The Lawyer Working to Dismantle the World’s Nuclear Weapons

Honoring scientists, engineers, and visionaries who are changing the world for the better.

Beatrice Fihn wants to ban nuclear weapons and she’s making good progress. With dreams of being a diplomat, she studied international relations in college. After finishing her undergrad, she earned a Master of Laws degree in International Law at University College London. Then she took an internship with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) that would change her life.

At WILPF, she learned about nuclear weapons and the pressing need to rid the world of them. Four years later, she was the executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a non-profit coalition that advocates for the global abolishment of nuclear arms. There, Fihn has helped revive urgent concerns about nukes.

“They’re the ultimate expression of oppressive power,” she said over Zoom.

ICAN has been wildly successful in signal-boosting the threat of nuclear conflict: In 2017, the campaign won the Nobel Peace Prize and in 2020, it helped the United Nations ratify a treaty that bans nuclear weapons under international law. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was first proposed in 2017, and 122 of the UN’s 193 members voted to adopt it. Fifty countries have since ratified the treaty. It will enter into force in January 2021.

Fihn was instrumental in passing the TPNW, an effort that meant a lot of phone calls, a lot of meetings, and a lot of confrontations with politicians about the horror of nukes. Key to her success has been reframing the way people talk about the weapons. For decades, scientists and politicians have hidden the horror of nukes behind euphemistic words and phrases like deterrence, strategic stability, and second strike capability. 

“It’s completely intentional. I think it’s part of a strategy to dehumanize these weapons so much that we just accept them,” Fihn said. “It’s something we have to break down. Instead of talking about ‘deterrence,’ I like to say ‘threat to mass murder civilians.’” 

“You can see how uncomfortable it makes politicians,” she continued. “When you tell them they want to be able to threaten to mass murder civilians, they squirm. They say ‘No, well, we believe in deterrence.’ I think that is one of the biggest obstacles towards nuclear disarmament. It’s all abstract and people are tricked into thinking it’s too complicated.”

Like climate change, the threat of nuclear weapons is both existential and immediate. It’s a big problem people don’t want to think about, but it’s a danger that must be confronted before it can be overcome. 

“We’ve been lucky,” Fihn said. “Statistically, if you keep [nuclear weapons] forever, they will eventually be used. At some point, someone is going to suffer the consequences.”

Russia and the United States, the two countries who hold 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons, haven’t signed on to the TPNW. But Fihn believes the treaty will still influence their behavior.  

“We get a lot of criticism for not being powerful enough, but [treaties] are hugely influential in shaping state behavior,” she said. “It’s not so easy to see that on a day-to-day basis, but when you zoom out over time, you see how the UN Charter has changed the way we think about warfare.”

There’s historical precedent to back up the claim. “We’ve seen how the Geneva Conventions have changed the world, we’ve seen how human rights treaties have really shifted how governments behave,” she said. “The ban on chemical weapons and landmines changed lives. This treaty is a part of that.”

“On January 22, when this treaty enters into force, nuclear weapons will be banned under international law,” Fihn concluded. “It will be a marker in time. Of course it won’t apply to all states, but it’s there. It’s not going away. From here, we’ll just build and make it stronger.”