The International Campaign to Ban Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was the winner of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. Many may not be aware that the campaign began in Australia. We talk to one of the founders, Tilman Ruff, about how the campaign was first launched.
Tilman Ruff is a humble, softly spoken man, whose sheer determination, persistence behind the scenes and international network of peers and mentors has led to a Nobel Peace Prize for a campaign he helped found more than a decade ago.
Tilman, a professor at the University of Melbourne, is one of three founders of International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear weapons (ICAN), established in Melbourne in 2005.
The late Dr Bill Williams, a Torquay GP whom Tilman has described as his ‘partner in crime’ and Dimity Hawkins, a PhD candidate at Swinburne University and a long-time campaigner in the nuclear disarmament space, were the other founders.
Today, ICAN has a base in Geneva and has become a global campaign coalition of almost 500 organisations in 101 countries. In October, it was announced ICAN had taken out the 2017 Nobel Prize for Peace.
Origins of ICAN
The initial idea for the campaign belongs to Ron McCoy, a Malaysian obstetrician and long-serving co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW).
‘It was really, his suggestion, that eloquent email that I remember so well, saying: “we need an international campaign to abolish nuclear weapons and we should get working on this right now” in late 2005’, Tilman said.
A review conference on the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons had collapsed that year, with countries failing to agree to any action. Similarly, the September 2005 World Summit was unable to agree anything on disarmament.
‘It brought home to many of us that nothing was happening in disarmament; the landscape of business as usual was really bleak’, Tilman said.
But inspiration was derived from success of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), which became the model for ICAN. It encouraged the trio to create their own campaign, working together on concepts, writing a proposal, securing funding and engaging and employing staff.
‘Bill actually went to Europe for several months to promote this idea to a range of different organisations in different countries, to try and see… if this had legs to it’, Tilman said.
‘We agreed then on some principles that I think have served the campaign extremely well. This needed to be based on the humanitarian case against nuclear weapons, the humanitarian evidence, not the military and security arguments. It needed to be anchored to what these weapons are and do to real people.’
The ICAN coalition was also designed to be open, inclusive, and lean in terms of governance and administration, balancing horror, humour and hope.
Experiences of war
Tilman’s family has its own devastating experiences of war – his grandparents and parents were born with German citizenship in Palestine.
During the First World War, the family was displaced to Egypt and interned, before returning and rebuilding.
When the Second World War broke out, relatives on both sides of Tilman’s family were again interned, before arriving in Australia as prisoners of war. They were interned at camps in northern Victoria and at Murray Bridge, respectively, until 1947.
‘My grandmothers, independently, always said that if there were another world war, that they’d want the first bomb to drop on their heads because they didn’t want to live through another one’, he said.
As an adolescent, Tilman became involved at the ‘tail end’ of the movement to end Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, which gave him the first insight that organised people working together could change things in a major way.
While Tilman has had a full and rewarding career as a physician and immunisation researcher, he said from the early 1980s, the imperative to get rid of nuclear weapons had become his life’s work.
‘Being alive in the late ‘70s and (in the) ‘80s, we had a real fear of nuclear war. It was something we felt every day.’
In particular, the birth of Tilman’s daughter brought home an ‘overwhelming sense of responsibility’.
‘There was a profound obligation on us as parents to try and make the world a safer place for her, and for her children, and for other children’, he said.
‘Getting rid of the nuclear menace was the most palpable and urgent part of that, for me.’
In 1985, there were about 70,000 nuclear weapons globally and today there are 15,000.
But Tilman said the danger is still growing due to the sheer explosive power of single nuclear weapons.
In July 2017, an overwhelming majority of the world’s nations adopted ICAN’s landmark global agreement to ban nuclear weapons.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was negotiated at the United Nations in New York with the participation of more than 135 nations and civil society members.
It opened for signature on September 20, 2017 and will enter into legal force once 50 nations have signed and ratified it.
The Holy See, which hosted a nuclear disarmament conference in November, attended by ICAN executive director Beatrice Fihn, was among those to sign on the day.
Tilman described the treaty signing as ‘wonderful’. ‘It was a really historic moment … the treaty itself, is crucial’, he said.
‘It is a clear, strong, comprehensive and categorical rejection of nuclear weapons, codified in, what will become, international law.’
Emotion welling in his voice, Tilman said his favourite moment was after the vote happened and it was 122–1.
‘Ron McCoy was behind me and he was weeping with joy, he could barely stand’, he said.
‘And I, I grabbed him, I held him up, because I was worried he was going to fall over. It was just the most beautiful moment: to hold him as he wept, with joy.’
Along with the Holy See, Thailand and Guyana were the first to sign the treaty.
‘Pope Francis has been really visionary in relation to nuclear weapons, so that’s an enormously good leadership step… (which is) really welcome at this time’, Tilman said.
He described ICAN’s Nobel Peace Prize as ‘deservedly shared’.
‘All of the millions of people around the world who’ve worked for this cause over a long period of time, should feel recognised and encouraged by this, and by this award’, he said.
‘(But) whatever people’s work and deep loves and passions are; all of these things are threatened by nuclear weapons.
‘So, even if this is not your main business, I think for everybody it needs to be part of our business.’
Pope Francis adds his voice to calls for banning of nuclear weapons.
'We’re at the limit of illicitly having and using nuclear arms. Why? Because today, such sophisticated nuclear arsenals risk destroying humanity or at least a great part of it.'