NEW YORK — In a year when the threat of nuclear warfare seemed to draw closer, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded on Friday to an advocacy group behind the first treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons.
The group, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, a Geneva-based coalition of disarmament activists, was honored for its efforts to advance the negotiations that led to the treaty, which was reached in July at the United Nations.
“The organization is receiving the award 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,” the Norwegian Nobel Committee said.
The choice amounted to a blunt rejoinder to the world’s nine nuclear-armed powers and their allies, which boycotted the negotiations. Some denounced the treaty as a naive and dangerous diversion.
It also represented a moment of vindication for the members of the winning organization, known by its acronym ICAN, and for the UN diplomats who were responsible for completing the treaty negotiations.
“This prize is a tribute to the tireless efforts of many millions of campaigners and concerned citizens worldwide who, ever since the dawn of the atomic age, have loudly protested nuclear weapons, insisting that they can serve no legitimate purpose and must be forever banished from the face of our earth,” ICAN said.
The United States, which along with Russia has the biggest stockpile of nuclear weapons, had said that the treaty would do nothing to alleviate the possibility of nuclear conflict and might even increase it.
The committee acknowledged the view held by nuclear-armed countries in its statement, noting that “an international legal prohibition will not in itself eliminate a single nuclear weapon, and that so far neither the states that already have nuclear weapons nor their closest allies support the nuclear weapon ban treaty.”
Despite those admonitions, at least 53 member states of the United Nations have signed the treaty since a ceremony to start the ratification process was held at the General Assembly on Sept. 20.
Delegates representing two-thirds of the General Assembly’s 193 members participated in the treaty negotiations. While only three — Guyana, the Vatican, and Thailand — had formally ratified the treaty as of Friday, others are expected to do so in the coming year.
The treaty will go into effect 90 days after 50 UN member states have formally ratified it.
“We have received this news with so much joy,” Elayne Whyte Gómez, the Costa Rican ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, who was the chairwoman of the negotiations, said in a telephone interview. “Every year there should be at least one happy event to give us hope, and this was it.”
She said ICAN’s work “represented efforts by civil society activists who approached governments around the world and maintained the momentum of the negotiations.”
The prize came as a surprise to Beatrice Fihn, executive director of ICAN, which has a three-person office in Geneva. She said at a news conference that she had thought at first that the congratulatory telephone call from the Nobel committee was fake.
‘Every year there should be at least one happy event to give us hope, and this was it.’
Under the agreement, all nuclear weapons use, threat of use, testing, development, production, possession, transfer, and stationing in a different country are prohibited.
For nuclear-armed nations that choose to join, the treaty outlines a process for destroying stockpiles and enforcing the countries’ promise to remain free of nuclear weapons.
The prize came against the backdrop of the most serious worries about a possible nuclear conflict since the Cold War, punctuated by a bellicose standoff between the United States and North Korea.
The North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, has defied UN sanctions prohibiting his isolated country’s repeated nuclear weapons and missile testing, and he has threatened to strike the US heartland with the “nuclear sword of justice.”
President Trump, who has mocked Kim by calling him “Little Rocket Man,” has said he would have no choice but to “totally destroy” North Korea if the United States or its allies are attacked.
There was no immediate reaction to the prize from the Trump administration or from North Korea. But in Moscow, Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for President Vladimir Putin of Russia, told reporters that “there is no alternative” to nuclear parity to maintain world stability.
Proponents of the treaty have said that they never expected any nuclear-armed country would sign it right away. But they argued that the treaty’s widespread acceptance elsewhere would increase the public pressure and stigma of possessing nuclear weapons.
Nuclear weapons have defied attempts to contain their proliferation since the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945, which led to Japan’s surrender and the end of World War II.
Besides North Korea, Russia, and the United States, the other nuclear-armed states are Great Britain, China, France, India, Pakistan, and Israel.
It is unusual for organizations to receive the prize. Others have included the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.