University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

Maryann Cusimano Love

The nuclear weapons ban is the latest example of resurrection politics. Peace advocates, scientists, and churches have been trying to ban the bomb for over 70 years, with few successes. Resurrection politics takes issues thought previously “dead on arrival” and raises them up, bringing them to life on the international agenda. Today 122 countries are on record in favor of the UN Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons; 53 countries signed on the first day the treaty was open for signatures, and already 3 countries have quickly ratified the ban. The Holy See was the first to ratify the treaty, and many Catholic majority countries led the effort, including Ireland, Brazil, Mexico, Austria, and Costa Rica.

Resurrection politics succeeded in the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), the International Campaign to Ban Cluster Munitions, the Jubilee movement for international debt relief to poor countries, and international efforts against human trafficking.

At first glance, bans from anti-personnel landmines to nukes may seem to have little in common. Landmines are cheap, readily available, and were a weapon in wide use at the time they were banned. In contrast, only 9 countries have expensive nuclear weapons; these countries have detonated nuclear weapons over 2,000 times (over half were conducted by the U.S.), mostly in test explosions. Yet in both cases, decades of advocacy on the issue in traditional fora had stalled, and advocates grew impatient with the stonewalling. Progress on the issue was blocked, often by a handful of powerful countries (including the U.S.) who were part of the problem and did not want to fix it. The issues were framed in narrow technical terms, without much wider public engagement or understanding of the human costs. Advocacy on the issues was deemed a hopeless cause, a dead end.

Resurrection politics, moving a dead issue to life, follows a deliberate pattern. A diverse coalition of civil society actors and like-minded countries comes together. The coalition includes doctors, scientists, scholars, health care providers, the Catholic Church and other religious actors, nongovernmental organizations concerned with victims, and often retired military and government officials. The coalition shines a light on the human face of the issue, particularly the humanitarian impact on society’s most vulnerable—women and children. The groups reframe the issue, using powerful pictures and stories of victims, shaming and naming perpetrators. As the victims tell their stories of the human impact, “the professionals”—the doctors, scientists, scholars, health care providers, retired military and government officials—validate the narrative with facts, figures, and scholarly and academic analysis. The Catholic Church and religious actors practice solidarity with the poor and vulnerable, raising the moral questions, our obligations to protect life and help the vulnerable. Like-minded states pursue fast-track multilateral negotiations that do not allow powerful states to veto or block the process. Non-state actors are invited to speak and participate in the negotiations of states. Together these efforts de-legitimize the status quo, and make it more difficult for opposing states to justify their activities.

The nuclear ban closely followed the playbook of the ICBL. Advocates adopted a wide, “most first” strategy, rather than a strategy of reaching agreement with the most powerful (and most opposed) states first. The ICBL differed from other treaty negotiations in a number of ways: in the actors present, in its focus on the humanitarian impact of the weapons, in its methods, in its contents, and in its strategy. The nuclear ban, like the landmine ban, kept a clear focus on a simple message: ban the use, production, spread, stockpiling, and possession of the weapons, assist victims and survivors, and restore the impacted environment. The process in both cases kept the focus on the humanitarian impact of the weapons, engaged victims and mobilized a growing network of NGOs, who helped bolster the leadership of countries and key government officials willing to “break” with powerful states anchored to the status quo. In both cases the coalition removed the issue from the existing, moribund international forums blocked by powerful states, and pursued instead a fast track process committed to negotiating a comprehensive ban regardless of whether the U.S. or other powerful states might initially join. In both cases advocates avoided expanding the parameters of the ban, arguing that other issues could be addressed after the ban was born. By stigmatizing and delegitimizing the weapons, the processes unleash a pincer movement of pressure on opposing states both from external actors and also from inside their own societies.

If citizens rally in favor of the nuclear ban, more governments may engage the process. The ban is popular with citizens in U.S. allies such as Germany, Japan, and Italy. Opponents say the nuclear weapons ban is dead on arrival. Resurrection politics echo Mark Twain—reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.

Maryann Cusimano Love is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the Catholic University of America.