Ray Acheson fights for what she believes in. She’s dedicated her career to helping rid the world of nuclear weapons. Despite not always being taken seriously by opponents who call her vision “irrational” or “naive,” Acheson has remained focused on her work for over a decade. Her fight was rewarded this year as part of the team that was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
“It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you just ignore the criticism and let them say, ‘You can’t do this,’ and just do it anyway,” she said.
Acheson, along with other activists in the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), negotiated to help the UN adopt the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty— the first legally binding agreement to ban nuclear weapons internationally.
The Nobel committee awarded the 2017 Peace Prize to ICAN “for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons.”
Even while describing the tense aspects of her experiences, Acheson speaks conversationally. She said that changing the world for the better needs to be a collective effort, especially in the face of opposition.
“The world that these countries with nuclear weapons have constructed for us is one where ‘might is right,’ where if you wield these weapons of power, or if you have great militaries, you can influence the policies of others,” Acheson said. “So what are we supposed to do if we want to reject that kind of world order? We’ve got the law, that’s all we’ve got really. We’ve got pieces of paper that can help shape social norms and political norms that can constrain or influence behavior. That’s what we’ve got.”
Acheson has been working for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) since 2005, after graduating from the University of Toronto in her hometown. While working full-time with WILPF, she earned her master’s degree in politics from The New School for Social Research in 2014. “I wanted a more theoretical basis for the work I was doing,” Acheson explained. “[Nuclear weapons] can be a lot for years at a time when that’s the only thing you’re really doing.”
At The New School, she studied political theory, economics, philosophy, history, and literature. Her master’s thesis, Still trying to ban the bomb: the decline of the US anti-nuclear weapon movement and hopes for the future, focused on anti-nuclear organizing in the United States.
Acheson had previously interned with Dr. Randall Forsberg, one of the organizers of the 1982 march and rally in Central Park against nuclear weapons that drew as many as one million protesters. “[Forsberg] was a leader in what was then called the Nuclear Freeze Movement— because this was the height of the Cold War,” Acheson said. “They weren’t even calling for a ban at that point, they were calling just for a freeze so that the Soviet Union and the United States [would] stop making more of these things.”
“The anti-nuclear stuff was kind of an accident. But I’ve been addicted to it for the past 12, 13, 14 years,” Acheson said. After interning for Forsberg, Acheson began an internship with the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom (WILPF) in September 2005. WILPF was founded in 1915 by women who wanted to take peace into their own hands during World War I. One of the founders, Jane Addams, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. “It’s just been this incredible organization to work in, in which young women are given big responsibilities and able to grow and learn and participate in global campaigns,” Acheson said.
Since 2007, Acheson has been the director of Reaching Critical Will (RCW), the disarmament program of WILPF. WILPF is one of ten organizations that make up ICAN’s international steering group.
Focusing on nuclear weapons means that the groups Acheson needs to convince are not average individuals, but large governments who have no interest in disarming themselves. “The underlying problem is they like the power that they derive from [nuclear weapons]. And they’re not about to relinquish their privilege,” Acheson explained.
In the United States, maintaining nuclear arsenals has been justified by the notion that having these weapons would prevent nuclear war. Proponents argue that the concept of “mutually assured destruction” prevented nuclear war during the Cold War and today.
In her work, Acheson focuses on the intersections of gender and disarmament. “Nuclear weapons are sort of like the ultimate symbol of this kind of toxic masculinity,” she said. In the negotiations for the treaty, Acheson was tuned in to the language that government officials would use. “The language that they started using was really gendered towards our initiatives to ban these weapons. They described us as being emotional, irrational, all of that jazz,” Acheson said. She felt that these leaders “[equated] disarmament with some sort of emasculation or making countries impotent.”
Acheson took her observations as an opportunity. “That was another angle in which we were able to elevate a gendered consciousness and start tackling things like patriarchy and misogyny and gendered framings of arguments – in an international scale, which isn’t usually done. It was quite cool to be able to bring that into panel discussions, conversations with diplomats,” Acheson said. “At the same time that we’re banning nuclear weapons, we’ve sort of got this side piece of smashing the patriarchy going on. It was pretty cool.”
Acheson has worked with diplomats, activists and weapons test survivors who also believe that nuclear weapons are an unnecessary risk to humanity. Acheson explained that it was the collective efforts of these groups that led to the adoption of the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty.
“It was this unique idea that the rest of the world could actually do something, and negotiate a treaty without [the nuclear weapon states]. That’s what broke the logjam and that’s what’s been successful.” The treaty shows the rest of the world that disarmament is being worked towards and that it is achievable through peaceful negotiation.
The treaty was signed by 53 nations, though the list does not include any of the countries currently in possession of nuclear weapons. The treaty will not disarm the U.S., Russia, or any other nuclear weapon states. “But that was never the point,” Acheson said. Rather, their goal was to bring together smaller countries for collective action.
“I’m excited to see what else we can do that makes change and fosters a sense of optimism and possibility that I think is difficult to hold on to today. Everything is so negative and feels at times like we’re spiraling downwards into some sort of dystopian hell,” she said. “I think we have to break through that, and we have to ignore the criticisms about it being naive or silly or fruitless or pointless and we just have to do the work and keep trying to make that change. Whether it’s little change, big change, whatever it is. I just think we need more hope and more optimism now.”
Photo by Camille Petricola