12 October 2022 | News,

Interview with Beatrice Fihn – Director of the International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)

The International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), winner of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, is a grantee of The Peace Pledge Fund, a donor circle hosted by Swiss Philanthropy Foundation. A donor circle allows a group of individuals to pool their resources to advance a common cause, namely, to combat the spread of lethal autonomous weapons and nuclear weapons. We had the chance to interview Beatrice Fihn, Director of ICAN. She was also a speaker at the last Verbier Festival Philanthropy Forum, co-organised by Swiss Philanthropy Foundation and the Verbier Festival Foundation.

What were the main projects led by ICAN in 2020 and 2021 in the frame of the campaign against nuclear weapons?

Beatrice Fihn : One of the big priorities and successes that we had these last two years was to get the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) to become international law. International law is developed in three steps: first you negotiate and agree on the text, then you start signing it and then you ratify it. The ratification is when countries nationally put in the legislation and confirm to the UN that they are fully compliant. The Treaty needed the ratification of 50 countries to become international law. That happened in the end of October 2020, and 90 days after that the Treaty entered into force – in January 2021. We worked very hard in a lot of different ways to make this happen. We were very involved in the writing of the Treaty and campaigning around the Treaty. We did a lot of outreach, we worked to support small NGOs around the world who do the local work. For example, we held workshops in the Nigerian parliament, we organized a roundtable with parliamentarians in Guatemala, we held workshops and had advertisements and documents printed in Mongolia. A lot of that kind of activities were implemented around the world, and we worked very closely with governments (e.g. to provide drafts of national laws), as well as with the Red Cross and other organizations at the local level. We also liaised with the office of legal affairs of the UN, the one who receives the legal documents from the states to make sure that the process is complete. So that was the big success, nuclear weapons have been finally banned under international law!

From what you said, I can understand you worked with a lot of partners and that this ecosystem is very important?

B.F: Yes, we are a coalition of over 600 organizations. At the headquarters here in Geneva we coordinate all these organizations and provide resources, material, opportunities and connections with others, so it’s really a kind of ecosystem of small organizations around the whole world working on their own context, feeding to our work and we feed it back out to them.

In particular, could you describe shortly what you were able to achieve with the support of the Peace Pledge Fund?

B.F: The Peace Pledge Fund made all the difference for this work as it helped us to get these 50 countries to adopt the new law. It made the treaty become real. Without the Peace Pledge we wouldn’t have been able to do all those activities. For example, when the treaty entered into force, we organized a live TV-show in a studio here in Geneva. We invited the Mayor of Geneva, the Head of Law and Policy at the ICRC, and many other different people who had been part of the campaign. With them, we hosted a 1h30 TV show with live feeds from Hiroshima. We also had the Secretary General of the UN coming by a link from New York. It was like a global TV-show that we put together to celebrate. This was a big project that we were able to conduct with the support of the Peace Pledge Fund. The Fund also continues to support our work with our local partners, to develop material and organize conferences. In June, we organised several events in Vienna around the First Meeting of States Parties of the TPNW to which the Fund contributed greatly as well.

What was the theme of the meeting?

B.F: When the TPNW entered into force, it triggered the bureaucratic process. Within a year of that, the UN had to organize the first meeting of all the states that are part of the treaty. It was supposed to be held in January this year but due to the pandemic it took place in June. It was the first international conference on nuclear weapons since the war in Ukraine started. And of course, with Russia’s threat to use nuclear weapons, which this treaty prohibits, it was an important moment for the treaty but also for the wider global response to this.

The historic first Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons concluded with the adoption of a political declaration and practical action plan that set the course for the implementation of the Treaty and progress towards its goal of the total elimination of nuclear weapons.

What is your strategy to achieve your objectives in the coming years?

B.F: Now we’re using the treaty as the legal basis for achieving progress. We’re using it in a couple of different ways. First, of course we work to get more states to join it. We now have 66 ratifications and 86 signatories. We continue to do outreach in a lot of governments on a national level, trying to convince the parliaments. Many of them are very supportive, but these processes take a long time. Developing new laws can take years, so it’s slow, but we push and move forward. We will also start using it in countries with nuclear weapons: in Russia, in China, in the US, in the UK, in France, we’re using it to work on parliament level, where we are mobilizing and trying to grow the political support in many different political parties by doing advocacy work, media work, information campaigns, education, workshops, among others. The media work aims at stigmatizing nuclear weapons. We’re trying to change people’s perception of nuclear weapons, to create the possibilities for political change. We work on the implementation of the treaty, through the private sector, for example banks and pension funds who are divesting from nuclear weapons producers. A lot of banks have this policy that they don’t invest in banned weapons. Now that nuclear weapons are banned, we work with banks to update their policy and exclude the companies that make nuclear weapons. It’s not super-fast, but we’ve had a lot of success. For example, the Irish Southern Wells Fund sold off all their assets in nuclear weapons producer companies because the treaty entered into force. Publica, one of the biggest Swiss pension funds also sold off all their assets in November 2021 because of all the work we do to get these new guidelines. We have a meeting with the Swiss National Bank to get them to have these policies as well. This is a concrete way of working to implement the international treaty. We’ve also worked on cities a lot, trying to see what we can do on a very local level. The City of Geneva for example adopted a motion to support the treaty, the City of New York adopted a motion to support the treaty and to call the US government to join the treaty and to divest its public pension funds from nuclear weapons producing companies. It’s a way to get into different levels of decision-making. It shifts the groundwork for the political results to come

How important is the support of private donors in achieving ICAN’s goals? What difference does it make to get funding from a collaboration of donors/donor circle ?

B.F: Private donors are hugely important for us. Especially in a time where we see government funding becoming more and more restricted and reduced. The structure of government funding is very conservative. Governments are usually very risk averse, whereas private donors have an opportunity to be much more like seed-funding in companies. They can say “That’s a great idea, we can put something, and we will try. If it works, it will have a massive impact”. There’s a bit more freedom around private funding, which is really, really good. Very often, private funding can be that seed money, and then when something is working, governments will come in and take over and start financing it. For us it has been incredible to have private donors. And it is also very important to have diversity in donors. In the past, we had one government that gave us almost 85% of our budget and then they changed government and made a completely new budget which we didn’t fit in anymore. It was a bit of a shock to us, so my lesson was to diversify funding, have many different donors. I also think that this kind of work, where groups of people get together and collaborate, that’s when magic happens. The experience I have from the Peace Pledge proves that.

If you could describe the collaboration with Swiss Philanthropy Foundation as an umbrella foundation in three words?

B.F: Straightforward, collaborative and visionary. I really appreciate the different conversations with Swiss Philanthropy Foundation, including the Verbier Festival Philanthropy Forum. It is not just facilitating and doing the philanthropy, but also having the conversation on what’s next, how to improve things, how to work with the next generation of donors. I really appreciate being part of the conversation. It needs to come from the philanthropists’ side but also from the people who are doing the work. There’s a very nice conversation with Swiss Philanthropy Foundation about where to go. About what’s more effective in 10 to 15 years from now.

What are the benefits for a beneficiary organization to receive fundings through an umbrella foundation?

B.F: It allows philanthropists to benefit from the structure that you have, the very professional way of managing funds, and the due diligence that you do on grantees. If each of the donor wanted to do that work themselves, it would be hugely time-consuming and with a different level of quality. At Swiss Philanthropy Foundation, you have a great way of making things effective and easy from our side. The donors can be very different, but your system makes it easy for us to manage that. This is really a great advantage for organizations like ours.