--The following are fragments from Paulina Reiter's interview with Beatrice Fihn, winner of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, which appeared in the Polish weekly “Wysokie Obcasy”.
Paulina Reiter: Why did you decide to work on the atom bomb?
Beatrice Fihn: I was raised in a poor part of Sweden, where populists claim we can observe how multiculturalism has failed. I see it differently. For me, growing up in this place gave me a unique chance to understand the world. There were children in my class from Iran, Somalia, Chile, from the Balkans, and from Poland.
Their parents traveled to Sweden not only because it’s a nice place to live, but because there was a revolution in Iran, the Pinochet regime, war in the Balkans, so these events affected my life. Maybe I didn’t understand everything, but I knew that after one vacation, 15 new children from the Balkans came to our school. They were traumatized by war, often getting into fights, because sometimes Serbs and Bosnians were classmates.
When you meet people fleeing war from around the world, you realize that we’re not so different from each other.
And what about the bomb?
I studied international relations, political science, and then law. I got a fellowship in Geneva at the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. They assigned me to work on nuclear disarmament. I became absorbed in it. The bizarreness of the dispute fascinated me.
If everyone agrees that disarmament is best, why do they insist that they need these weapons? Why do they say, “these weapons are very important for us, but if someone else has them, they are inhumane, dangerous and terrible. If we have them, they are safe and don’t threaten anyone.”?
I have two children, and wondered “should I be afraid or not?” As I see it, we must solve this problem. We cannot leave it to the next generation. It is we, Europeans, who must do it.
Today we are closing our borders to others, and we should expect that when war strikes on our territory, the rest of the world will tell us what we now tell them: “you’re on your own.”
Donald Trump, in his January State of the Union address, said, “Perhaps someday in the future, there will be a magical moment when the countries of the world will get together to eliminate their nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, we are not there yet, sadly.” Magical moment? Is that a joke?
Magical moments don’t happen on their own. Why? It’s about power. Those who have power never give it up willingly. Men didn’t fight to give women the right to vote. Whites didn’t fight to give voting rights to blacks. Both women and blacks had to fight for themselves, and that’s how nuclear disarmament treaties will happen. It’s not the ones who have the weapons who will lead change. It’s the whole rest of the world who will tell them: we’re not going to sit and wait for you, because you’re never going to do it yourselves.
It’s not politicians, I am certain, who will lead us to disarmament, but ordinary people who will force them to do it.
What did they tell you in Nagasaki, those who remember the bomb?
We imagine that nuclear war will be “game over,” the end, like an asteroid smashing into Earth -- everything will die. But when we speak with survivors of a nuclear attack, we can see that during the explosion people die in many ways -- from the shock wave, fires, radiation -- but some also survive. And they will need water and medical assistance.
It won’t be the end of the world. It will be massive human suffering.
So those who threaten to use nuclear weapons should also talk about how to respond to the consequences of their use. What will they do with the bodies? How do they plan to prevent the spread of disease?
The United States is modernizing its arsenal. 1.2 billion dollars are allocated to this. If you want to relate this number to something familiar, imagine spending the equivalent of a nurse’s annual salary every second.
In Munich European governments bid against each other to announce who planned to increase their military budgets the most. I just thought, “has everyone gone mad?” The path to safety and peace is good medical care, good education, a stable economy, investment in the development of democracy, and women’s rights.
Nuclear weapons only protect the people in power. It’s not the bunkers of the Pentagon or the White House that will be destroyed in a nuclear attack, but ordinary people.
It’s not the politicians who suffered during nuclear tests, but the indigenous residents of Nevada and New Mexico. In the 1950s, it didn’t occur to anyone to think about the Indians. They weren’t considered to be of value. The Russians conducted tests in Kazakhstan -- people there were less important than in Moscow. Australia -- on Aboriginal land, in the great desert -- where in their opinion there lived nothing of value. France -- in Algeria and the Pacific. China -- in the Chinese Muslim territories.
Bomb testing is directly related to racism, colonialism, and patriarchy.
When politicians today say that these weapons protect us, I tell them, “they don’t protect women who can’t have children due to radiation -- women in the Pacific or in Kazakhstan, who gave birth to so called ‘medusa children,’ so deformed that they did not even resemble human babies.”
Radiation has a significantly greater effect on women. Our bodies absorb more of it, because we have more soft tissues, particularly in the reproductive system.
Women from Hiroshima and Nagasaki used to lie about where they were from, because no one wanted to marry people from there . Everyone was afraid they would become a burden to their family. So I ask, who makes the decision to use these weapons, and who suffers as a result of their use?
In your Nobel Prize speech you emphasized that these are men’s wars.
Yes, as I consider it, this is about gender. In fact there is a great deal of scholarly analysis of this subject. Many people, though, still claim that I exaggerate, that a nuclear bomb kills everybody. And yet the concepts of diplomatic solutions, compromise, negotiation—these are traditionally “feminine” methods of reaching a goal.
It’s no accident that so many women are engaged in the struggle for nuclear disarmament and peace. Women traditionally take on the job of repairing the world after war.
They are nurses and attend to the wounded. They are mothers and take care that their children go to school. They rebuild society. Men sit in their towers and make decisions without consulting the people who bear the consequences. That’s why it is so important that women be engaged in the peace process.
It’s not that I believe that women are somehow more peaceful by nature. We simply play a different role in society. Our perspective is different. Ask women if they think that bombing people is a good idea.
Men who represent toxic masculinity learn to take what they want by force. For them, the more bombs the better, because they make them feel more important.
A situation in which both sides are satisfied is regarded as a failure. In their world there can only be one winner.
A recent study considered the effects of a limited nuclear war on climate change using the example of a potential India-Pakistan conflict in which each side fired 50 missiles. A nuclear bomb is as hot as the sun.
First everything in the area would burn. Dust and ash released into the atmosphere would block the sun for many months and the temperature would drop, leading to a so called “nuclear winter.” That would devastate corn and rice production. Nearly a billion people would die of hunger in the following decade.
We can’t just sit in Switzerland or Poland and think this won’t affect us, or “I live in Kenya, so what do I care about war between the United States and Russia?” Climate change doesn’t recognize national borders.
The Nobel Prize is a recognition that most organizations never experience. Support for activities like ours is particularly important in times of growing nationalism, attacks on democracy and on civil society.
We’ve become individualists and have forgotten what solidarity is, how to organize and work together.
I hope that we will inspire people to become engaged. We are not politicians in high positions. We’re not celebrities. We’re regular people who have decided to fight for something important.
We were just a handful of people, and we managed to produce a nuclear disarmament treaty, even though the greatest powers in the world tried to stop us.
Beatrice Fihn is the Director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and winner of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.
--translated from Polish by David Goldfarb