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Beatrice Fihn of the Nobel-Winning ICAN: We Need to Dismantle & Disarm the World’s Nuclear Arms

Web ExclusiveOctober 09, 2018
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As the U.S. continues negotiations on the Korean Peninsula, we speak with Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, about the fight to disarm the world. In a sweeping conversation, Fihn discusses Trump withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and who profits from the development of nuclear weapons. “[Nuclear weapons] are meant to mass murder civilians,” Fihn says. “As long as nuclear weapons exist, the risk will always be there.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Part 2 of our discussion with Beatrice Fihn. Beatrice Fihn who heads up the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, was in Oslo last year receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for her organization.

Well, today we look at nuclear weapons on the planet. We’ll start off by focusing on North Korea, where Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un Sunday for nearly three hours in talks meant to further steps toward nuclear disarmament, they said. Pompeo hailed the meeting in Pyongyang as a success, saying both sides were “pretty close” to agreeing on details for a second summit between Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump. He told reporters Kim has agreed to let international inspectors into a North Korean missile engine test facility and a nuclear testing site, where the country conducted its six nuclear tests.

Beatrice Fihn, thanks so much for staying with us for Part 2 of this discussion. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons is one of the pre-eminent organizations in the world dealing with nuclear weapons. This issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, I don’t know if that’s what either Kim Jong-un or President Trump is pushing for, but what would that look like?

BEATRICE FIHN: Well, that means, you know, all parts of the conflict will have to do something, not just North Korea. South Korea is a part of a military alliance with the United States where they have the right to request nuclear weapons to be used on behalf of South Korea. And in order to truly denuclearize the whole Korean Peninsula, both North and South Korea are involved in that process. And right now, the only way to do that is—that exists, the sort of pathway, is the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, because if North Korea joins this treaty, it will mean that they will have to verifiably, with the time-bound sort of plan, dismantle their weapons and invite international inspectors to verify that. And South Korea would have to commit to not be a part of military exercises with nuclear weapons, not request the use of nuclear weapons and not assist with the use of nuclear weapons. So, the treaty is a way to get both of these countries to commit something.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is not very well known in the United States, perhaps because the United States is not a signatory. So you’re saying North Korea would have to be a signatory. What about the United States?

BEATRICE FIHN: Well, the United States would obviously be a part of these negotiations, as well, but their participation isn’t necessary in order to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. There are no U.S. nuclear weapons there. But they would have to, of course, work with South Korea to stop threatening to use nuclear weapons on North Korea.

AMY GOODMAN: Is South Korea a signatory?

BEATRICE FIHN: No, not yet.

AMY GOODMAN: How many countries are a signatory?

BEATRICE FIHN: About 70 countries have joined so far, with more countries coming in each month.

AMY GOODMAN: And what exactly does it mean, this treaty?

BEATRICE FIHN: It means that you are prohibited from using, developing, possessing nuclear weapons. You can’t station nuclear weapons on your territory, and you can’t be part of assisting the use of nuclear weapons. And I think that’s where you look into countries like South Korea, for example. They cannot be requesting the United States to use nuclear weapons on behalf of South Korea. So, it’s a very comprehensive prohibition, very similar to the prohibitions on chemical and biological weapons, banning a whole category of weapons of mass destruction.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the difference between the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, not to mention the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty?

BEATRICE FIHN: Well, this is the nuclear weapons field, right? We have many acronyms and complicated things. The Test Ban Treaty prohibits testing, so you can no longer test nuclear weapons. But it doesn’t address the existing nuclear weapons or the threats to use nuclear weapons. It doesn’t address the use of nuclear weapons. So a country like the United States or Russia, who have the, you know, 7,000 nuclear weapons each, can stop testing but still have them. And that’s the danger with North Korea now, that we will only go for the testing of nuclear weapons, sort of allowing them to keep their and kind of solidifying their status as a nuclear-armed state, as that’s good enough, in a way. But it’s a very inconsistent way of looking at nuclear weapons, because we can’t just prevent the spread of it and acknowledging that these countries will always have them, because that will just encourage further spread of them. So you have to also look at the possession and the development and the use of nuclear weapons. And that’s what the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons do.

AMY GOODMAN: So, where does the U.S. stand in all of this? And is really—I mean, Trump is very belligerent when it comes to these issues. But is he that different than President Obama was?

BEATRICE FIHN: In many ways, the way Trump tweets about nuclear weapons is the essence of deterrence that has, you know, governed the U.S. policy on nuclear weapons since 19—

AMY GOODMAN: The essence of deterrence.

BEATRICE FIHN: Yeah. It’s, you know, “If you do something to me, I will totally destroy your country. I will totally destroy the entire world. I will destroy all of us.”

AMY GOODMAN: So this is MAD, mutually assured destruction.

BEATRICE FIHN: Exactly, and that’s the whole principle behind nuclear weapons. It’s just that Trump says it. He tweets it. There’s no finesse or eloquence to this. And that makes people quite scared. But in reality, that is what nuclear weapons are. They are meant to mass murder civilians. And they have been so under Clinton, under Bush, under Obama, under Trump. Then, of course, he is now developing new types of nuclear weapons and increasing the spending on nuclear weapons, these low-yield, more usable nuclear weapons, which means, of course, that that increases the risk. Also, his language, the way he threatens with them, increases uncertainty, obviously concerns countries like North Korea, which can trigger accidental use, misunderstandings, miscalculations. So, obviously, the situation right now is much more hostile and worse. But as long as nuclear weapons exist, the risk will always be there.

AMY GOODMAN: Who profits from the development of nuclear weapons?

BEATRICE FIHN: The weapons producers. We have—there are companies that are involved—private companies that are involved in producing this, with huge contracts, companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Airbus. They produce the missiles. They produce these kind of things. And it’s huge business. And in many ways, we are very—we forget about that. Honeywell, for example, makes our air conditioners, but it also produces nuclear weapons.

And I think that that’s also one of the ways that we are using this treaty to influence. We’ve seen it very successful in other treaties, launching divestment campaigns, for example, getting our banks, my pension fund, to stop lending money to nuclear weapons producers. I don’t want my money to go to building weapons of mass destruction. So I think that we have a chance to—with or without the U.S. president on board this treaty, we have a lot of opportunities to pressure the producers of this.

AMY GOODMAN: What are countries that you see as the model?

BEATRICE FIHN: Well, we have countries that have given up nuclear weapons, for example. South Africa is a prime example. It was a pariah state under the apartheid regime. They developed nuclear weapons. They had them and then decided to change course, get rid of their nuclear weapons, dismantle their programs and become a champion country for this treaty. They are the ones to have been in a leading position. You also have countries like New Zealand, with a very strong, sort of traditional anti-nuclear weapons rhetoric, looking at the impact in the Pacific of the testing. They know what nuclear weapons are like. They know what they do to people. A country like Ireland, for example, who’s been also championing the NPT and this treaty, looking at these multilateral solutions to global problems. So, you have a lot of countries that are leaders in this fight.

AMY GOODMAN: Beatrice, how did you get involved with the whole fight against nuclear weapons?

BEATRICE FIHN: Kind of by accident. I mean, obviously, I was—have always been very passionate about human rights, equality, justice and those kind of issues. And at first, I thought of nuclear weapons—I came across it at university and thought it was a very—

AMY GOODMAN: You were born in Sweden?

BEATRICE FIHN: Yes—very outdated issue, no longer relevant: Do we even have them anymore? I think a lot of people growing up today forget that we have them. But then, looking at them and seeing how it’s a part of a kind of colonial, you know, racist power dynamics—a few countries have decided that they have the power to end us all, and, you know, the rest of the world has nothing to say about that. And in a way, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is kind of like a revolution. We’re getting the majority of people to stand up against the powerful few and demand change, and not waiting for permission from them to do it.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the countries that are aspiring to have nuclear weapons? We talked about North Korea. What about Saudi Arabia?

BEATRICE FIHN: Well, yeah, there’s all these kind of suspicions about this. It’s hard to know exactly what is a serious sort of attempt to developing nuclear weapons and what is just, you know, making sure that they have the whole nuclear fuel cycle in case in the future. But I think, looking at North Korea, we’ve seen that one of the poorest countries in the world, least developed, developed nuclear weapons. It’s not that—I mean, it’s difficult to develop nuclear weapons, but it’s not that difficult. If a country wants to have them, they can have them. So, we cannot stop every country from having something that gives them power and prestige forever.

So I think that’s the key to this issue, to remove the power and prestige from nuclear weapons. No one is afraid of Syria because they have chemical weapons. It doesn’t give them prestige or influence or make them decide everything in the world. But we’ve just attributed all these values to nuclear weapons, in a way, seeing them as some kind of ticket to the big boys’ club, in a way. You get a big summit and handshakes with the American presidents if you have them. And I think we need to challenge that, so that we can stop other countries from having it.

AMY GOODMAN: The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, what is it like to negotiate it? And how important is the U.S. in its not becoming a signatory and what it does still being involved with fighting it?

BEATRICE FIHN: Well, it was a long process at the United Nations, of course, with lots of late nights and hammering over comma signs and paragraphs.

AMY GOODMAN: And this was happening during what year?

BEATRICE FIHN: 2017, so last year. And this is what we were receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for, this treaty and the work that we’d done with it. But it was also a very remarkable achievement, you know, getting over 120 governments to agree to this text and getting them to commit to never, under any circumstances, develop, use or possess nuclear weapons. That’s a huge accomplishment.

And the countries with nuclear weapons—the United States, U.K., China, Russia, France—they have actively tried to stop this treaty, from the beginning. And these are the richest, most powerful countries of the world. They are pulling their allies away. They are threatening, bullying. You see countries like France, for example, putting a lot of pressure on their former colonies. You see a country like the U.S. bullying the European countries very much, saying that, you know, “We’ll throw you out of NATO if you join this treaty.”

So, it’s obviously made it difficult to work on this treaty. But at the same time, it’s a huge recognition of how powerful this instrument. They are not happy with just not signing it. They know that when it exists, it will impact them, with or without their permission to sign it. So, in a way, we see that their opposition and their very aggressive work against it is a sign of its effectiveness. They would not fight us so hard if they didn’t think that this treaty mattered.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned autonomous weapons. Can you talk about the dangers? What are fully autonomous weapons?

BEATRICE FIHN: Well, these are sort of the next generation after drones, where algorithms will decide how the weapon is being used, with no human in control. And these are in development and research right now. And some people say that that will make warfare better, safer. You know, robots and computer algorithms are less biased than humans. But it also creates a huge amount of risks for accidents, mistakes, ethical and moral dilemma, legal dilemmas. Who’s responsible if a robot murders a civilian? The programmer? The robot itself? Do we put the robot in prison? It’s very—it also sort of dehumanizes warfare. And it could have far sort of impact on the way we carry out military operations.

AMY GOODMAN: Who is doing this?

BEATRICE FIHN: All the developed countries are doing sort of research on this. And, you know, obviously, the United States and Russia and China are looking into these kind of things. And it’s on the horizon, and it will come very quickly. I think we’re standing in front of a huge revolution in military force with AI and technology. And when you couple that—

AMY GOODMAN: And explain AI, artificial intelligence.

BEATRICE FIHN: Yeah, artificial intelligence. And when you couple that with nuclear weapons, a weapon created in 1945, with that kind of mindset and that impact, these two things don’t go together. And the risks of something going wrong are horrific. Just a few weeks ago, we had the 20th anniversary of Stanislav Petrov, the man who saved the world, this Russian—or, Soviet missileer who disobeyed orders and did not launch a counterattack of nuclear weapons when he saw in his computer system, in the ’80s, incoming missiles from the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Wait, start from the beginning and tell us this story.

BEATRICE FIHN: Yeah, it’s really interesting. So, in the '80s, there was—at a command center in Soviet, a missileer received incoming information from his computer system about incoming U.S. nuclear missiles, I think eight of them. This would be devastating. And his orders were to launch a counterattack or to give the notice to the military to launch a counterattack. And he disobeyed these orders, because he felt that something was wrong. This didn't make sense. The timing, the number of missiles—something is not really accurate. So he just waited and hoped that he was right, that his gut feeling was right. And it turns out that it was sunrays reflecting on a satellite. There were no missiles. And if that would have been an algorithm, all the signs would say, “Fire.”

So, when you mix these kind of things—and this is not the first time we’ve had a human stop something in the past. So, when you mix these things, you are opening up for a huge sort of just change in how we behave, and we are no longer able to predict what will happen. And if there’s something that nuclear weapons absolutely need, it’s sort of predictable behavior. That’s the whole basis of deterrence. So, with the international system changing very rapidly, the dangers of the use of nuclear weapons will exponentially increase.

AMY GOODMAN: When Donald Trump was elected president, the stock of weapons manufacturers just soared, as did private prison companies. But can you talk about how these weapons companies fight you—I mean, almost like, I assume, countries?

BEATRICE FIHN: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, they invest very heavily also in research, in dominating the discussion. And we’ve gotten very complacent around nuclear weapons, just accepting it. And that’s everything from media to the academics to the way people just shrug their shoulders: “Yeah, well, deterrence, it works.” I mean, there’s no evidence that it works or that it will always work. And you don’t really talk about what happens the day it doesn’t work, when we have these huge, catastrophic scenarios where nuclear weapons are used.

So, obviously, they fund research. They fund these kind of conversations. They obviously are very close to politicians here in the United States and around the world, and sort of very intentionally trying to portray any disarmament conversation as naive, idealistic, hippie, radical left-wing, nothing to care about, “We are the realists.” There’s a lot of also gendered sort of connotations in this. You know, “We are the rational realists that need to have these weapons, and anyone who wants to negotiate or disarm are the feminine, kind of weak, naive—will make us less safe.” Under no circumstances is threatening to mass murder civilians a sign of safety and security. And the—

AMY GOODMAN: Or rationality.

BEATRICE FIHN: Or rationality. This idea that Trump and Putin like hold us all hostage is insane, when we think about it. But we’ve created this kind of world, very much funded by the producers and the countries behind nuclear weapons, that this is just something we all accept.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about action from the grassroots. Recently, Google said it wouldn’t pursue a $10 billion Pentagon cloud contract that had to do with artificial intelligence and weaponry. I think that very much came from the workers at Google.

BEATRICE FIHN: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that’s a really important steps. What we need—because, in a way, this is a cultural issue more than an actual security issue. We’ve just accepted this culture of having nuclear weapons. And we need to hack that. And so, that’s why I think that regular people have so much more power than they think on this issue. It can start with an individual just saying, “I don’t believe in nuclear weapons. I don’t believe that they make us safe.” Just chips away at the legitimacy of these weapons. And when you have companies and unions and universities all contributing to that, you will change the mindset, and the politicians will follow.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back in history, a very interesting exposé. On Sunday, The New York Times published an article headlined “U.S. General Considered Nuclear Response in Vietnam, Cables Show.” The article begins, “In one of the darkest moments of the Vietnam War, the top American military commander in Saigon activated a plan in 1968 to move nuclear weapons to South Vietnam until he was overruled by President Lyndon B. Johnson, according to recently declassified documents cited in a new history of wartime presidential decisions. The documents reveal a long-secret set of preparations by the commander, Gen. William C. Westmoreland, to have nuclear weapons at hand should American forces find themselves on the brink of defeat at Khe Sanh, one of the fiercest battles of the war.” So read The New York Times on Sunday. This was so interesting, Beatrice Fihn.

BEATRICE FIHN: Absolutely. And it shows how these are not hypothetical weapons. These are real weapons, and the military is planning to use them. And that wasn’t based on deterrence. I mean, Vietnam did not have nuclear weapons. This is just based on, you know, “Let’s cause maximum amount of damage and harm to people.” And many times people forget that these aren’t abstract, magical, theoretical issues. It’s concrete bombs that are in missiles, and they are being exercised with, and there are people in charge of them, authorizing the funding for them, exercising with them, drawing up military plans for using them.

And now we’ve had—with President Trump in power, we’ve had this kind of awakening that, “Oh, he can authorize nuclear weapons.” And people have this idea like the military would stop him. And it’s completely the opposite of what has happened before. We’ve always had a civilian in charge as a president, stopping the military from using it, because the military have their weapons at their disposal. They will use them. They have plans. For them, it’s a weapon. It’s not, you know, a strategic thing. It’s just a weapon. And we’ve had—we put a civilian in charge to stop the military, to be a kind of guarantor that that wouldn’t be misused. And now we’re sort of reversing that, and we have a president, and we’re hoping that the military will stop him. And I’m not so sure that they would. They have their plans. They have exercise. They obey order. That’s what the military does.

So, we’re in a situation where we see this report. I think it was extremely interesting to see. It’s not abstract. It’s not hypothetical. It’s a real weapon. And they’re aiming at cities.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, there was that report of President Trump going into the war room and asking, “If we have nuclear weapons, why don’t we use them?”


AMY GOODMAN: That led to then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson apparently calling him a moron or an “f—ing moron”—


AMY GOODMAN: —something that Tillerson never denied—

BEATRICE FIHN: Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —right through to the time that he left. And maybe that was part of why he had to leave.

BEATRICE FIHN: But, in a way, he also has a point, Trump, here. If we have them, why not use them? I mean, they are there to be used. They are not just hypothetical. They are real weapons. They are aiming at cities. And the other countries have nuclear weapons aiming at our cities. And that’s just—you know, we’re just waiting for a disaster to happen.

AMY GOODMAN: How concerned are you about cyberattacks on nuclear weapons systems?

BEATRICE FIHN: Quite, quite concerned. And the more we digitalize the military systems and rely on technology, they also increase the vulnerability. We have cyberattacks that can very quickly and rapidly kind of change the way the military see things and feel under threat and put this kind of balance of power out of place very, very rapidly. But I think also, you know, you have things like cyberwarfare that changes the security calculations around nuclear weapons. You have things like artificial intelligence changing the security calculations.

And then we have the human factor. We have had all these problems with people working on the nuclear weapons that are misbehaving, have alcoholic problems, are cheating on their exams, drugs, falling asleep. It’s not a very prestigeful power to be watching over nuclear missiles. You know, it’s not the sort of top job in the military. So you’ve had a lot of problems with these people whose only job it is to sit and wait for an order to fire and end the world, where they are having a huge amount of problems. You had two nuclear submarines in the English Channel that collided, a British and a French nuclear-armed submarines. They collided. You have all of these kind of scenarios that can happen.

AMY GOODMAN: What gives you the most hope, Beatrice?

BEATRICE FIHN: The fact that the majority of countries in the world do not have these weapons and do not want them and do not think that they are a recipe for safety and security. We are so obsessed with these few countries, and we forget the rest of them. And I think that that’s sort of a—

AMY GOODMAN: What are the countries that have them?

BEATRICE FIHN: The United States, China, Russia, U.K., France, and then India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. It’s nine countries that have them. There is the whole sort of alliance around the United States that are also complicit in it.

AMY GOODMAN: They are?

BEATRICE FIHN: They are part of an alliance that would use nuclear weapons on their behalf. And their militaries are involved in training their military—

AMY GOODMAN: You mean like NATO.

BEATRICE FIHN: Like NATO, for example, or South Korea or Australia or that kind of—Japan, for example. So, you have a lot more complicit countries around it. But the majority of countries in the world do not want this, and they are safe without them. They do not need to threaten with weapons of mass destruction to create their safety. So, I feel like there is—there’s a tendency to focus on these extreme people and people that say crazy things, and they might have a lot of power themselves. But the majority of the world do not want them. And we perhaps need to focus a little bit more on that and lift up those as examples and show the progress. Every country that joins the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is chipping away at the legitimacy of nuclear weapons and making a bold statement.

In a way, we see it a little bit similar as the fight against sexism. It’s not just the people that rape, but the people that laugh at the jokes and are silent and allow these people. And that’s what we’re working on now, to remove the kind of complicit people around and just isolate the nuclear-armed states in order to change their behavior.

AMY GOODMAN: Interesting you should raise the #MeToo movement, the first anniversary of it right now in full force, but that connection between militarism and chauvinism, violence, male violence.

BEATRICE FIHN: Yeah, absolutely, and this kind of power—right?—that, you know, a few people have all the power, and everyone is just scared around them and doesn’t say anything. And that power only exists as long as the people around them let them have it. And you have to break the silence, in a way, and be very strong and say, “I don’t accept that, and you are the one who’s wrong.” And in a way, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is like that. It’s about getting people to—getting countries to have the courage to say no to the most powerful in the world and expose their behavior and draw this line: This is acceptable behavior, and this is unacceptable behavior.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Beatrice Fihn, I want to thank you for being with us, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. She accepted the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the organization.

This is Democracy Now! To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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