Susi in Berlin- What can civil society do?

I spoke at an event in Berlin last week on the topic: What can civil society do for a nuclear weapons free world?  The room was packed full- over 100 people joined the event on a cold and snowy night to hear from people about the current state of nuclear affairs, and how they could get involved.  My speech is below.

What can civil society do?

Susi Snyder, IKV Pax Christi

I would like to thank the organisers for the opportunity to join you here. It is an honour and a privilege to speak about what civil society can do for a nuclear weapons free world, because the role of civil society is extremely important.

Civil society is the conscience of democracy. We hold governments accountable – to make sure that actions match statements. Civil society brings transparency- and brings democracy to debates. This is especially important when it comes to nuclear weapons.

Who is civil society?

Civil society is a broad term, is often understood to mean everyone but those working in government. Civil society includes for example, academics, think tanks, and the Red Cross/ Red Crescent movement. Usually, in situations like this, most understand civil society to be non governmental organisations, activists and campaigners.

Civil society today, and the anti-nuclear weapons movement doesn’t look like it did in the 80s. We are organising in different ways, responding to changes in how people think, how people engage, and demonstrating that our issues are important and worthy of attention. Instead of always taking to the streets in uncountable numbers we are mobilising through social media like Facebook and Twitter, we are campaigning electronically, and we continue to write papers, letters, policy briefs, hold meetings, lobby politicians, diplomats, host public events (like this one), and, of course, we organise demonstrations.

What can civil society do?

This is a question that we ask ourselves time and time again, because as civil society members, activists and campaigners, we want to make sure we are using our time strategically, tactically, and to achieve the best possible results. So, what can we do to create a nuclear weapons free world? Can we actually take the nuclear weapons and disarm them ourselves? Some certainly try- for example ploughshares activists like the three who broke into the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in the United States in July 2012. Or the group who entered the Kleine Brogel base in Belgium in early 2010, or those who have tried to change minutemen into, if not ploughshares, at least bottle openers. This is one of the many tactics used by civil society today.

These actions, alone, will not get us to a nuclear weapons free world. That’s why many organisations join together in campaign coalitions. Since the invention of the bomb there have been campaigns calling for their dismantlement, and now I want to tell you about what I find to be the one of the most exciting campaign coalitions in quite some time, because the name itself is empowering- ICAN. Not only do I want a nuclear weapons free world, but ICAN do something about it.

What is ICAN?

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons was launched in April 2007. The campaign brought together quite a few of the long-term actors for a nuclear weapons free world, including the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Mayors for Peace and others in a vibrant, energetic, focused campaign. ICAN has grown significantly over the last six years, and is now active with more than 270 partner organisations in over 60 countries.

What does ICAN call for?

ICAN aims to encourage public and government support for a multilateral process for a treaty banning nuclear weapons. ICAN seeks to shift the disarmament debate to focus on the humanitarian threat posed by nuclear weapons, drawing attention to their unique destructive capacity, their indiscriminate targeting, the debilitating impact of a detonation on medical infrastructure and relief measures, and the long-lasting effects of radiation on the surrounding area.

ICAN does this through cooperative and coordinated action across many levels. It recognises that countries who have chosen a nuclear weapons free security have the same right, and responsibility, as those who are nuclear armed or nuclear umbrella’d to set the course for a world without nuclear weapons.

If just one of the world’s 19,000 nuclear weapons was detonated, be it intentionally or accidentally, not only would it kill thousands of people instantly and spread its long-term effects across borders and generations, but, as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has concluded, first responders would be unable to provide the emergency relief so urgently needed. This makes the continued existence and deployment of nuclear weapons one of the most serious humanitarian challenges of our time. Nuclear weapons are inhumane, and must be outlawed.

Remember, nuclear weapons release vast amounts of energy in the form of blast, heat and radiation. No adequate humanitarian response is possible. In addition to causing tens of millions of immediate deaths, a regional nuclear war involving around 100 Hiroshima-sized weapons would disrupt the global climate and agricultural production so severely that more than a billion people would be at risk of famine. This is an unacceptable risk.

Towards that end, ICAN focuses on the fact that nuclear weapons have unacceptable humanitarian consequences. ICAN is encouraging states to act upon the deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons, they expressed in the 2010 consensus outcome of the NPT Review Conference.

ICAN believes that discussions about nuclear weapons must focus not on narrow concepts of national security, but on the effects of these weapons on human beings – our health, our societies and the environment on which we all depend for our lives and livelihoods. The humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons must inform and motivate efforts to outlaw these weapons.

The upcoming conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons in Oslo provides a platform to lay out the humanitarian problems of nuclear weapons, by experts, to participating governments and civil society representatives, and by doing so will provide a clear rationale for banning them.

It has been decades since people got a first hand experience of a full scale nuclear weapons explosion, and I think in some ways we have collectively forgotten what it is like to meet a woman who had seventeen miscarriages because she was exposed to a ‘shot gone wrong ’in Nevada, or how bitter coffee can taste when you drink it with an atomic veteran whose spine is fused due to intentional exposure to nuclear weapons tests. We recall the stories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but have we collectively lost the ability to connect, as humans, with those who suffered? That is part of why ICAN focuses on the humanitarian imperative to act- because these stories, these victims, cannot happen again, and prevention against the use of nuclear weapons is the only cure.

ICAN is organising a Civil Society Forum in advance of the government conference- from 1-3 March in Oslo. Already almost 700 people from over 60 countries have registered to participate at this forum. It is open to everyone- civil society, governments, businesses and more.

But what exactly does ICAN do?

In addition to organising what is expected to be a magnificent gathering of individuals and organisations in Oslo, ICAN brings the call for a nuclear weapons free world to the public in attractive and thoughtful ways. More than 100,000 people are reading about ICAN actions through Facebook, in English and Arabic- not to mention information shared in German, Dutch, French and more. Thousands have seen the amusing and informative videos, and hundreds have used the reports ICAN has produced and supported.

For example,

We in the Netherlands have been working on a global campaign to divest from cluster bombs for about three years. We’ve been successful in getting banks to change their policies, and some governments to enact national legislation forbidding investment in cluster bombs. Last year, ICAN launched the first global nuclear weapons investment report- Don’t Bank on the Bomb. This report generated enthusiastic follow-up from campaigners in a number of countries including the Netherlands. Last week, in cooperation with the Dutch Fair Banking guide, we launched a report specifically the investments of Dutch Banks in nuclear weapons producers.

No one wants to be seen as paying for the bomb, right?

That’s what we discovered. In fact, as a result of this report, two banks have already agreed to change their investment practices- and they will no longer pay for the bomb. It is a success story, something that we don’t often get to hear when we’re talking about nuclear weapons campaigns.

So, when you ask yourself, as a member of civil society, what can YOU do. Here are a few ideas:

– Learn about nuclear weapons and talk to other people about them. Information is power.

– Join campaigns- like ICAN (or the German campaign, and offer to distributed flyers, organise events on your campus, or give money (every campaign can always use a little extra money)

– Attend global events, like the ICAN Civil Society Forum in Oslo 1-3 March. If you can’t go to the event itself, follow it on twitter (hashtag #goodbyenukes) or on facebook.

– Talk to your politicians

o Ask your Mayor if the city or town you live in would survive a nuclear attack. If they say ‘that wouldn’t happen’ remind them that as long as there are still nuclear weapons in the world, it might. Then ask them to join Mayors for Peace and to make a statement calling for a nuclear weapons free world. Circulate that statement to their national political party.

o Ask your Parliamentarian what they are doing to push the government to act for a nuclear weapons free world. Ask them to raise questions in parliament- at every opportunity- how much is Germany spending on nuclear weapons? How much does hosting the US nuclear bombs at Buchel make Germany a target for nuclear attack?

– Talk to your government

o Write letters to the Foreign and Defence ministers- telling them you want to see a nuclear weapons free world, and that Germany has a responsibility to act.

o Ask why the government has not joined other countries in a joint statement on the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons

o Send them emails, name them on twitter, load up their facebook page with calls for nuclear abolition

– Talk to the Red Cross

o Ask your local red cross society if they will put up a poster in their office about nuclear weapons. If they will include information on their website. The Australian Red Cross has made a great web template available to other red cross societies.

– Talk to your bank

o 11 German financial institutions invest in companies that manufacture nuclear weapons and their delivery systems for the United States, the United Kingdom and France. Deutsche Bank, Allianz, BayernLB and Commerzbank invest most heavily, but DekaBank, DZ Bank, Helaba, KfW, Landesbank Baden-Wurttemberg, Munich Re and Universal-Investment Gesellschaft also invest.

o Ask them what their policy about inhumane weapons are- and tell them that you consider their investment in nuclear weapons producers a problem.

o In Sweden, they had great success by posting questions “Do you know that this bank helps pay for nuclear weapons” on bank facebook pages, and because it just doesn’t look good to pay for such indiscriminate, inhumane weapons, policies have been changing.

These are just a few ideas- if you want to get involved, today, right now, make sure you sign up with, check their website, and remember

YOU Can help create a nuclear weapons free world, and I know you can, because ICAN.