Beatrice Fihn, a 40-year-old Swede, grew up wanting to make a big difference in humanity, but she did not know how she could do that. First, she thought she would “stitch people up” after they suffered an accident or make sick people well again by becoming a doctor. As she got older, that dream faded, and she found herself studying international relations in Stockholm.
An unusual paid internship took her to Geneva, working for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. When she sat in the General Assembly Hall in New York City, years later, on July 7, 2017, Fihn could not have imagined that her big ambitions would result in giving the world its first legally binding treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons, known as the TPNW.
“Some people said to us: ‘It’s never going to happen, why are you wasting your time? There would never be a treaty banning nuclear weapons,’ ” Fihn told PassBlue in an interview from Geneva in December.
The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, or Ican, which Fihn heads until Jan. 31, was founded in 2007. She announced recently that she was stepping down — to “zoom out” a bit, as she said — to look at the broader picture of global nuclear disarmament and to let other people step up to lead the organization. Its work began to make visible marks in 2013, when some General Assembly members started pushing the “humanitarian initiative” argument to re-angle the conversation around nuclear weapons prohibition. They held conferences in Oslo, Nayarit, Mexico, and Vienna, in 2013 and 2014. The conferences showed participants the dangers that enriching and testing nuclear weapons had inflicted on humans and the environment.
Fihn became Ican’s executive director on July 1, 2014, when she was six months’ pregnant and just 31 years old. In 2013 and 2016, the General Assembly commissioned an open-ended working group to produce reports into the health, societal and environmental hazards of nuclear weapons. Formal conversations on the topics were also held.
The 2016 report led to two treaty negotiation conferences in 2017. The first was held in March; the second started in June and culminated with a vote at the UN on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons on July 7. (Ican was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the same year.)
“You had a whole room of 120 governments signing this treaty, with survivors from Hiroshima, Nagasaki, protesters and all other activists who had worked tirelessly for so long,” Fihn said, unequivocally stating the highlight of her career so far. “It was really a triumphant feeling. It is so rare in this work where you get to do something so concrete.”
There were actually 124 of the 193 UN member states represented in the conference room that day, squeezed in with civil society members and journalists in the aisles and any other spare space. When the votes were tallied on an electronic board overhead, it was clear that Fihn and her colleagues had convinced 122 countries to sign the first legally binding treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons with a proviso on disarmament.
Multilateral conversations around nonproliferation of nuclear weapons started in 1963, but they were largely powered by the United States and Russia (the Soviet Union, at the time), who were also engaged in an arms race. Under the resulting 1968 Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or NPT, the states that possessed nuclear weapon abilities would not share the technology with other states. Non-nuclear states would neither receive nor seek nuclear weapon proliferation abilities either.
France and China, which had just obtained nuclear weapons status, joining the US, Britain and the Soviet Union, proponents of the treaty, refused to sign the 1968 agreement. Countries on the cusp of reaching nuclear weapons status, such as India, Pakistan and South Africa, refused to ratify the treaty as well. The agreement had a 25-year time limit but was indefinitely extended in 1995.
“Nuclear weapons are the biggest symbol of oppressive power there is,” Fihn said. “These nine countries with nine individuals controlling these weapons have taken the decision to end this world if they wanted to.” The countries are US, Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea.
“It’s so bizarre how these countries just picked themselves up and said: ‘We are the responsible ones to handle this power and nobody else can have it. No African country can have it, no Arab state can have it,’ ” Fihn said. (South Africa dropped its nuclear weapons program in 1994.) As a nuclear disarmament campaigner, she sees the 2017 treaty dislodging the old order. That order is built on the idea that nuclear weapons are the preserve of “superpowers,” who see the world as their “playing field,” she said.
How did such a young woman become the face of what many experts on disarmament say is the most effective campaign against nuclear weapons in the last decade? Fihn grew up without stereotypes befuddling her. She was born into a slice of globalization in a town near Gothenburg, the second-largest city in Sweden.
When Fihn was 10, Yugoslavia was disintegrating and many people escaped to Sweden for refuge. In 1992 alone, 70,000 Slavic refugees were registered in the country. In the 1980s and ’90s, many Iraqis fled their country during their long war with Iran and later during the Gulf war, also finding their way into Sweden. People who faced attacks and crackdowns from the Ayatollah Khomeini-led revolution of 1979 in Iran also ran to Sweden.
“Only me and another kid in my class had Swedish parents, the rest were from all over the world,” Fihn told PassBlue. She had politically active parents who tried to help her understand why she was seeing children of different color and culture in her class. “Very early on, I was aware that even in safe, peaceful Sweden, what happened in the rest of the world had an impact.” That upbringing shaped Fihn’s decision to study international relations and later international law. (Her mother is an artist and her father was a journalist and teacher.)
When Fihn took up that paid internship in Geneva, she did not have bosses that tried to clip her feathers. She made her first speech at the UN in New York City as an intern with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Years later, after Ican received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017, Fihn wants to fade into the background to view the pieces of the nuclear disarmament puzzle from her armchair, away from a Geneva office. She and her husband, Will Fihn Ramsay, have two children, ages 8 and 11. They plan to stay in Geneva.
Read the full interview with Fihn below, part of PassBlue’s Women as Changemakers series. The conversation with Fihn has been condensed for space and clarity. — DAMILOLA BANJO
PassBlue: Let’s start with your childhood. What was it like for you?
Fihn: I grew up in — and it’s really shaped a lot of what I am today and what I do — an area outside Gothenburg. This is a suburb with a lot of immigrants and refugees. Me and another kid in my class were the only ones who had parents born in Sweden, and the rest were from all over the world, either their parents came to Sweden, or they themselves had come to Sweden recently. So I grew up with an extremely multicultural community, where my best friend came from the revolution in Iran. So the crises around the world impacted me, even though I was like, 7, 8 years old. I had all these new classmates who were Bosnian Serbs, and I remember being extremely confused about the Balkan war; I could not understand if the Bosnians were against the Serbs, the involvement of the Kosovo Albanians; who were the good guys, and who was the bad guy? So very early on, I was aware that even in safe, peaceful Sweden, what happened in the rest of the world had an impact on us.
PassBlue: That must be confusing for a child. How were you able to navigate that? And how did your parents help you understand the world and provide support in that confusing space?
Fihn: When you’re in it, it feels normal. It was absolutely normal that everyone came from different places, from different cultures, spoke different languages at home — that was just the way things were. I love maps and looking at borders, regions and things like that. My parents really helped by being very open to talking about what’s happening in other countries, talking about different political situations but not too much detail; just kind of stimulating and encouraging that curiosity that I had as a child about what was happening in China, what was happening in Australia, what was happening in South Africa. I think that expanded horizons for me.
PassBlue: One thing I want to ask is, if you were not doing this work, what would you be doing?
Fihn: I wanted to be a doctor when I was little. I wanted to help people. I’ve never been very interested in a corporate career, or earning a lot of money. Money’s nice, but [I’m] not driven in that direction but always wanted to feel like I would make a difference. So I wanted to be a surgeon, like stitch people up if there’s been an accident, but quite quickly.
PassBlue: What do you think of the gun rights problem in the United States?
Fihn: I see the guns issue as very similar to nuclear weapons. It’s like a small gun and a massive bomb. So it’s very different in some ways. But all research says that if you have a gun in your home, you’re more likely to be exposed to gun violence. So you’re in more danger when you have guns at home than if you don’t have guns. But somehow people throw that rationality and knowledge away because they feel safer with this weapon, even if it’s a false sense of security, and it’s the same thing with nuclear weapons. People think of it as this ultimate security guarantee, but it is actually a massive threat to our security. If something goes wrong, we will die. And we’re more likely to die from nuclear war in a nuclear armed state than we are in a non-nuclear weapon state. It’s an example of human irrationality, where the rationale is to not have these weapons, yet somehow we cling to them. It’s based on fear and emotional responses. I find it extremely bizarre . . . instead of banning assault rifles and limiting weapons, we put our kids through the horror of having to prepare for someone to come into the school shooting. It’s absolute madness if you think about it, how you can value guns higher than kids’ lives.
PassBlue: How did you get involved in the UN and advocacy on nuclear weapons?
Fihn: I wanted to work on climate change and human rights, issues that I was very passionate about. I wanted to work with the UN. I had a very romanticized image of the UN as this amazing place where you make really great things for humanity. And when I was at university in Stockholm, studying international relations, I got an internship in Geneva, and it was paid, which was unusual then. I was like, I’ll take it. I knew about nuclear weapons but it felt abstract. I thought it would be boring and that I might not enjoy it. So I first said, yes, but was thinking, maybe I can change halfway through into something more interesting. Then I got completely sucked into it. When I started to learn more about nuclear weapons, I realized that it had to do with things that I was really passionate about, like equality, human-rights protection, the environment, cooperation and diplomacy together.
PassBlue: How are nuclear weapons affecting the war in Ukraine? President Vladimir Putin has threatened to use them, but what do you think could actually happen?
Fihn: I think it’s definitely being used as a threat. Russia is threatening to use them if anyone interferes in this war. So in many ways, Russia is really utilizing its nuclear arsenals to enable an illegal invasion. If Russia didn’t have nuclear weapons, I think this conflict would have looked very different in many ways. The countries who have them say they are there to protect themselves, but they also are using them to do whatever they want to others. I had a friend who said nuclear weapons are like everything and nothing at the same time. Nuclear weapons aren’t helping Russia win this war. So at the same time, why are they hanging over us as this massive threat?
PassBlue: Another important question I like to ask in the Women as Changemakers column is the “how you do it question?” How did you get to lead such a wonderful, powerful organization and campaign at a young age?
Fihn: I started this job when I was six months’ pregnant with my second kid, and I was really nervous. I wondered, have I made a mistake, because who starts a new job when they are about to give birth and go on maternity leave? I think it also helped that at the beginning of my career, I’d never been in a workplace where I was limited because of my age or my gender. I had this kind of amazing experience at the beginning of my career, where I had leaders of the organizations who let me do whatever I wanted. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, can I hold that speech in the UN as an intern?’ That created a sense of confidence. And a bit of fearlessness — as to why shouldn’t I lead this organization at a time where I’m massively pregnant at 33? Also, I come from Sweden, where having kids and continuing to work is a very normal thing. It’s just something that everyone does.
PassBlue: But you’re leaving Ican at the end of January. Why are you moving on?
Fihn: I don’t know. Maybe I made a mistake. I love this place. I love this campaign. I could have easily stayed for another 10 years in this role, because I really, really enjoy it. But activism is becoming very centered around individuals, and I felt like that I’ve been in this role, being the spokesperson for Ican, won the Nobel and both Ican and myself have been very closely connected. I wanted to [move on] both for my own sake and for the campaign’s sake, separate a bit, make sure there’s this whole new, brilliant generation of people within this campaign. And we need more leaders to step up. For new leaders to step up, you have to actually move away and make space for them. So I’m not abandoning the issue, I’m going to continue to work and support it. I think it’s very healthy for an organization and for me personally. We are in a really good place. We have stable funding, we are bigger than we have ever been. And in 2022, the whole world woke up again to the nuclear threat. So it’s time for a new person to come in and mobilize the big masses, to take it all the way to the goal, and I will be around to help in the background.
PassBlue: I want to talk about the Nobel Peace Prize. But first, what’s been the highlight of this journey for you?
Fihn: It’s hard to top the adoption of the treaty. In 2017, we’d been fighting, because so many people said to us, it’s never going to happen. We had four weeks, three weeks and . . . then it ended that we had a whole room of 120 governments all adopting this treaty. [We had] survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki and all the activists who worked tirelessly with this for so, so long. And it was really like a triumphant feeling . . . so rare in this work, when you get to do something; so concrete. A lot of the work is, you write a briefing paper and hope that somebody reads it, or you can make a statement that you hope will have an impact. And now there’s a law. And that moment when it passed was incredible. So it’s still one of the absolute highlights of this work.
PassBlue: Capture the moment of being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for us.
Fihn: So we were in the office that morning. And we got a phone call, and someone sounded very Norwegian on the phone and wanted to talk to me. He was speaking slowly [saying], ‘I’m calling from the Norwegian Nobel Committee. . . . ‘ and then I had this no, no, it cannot be. And then he’s like: ‘Well, I’m calling you with some good news. Or maybe I hope it’s good news.’ Then he said that we had gotten the Nobel Peace Prize for 2017. And I remember almost feeling like the room started spinning. I was, what do we do now? And then he said, ‘I have to go now, because now we have to go make the press conference’; they literally call you just before they make the announcement, two, three minutes. Wow. So he just hung up. And my colleague said, ‘Who was that?’ [I said] he was from the Nobel Committee, we got the Nobel Peace Prize. So we were in complete shock. I didn’t believe it at first. So we had to turn on the TV immediately, watch the livestream to see them actually announce it. Because, what if it’s a prank? What if someone just called to mess with us? And then it was such an overwhelming few days. I had to turn my phone off with too many people calling and everyone wanted to do an interview, people wanted to congratulate us. We were just three people in the team. So it was also stressful; I felt: Oh, this is a moment I asked for. And we just don’t have the physical capacity, because we were so few. Of course, we have member organizations everywhere, but it was quite overwhelming. But incredibly fun. Then two to three months later, we went to Oslo for the actual ceremony to accept it. That was also such an incredible moment; it is so rare that civil society gets that recognition. We do things like petitions and seminars and hold events at the UN, unglamorous work that feels most of the time like, is this even making a difference? Or are we just fooling ourselves? And I think that the Nobel Prize is a status symbol that you want to share with all NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] that work on difficult issues. This was, of course, given to Ican, but it was also given to a civil society movement for that work. We should just hope to share it with others that keep at it, right? Because this actually works and is really meaningful.
PassBlue: So my final question. What’s next for you?
Fihn: So I’m going to take a holiday, but I’m going to keep working. I want to still be spending time thinking bigger about nuclear weapons and the movement to stop these weapons. Because one thing that I find is that when you run the daily work you are so preoccupied about today and the different things . . . now I would like to be in a position where I can zoom out and see what pieces of the puzzle are still missing for this movement, not just for Ican but also on the government side and, the scientific, academic and the media side. So I’m going to hopefully spend time thinking creatively about how we shift the bigger narrative in the world. And which actors do we need to mobilize. A lot of this is part of what Ican is doing. But I’m hoping that I will have more time to think and maybe do some writing and enjoy doing that without the spotlight.
This article was updated to include more information about Fihn’s personal life.
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts on the work to ban nuclear weapons?
Damilola Banjo is a staff reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.