Annette Willi says: Swiss youth want to ban the bomb

November 5, 2013

From 30 October to 1 November Swiss Youth Bans the Bomb organised an event designed to raise awareness among Swiss youth on the threat of nuclear weapons. The event was co-organized by ICAN Switzerland, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War Switzerland (IPPNW), Business and Human Rights Conform (BHRC), in close collaboration with the Swiss Red Cross, the Henri Dunant society 2010plus and the Dunant Museum.

After a ceremony to commemorate Henri Dunant on 30 October, two parallel programs took place on 31 October: One involving 3 high school classes and university students. Under the guidance of BHRC, more  students discussed the role of the Swiss government and the Swiss financial world in achieving a ban on nuclear weapons. Swiss Rapper Greis spoke about youth involvement in the campaign and free-styled on a ban on nuclear weapons.

On November 1, ICAN Switzerland was formally launched. Annette Willi, who organized the event and coordinated the launch of ICAN Switzerland explains the landscape of awareness regarding nuclear weapons in her country and the reason why Switzerland’s role in achieving a treaty banning nuclear weapons is key.

What is the legacy of Henri Dunant for the cause of the elimination of nuclear weapons?

As the founder of the ICRC, Henri Dunant left an invaluable legacy to the world. The ICRC has been advocating for the elimination of nuclear weapons since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The ICRC has understood very soon that nuclear weapons couldn’t be compatible with the principles and rules of international humanitarian law. It welcomed the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice in 1996 on the legality of nuclear weapons that emphasizes the requirement of warfare “to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants, the ban on targeting civilians, and the prohibition of weapons that, by their nature, cannot distinguish between civilian and military targets, or that cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering to combatants.” The ICRC upholds this position and, in its most recent resolution of 2011, calls on all states to never again use nuclear weapons, to negotiate the prohibition of their use and their complete elimination.

What is the importance and relevance of the ‘humanitarian imperative’ to nuclear disarmament? What are the opportunities presented by this framing?

The humanitarian consequences of a nuclear weapons use would be catastrophic and therefore the development, possession and use of these weapons can under no circumstance be justified. In order to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe from nuclear war of the detonation of a single bomb, we have to ban these weapons.

The reframing of the nuclear disarmament debate and the focus on the humanitarian perspective has many advantages. At last, not only the military strategy or the political impact of nuclear weapons are discussed but the real effects that nuclear weapons would have. From an abstract tool of war, the so-called guarantee for peace and a political status symbol, they are considered again as what they really are:  a terrible weapon of mass destruction.This reframing has advantages also on the campaigning side. The very abstract topic of nuclear disarmament has at last become more accessible for people. It is quite easy to explain why nuclear weapons are dangerous from a humanitarian and environmental point of view and why we absolutely have to ban them.

What has been Switzerland’s official position with respect to nuclear disarmament?

Switzerland has never possessed nuclear weapons and has been actively involved in nuclear disarmament. Since 2009, the Federal Council has been increasing its activities in this field. At an international level, Switzerland is promoting the humanitarian dimension of nuclear weapons and explains their catastrophic consequences in publications and side events. Switzerland collaborates closely with like-minded states, the ICRC and civil society. Moreover, it encourages a strong civil society participation in international negotiations.Swiss representatives have participated in the Oslo conference and presented a scenario of a bomb detonating over Berne, the capital. The focus was put on the incapability of humanitarian actors, such as the ICRC, UN and states, to respond adequately to a nuclear war or detonation.

This spring, the Federal Council has stated that the War Material Act that prohibits the possession and use of different weapon systems (landmines, biological weapons, etc.) as well as direct and indirect financing of the development, manufacture or acquisition of prohibited war material also applied to nuclear weapons. This means that the Swiss banks are now legally obliged to divest from this sector.

What role can Switzerland play in the push for a treaty banning nuclear weapons?

Switzerland can continue to play a leader role in the debate on the humanitarian consequences. It can submit or sign on to statements that highlight these and welcome the conferences on this topic in Oslo and Mexico. Switzerland should explicitly call for a ban of nuclear weapons and convince other states that this is the only solution to prevent a further nuclear catastrophe. Maybe Switzerland could host the conference during which negotiations on such a ban could take place or it could support other interested states in doing so.

Switzerland should also follow through with the implementation of the War Material Act that prohibits financing of nuclear weapons. The State Secretariat for Economic Affairs, the authority in charge, expressed concern on its capability to effectively monitor Swiss investments in the nuclear sector and it needs to be supported.

How is the nuclear weapons issue currently seen in Switzerland and what level of public engagement currently exists? What are the opportunities there?

Nuclear weapons are not a topic that is discussed in the media or among the general public. Most of the NGOs that are concerned with the consequences of a nuclear catastrophe focus on nuclear energy and nuclear power plants but not on the weapons.The humanitarian approach will help us get broader attention in Switzerland. By explaining the consequences that a detonation – or a nuclear war – could have, we can show that these weapons do indeed concern us. Even if we don’t possess them ourselves.

What will be the focus of ICAN in Switzerland and what are its goals for the coming months?

ICAN Switzerland is a rather small coalition. So far, we consist of 5 partner organizations. The first step will be to bring more organizations on board, even the ones that consider nuclear weapons to far from their own priorities. We will reach out to students, parliamentarians and the general public to raise awareness on this issue and to build a strong public opinion on the absolute need to ban nuclear weapons. Only as a strong coalition, we will be able to back our government’s effort in the international arena.

We will also closely monitor the implementation of the War Material Act and work together with banks to ensure that Swiss financing of the nuclear sector stops.

We look forward to getting inspiration from partners from all over the world and to collaborating with the ICAN team in Geneva.


  • aiweiwei

    “Let’s act up! Ban nuclear weapons completely and unconditionally.”

    Ai Weiwei Artist and activist

  • sheen

    “If Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr were alive today, they would be part of ICAN.”

    Martin Sheen Actor and activist

  • bankimoon

    “I salute ICAN for working with such commitment and creativity.”

    Ban Ki-moon Former UN chief

  • yokoono

    “We can do it together. With your help, our voice will be made still stronger. Imagine peace.”

    Yoko Ono Artist

  • jodywilliams

    “Governments say a nuclear weapons ban is unlikely. Don’t believe it. They said the same about a mine ban treaty.”

    Jody Williams Nobel laureate

  • desmondtutu

    “With your support, we can take ICAN its full distance – all the way to zero nuclear weapons.”

    Desmond Tutu Nobel laureate

  • herbiehancock

    “Because I cannot tolerate these appalling weapons, I whole-heartedly support ICAN.”

    Herbie Hancock Jazz musician

  • dalailama

    “I can imagine a world without nuclear weapons, and I support ICAN.”

    Dalai Lama Nobel laureate