By Jo Rittey


Do you know how many nuclear weapons there are in the world? And did you also know that an organisation founded in Melbourne has just won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize? ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) knows the answer to the first question and they work tirelessly to promote adherence to and implementation of the United Nations nuclear weapon ban treaty. That’s why they are being awarded the prestigious peace prize.


I had a chat to Daisy Gardener (daughter of one of ICAN’s founders, Dr. Bill Williams) and Dr. Marcus Yip, both Northsider ICAN campaigners, at the Retreat Hotel in Brunswick on a day of impressive Melbourne weather; intense heat followed by spectacular thunderstorms. Daisy and Marcus will soon be swapping summer clothes for winter ones when they join the rest of the Australian ICAN contingent heading over to Oslo on the 10th December to receive the prize.


The ICAN campaign was founded in Melbourne in 2007 by Dr Bill Williams, Professor Tilman Ruff, Dimity Hawkins, Ron McCoy and a group of passionate doctors. What started as a grass roots movement has grown through the dedication of its members and supporters to lobby politicians, educate the public, advocate on behalf of nuclear survivors and send a lot of emails.


ICAN has now expanded to include almost 500 partner organisations in 122 countries and they are being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work to raise awareness of the devastating humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, and their work in achieving a treaty prohibiting such weapons earlier this year.


“It’s not about stopping it right now but it’s about taking steps to say it’s not just use, but the threat of use that we want to delegitimise,” said Marcus. “The treaty stops transfer, refining, sales, selling technology. We want to make it harder to gain technology or missiles that can house nuclear material. It’s not a magic silver bullet, but there are lots of little steps that will make it harder for the megalomaniacs in charge of them. The treaty is going to be a very useful mechanism and it should start to bring about that change in attitude.”


Sadly, Australia has not yet signed the treaty. “It’s very disappointing,” says Marcus. “If and when Australia signs it will be very important globally because it will show that the countries under the US nuclear alliance do feel empowered to support this treaty and break away from the misunderstanding that nuclear weapons can keep you safe. We know there is no conceivable time or place that it’s appropriate to use a nuclear weapon. They are indiscriminate and kill so many civilians. We really hope that the government does change its mind and support the treaty. We think it’s only a matter of time before they do because of the global groundswell. We expect the Australian Government to sign as soon as they find their way.”


One of the most powerful things that has touched governments and diplomats was that ICAN supports nuclear test survivors, like Sue Coleman Haseldine from South Australia and also Sesuko Thurlow from Japan. They have given such powerful testimonies at the UN that it has really swayed hearts and minds.


Daisy finds it very exciting that Sesuko Thurlow will be accepting the award on ICAN’s behalf. “She has an incredibly powerful personal story to tell about what it is actually like being in the midst of a nuclear blast and how horrific it is. Stories like Sesuko’s make us realise that this is not just theory, this is a real menace and a real possibility that cities could be destroyed by these weapons.”


It took a few days for news of the award to sink in for ICAN members. The selection process for the Nobel Peace prize is shrouded in mystery and the ICAN office in Geneva thought the phone call to let them know they were the winners was a prank at first. By the time they had thought about it and decided to start calling other people in the campaign, it had already been announced through the media.


For Daisy the news was bittersweet because her father died last year and so was unable to enjoy the fruits of a tireless campaign to establish the treaty. Daisy hopes that she can take forward some of the work he was doing, although she says she will never have quite the same approach as Bill. “He used to jump around in kangaroo suits to get people engaged in the campaign. I’m not sure I’m going to go that far, but I’ll do what I can.”


If you would also like to do what you can to help ICAN, there are a number of ways you can do so. Marcus and Daisy suggest contacting your local Member of Parliament to check whether they have signed the parliamentary pledge open to all MPs in support of the treaty. Anyone is welcome to volunteer for ICAN Australia, whether it is in our education programs, by sharing information on Social Media, talking about it around the table with friends and family or donating money through the BANefactor program. “We welcome anyone and everyone to get involved,” explains Marcus.


The Nobel Peace Prize will be awarded to ICAN at a ceremony in Oslo, Norway, on December 10. There will also be a celebration held simultaneously at the Melbourne Town Hall to watch the ceremony live. This event is free, but for the sake of numbers, you can book here.


And in answer to my first question, nine countries together possess around 15,000 nuclear weapons. The United States and Russia maintain roughly 1,800 of their nuclear weapons on high-alert status – ready to be launched within minutes of a warning. Most are many times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. A single nuclear warhead, if detonated on a large city, could kill millions of people, with the effects persisting for decades.


Take action


On a personal level. In addition to talking about it, make sure that your bank is not investing in any kind of nuclear program, and if they are, divest.


On a government level via parliamentary pledge, call your local MP to sign the parliamentary pledge. For an example of what to write to your MP click here.


Become a BANefactor. Donate hard cash and ICAN will put it to good use.



Jo Rittey is a freelance writer who wants to live in a world where apostrophes are used correctly and smiles are genuine. When she’s not roaming the streets of the northside in search of great food, she likes getting lost in beautiful films and having wildly enthusiastic discussions with her friends.




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