapons
are being tested or used and in the aftermath of that, women face disproportionate harm
including when it comes to maternal health and again, in terms of conflict overall, the
displacement that would be caused by use of nuclear weapons and the long term intergenerational
effects of radiation would have an impact on women that is different from men. So the importance of this treaty really lies
in the normative effect that it’s already had on the way that we talk about nuclear
weapons. So we’ve really been able to challenge the
mainstream deterrence theory, this idea that nuclear weapons create security, stability,
prevent war. We’ve had so many governments and activists
and the international community of the Red Cross speak out against this narrative and
highlight how nuclear weapons actually undermine security and create risk for all of us. So I think that’s one of the main normative
impacts that this has had. I also think it’s really shown the power of
civil society and governments working together. We stood up to some of the most powerful,
most heavily militarized countries on this planet and did something that they were forbidding
us to do. For more than 70 years they have maintained
control over the narrative around this issue, around the politics over this issue, and they’ve
really prevented any progressive action. They have created this space in which they
are able to invest billions of dollars in nuclear weapons. They have not complied with their legal obligation
to eliminate these weapons, and at the same time they actually blame other countries for
not creating the conditions for them to disarm. They’ve blamed countries that don’t have nuclear
weapons for them still retaining nuclear weapons. So it’s just been such a frustrating environment
to work in on so many levels, and this just felt like a real breakthrough, that we were
able to collectively stand up to that and mount a very effective challenge using international
law, but also just relying on each other and the moral arguments to present a different
case to the world, that there is a way to deal with these weapons, that we can stand
up to these countries. So I think one of the ways that I think will
be very significant for ordinary people to engage in nuclear disarmament is the economic
divestment angle. Everyone can call their bank to ask if they’re
investing in nuclear weapons, why they’re doing that and ask them to stop. Or if you have a pension fund you can also
do the same thing. If you have investments in a financial institution
you can do the same thing. We can withdraw our money, even if it’s not
very much money, we can withdraw it, and we can make the case to our financial institution
about why we’re withdrawing it. There’s plenty of good options of where to
put your money Don’ has all of those resources that you can use. And I think that’s a great way to make the
public case for nuclear disarmament, to keep the conversation going. I also think that for anyone thinking that
they can’t make a difference, this treaty is a great example of ordinary people coming
together to make this difference. You know we were activists, and we had the
ability to engage with governments at the UN, but so much of the campaign has been in
public back at the national level, at the local level, working with city councillors,
for example, to create resolutions encouraging the federal government to support the treaty,
and now that we have the treaty, to join the treaty. So there’s a lot of local work that can be
done and it’s just about talking about nuclear weapons as weapons that harm us, weapons that
undermine our security and weapons that waste our resources. We have so many big struggles that we need
to deal with; climate change, poverty, inequality. We can’t be wasting billions of dollars on
nuclear weapons. It’s inconceivable and it’s immoral, and I
think that’s really a conversation that can resonate across communities and across so
many different issues that you might be working on. And it only takes a few people to organize
with City Council. It only takes a few people to organize an
event at your local library, or a church, or a school to have a conversation and to
make a difference to policy, because all of this trickles up to policymaking. Working on nuclear disarmament is definitely
a passion for me. It is my heart and soul, I think. Well the whole project of abolishing war,
of challenging violence. And it really comes from a place of believing
that it is possible to change the world that we’re living in, and I remember from a young
age being very frustrated by this view that was largely perpetuated by a very elite, upper
class white, straight, male perspective, that this is the way the world is, this is the
way the world has to be. And I didn’t agree with that. I saw that there was people in so many other
contexts around the world organizing for something different and making change. We’ve seen throughout history that making
change has been the result of people coming together collectively to challenge the status
quo, to challenge the dominant narratives, whether that’s been the civil rights movement
or women’s rights right to vote, or ending slavery, or ending apartheid, it’s all been
collective people’s action that has changed the world. And I really believe that that is where my
energy is best placed to help out in this any way I can, and I’ve been very fortunate
to have the Women’s International League for peace and freedom be a home for that. It’s hard to find even a low-paying job that
will sustain you in this type of work, so it’s really incredible that there has been
these opportunities and these campaigns, like the international campaign to abolish nuclear
weapons, like the campaign to stop killer robots, like the International Action Network
on small arms. These are coalitions of different groups of
people coming from all kinds of different backgrounds to really work on something together,
and I think that that’s the most significant role for me, so I’m going to stick at it as
long as I can.

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