The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The world has nearly 15,000 nuclear weapons. This year’s Nobel Peace Prize honors the quest to abolish all of them.

The Geneva-based nuclear disarmament organization was launched in 2007. A decade later, it won the Nobel Peace Prize. (Video: Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)

 An international group dedicated to eliminating nuclear weapons won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, a recognition of efforts to avoid nuclear conflict at a time of pronounced global tensions.

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons was honored for its work to foster a global ban on the destructive weapons, the Norwegian Nobel Committee said.

The scrappy civil-society movement was behind a successful push this summer for a U.N. treaty that prohibits nuclear weapons. It promotes nuclear disarmament around the world.

The award comes amid rising global alarm about a potential nuclear conflagration. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has hurled threats of nuclear missile strikes against the United States, and President Trump has warned that he could "totally destroy North Korea" if provoked. The barbed exchanges have raised fears among many global leaders of a miscalculation that could end in cataclysmic conflict.

Separately, Trump plans next week to “decertify” the international agreement that limits Iran’s nuclear program, a step that European allies worry could lead to nuclear proliferation.

Trump plans to declare Iran nuclear deal not in U.S. national interest

"The risk of nuclear war has grown exceptionally in the last few years, and that's why it makes this treaty and us receiving this award so important," Beatrice Fihn, the Swedish executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, or ICAN, said in a telephone interview. "We do not have to accept this [risk]. We do not have to live with the kind of fear that Donald Trump could start a nuclear war that would destroy all of us. We should not base our security on whether or not his finger is on the trigger."

ICAN recognizes that nuclear weapons will not disappear any time soon. But Fihn said a ban is still a realistic long-term goal, similar to the way an international taboo was created around the use of chemical weapons.

“Keeping nuclear weapons legal isn’t going to help things,” she said.

The decade-old Geneva-based coalition, which was modeled on international efforts to ban land mines, has branches in more than 100 countries.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was approved by two-thirds of U.N. members in July, but it has not attracted support from any of the world’s nine nuclear powers, which together possess nearly 15,000 atomic weapons. The United States and others boycotted the U.N. discussions that led to the treaty.

Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said at the time that "we have to be realistic" about the nuclear threat of rogue nations such as North Korea, and she warned that the ban could actually increase the risk of nuclear war, not reduce it.

Nuclear powers around the world repeated their opposition to efforts to ban the weapons following the Nobel announcement Friday.

“The Nuclear Ban Treaty does not move us closer to the goal of a world without nuclear weapons,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement. “In fact, it risks undermining the progress we have made over the years in disarmament and non-proliferation.”

The White House and leaders of other nuclear powers have instead endorsed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which limits but does not ban the powerful weapons. Russia and the United States hold the world’s largest stockpiles of nuclear weapons.

Signatories to the prohibition treaty would be banned from developing, testing and possessing nuclear weapons, as well as threatening to use them. The treaty will go into effect once 50 nations ratify it. Guyana, Thailand and the Vatican were the first three to do so.

Quiz: How much do you know about the Nobel Peace Prize?

The Norwegian Nobel Committee recognized ICAN for "its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its groundbreaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons," chairwoman Berit Reiss-Andersen of Norway said as she announced the prize in Oslo.

"There is a popular belief among people all over the world that the world has become more dangerous, and that there is a tendency where we experience that the threats of nuclear conflict have come closer," Reiss-
Andersen said. The group has been successful in "engaging people in the world who are scared of the fact that they are supposed to be protected by atomic weapons," she said.

Asked whether the award was intended as a pushback to Trump’s martial messages, Reiss-Andersen said that “we’re not kicking anybody’s leg with this prize. We are giving great encouragement.”

Trump’s decision on Iran deal could cause major breach with Europe

The Nobel committee said it chose to honor ICAN because of the group’s concrete success in pushing the treaty forward. The idea of a nuclear-free world is broader, and an aging group of U.S. hawks gave it a prominent kick-start.

Former secretaries of state George P. Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former defense secretary William J. Perry and former senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), a ­bipartisan quartet with deep ­national security credentials, made headlines in 2007 when they endorsed ridding the world of nuclear weapons. Their ideas helped launch the anti-nuclear Global Zero movement.

Anti-nuclear campaigners say they recognize the challenge of persuading nuclear powers to agree to give up their weapons.

But the advocates believe that the treaty creates an international norm that will eventually pressure nuclear-armed countries into compliance, even if they never formally sign on, said Rebecca Johnson, executive director of Britain’s Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy.

“Nuclear weapons became a tool for weak leaders to take shortcuts instead of providing their own people with safety, ­security and food,” said Johnson, a founding co-chairwoman of ICAN. “We have to take that value away in order to pull down numbers to zero.”

She said that nuclear tensions between Washington and North Korea represent a setback to world peace.

“That has to be done with diplomacy and politics, and definitely not nuclear saber-rattling between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un,” she said. “They are very dangerous leaders that think they are exercising nuclear deterrence but in their irrationality are actually risking nuclear war.”

North Korea now making missile-ready nuclear weapons, analysts say

Indeed, world peace seems especially fragile now. North Korea in recent months has embarked on a series of ambitious tests of nuclear-weapons technology and has threatened to strike the mainland United States.

Meanwhile, Trump is poised next week to decertify the deal limiting Iran's nuclear program. Under the 2015 accord, Iran pledged that "under no circumstances" would it "ever seek, ­develop or acquire any nuclear weapons" and said its aim was only to make progress on "an exclusively peaceful" nuclear energy program.

Separately, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has come under fire for failing to stop or condemn the ethnic cleansing of her nation’s Rohingya Muslim minority in recent months.

William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.