There is long history across the globe of protesting for nuclear disarmament and a rich tradition of the issue bringing together disparate groups to a common cause. Yet there have been few organisations like the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which is now a global coalition of 541 partner organisations in 103 countries. Its origins stretch back to Melbourne in 2005 and it has been crucially sustained by Australian philanthropic support. ICAN is this year’s International Philanthropy award winner.
The genesis of ICAN was both the frustration that nuclear disarmament was stuck, and the inspiration provided by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Malaysian obstetrician Ron McCoy proposed ‘an International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons’. The Medical Association for Prevention of War (MAPW) embraced this idea and adopted it on behalf of its international federation, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. The goal was simple in intent but global in its reach: a campaign coalition for a treaty process to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons.
Eve Kantor and Mark Wootton set up the Poola Foundation in 1994 with a strong ethical focus. In 2006, it donated $500,000 to the project that would become ICAN. These initial funds were from the estate of Eve’s late brother Tom - who was passionately opposed to land mines. Like Tom, Eve and Mark were also inspired by the activism of Sister Patricia Pak Poy, who had campaigned so effectively in Australia (and internationally) for a ban on anti-personnel landmines. In subsequent years the broader Kantor Family’s Dara Foundation donated significant funds. Mark and Eve continue to donate to the organisation on an annual basis. This funding has been integral to ICAN’s on-going financial stability.
“We saw how backing the right people who could work in nimble ways had an impact. It became a bit of model of how to go about these things at an international level,” Mark says.
Supported by Dr Tilman Ruff, who became the founding Australian and international ICAN chair, and the late Dr Bill Williams, Dimity Hawkins, Dr Sue Wareham, Dave Sweeney, first staffer Felicity Ruby and others, the program started to get some traction. Dr Ruff recalled two years ago the initial discussion with Mark and Eve, in Carlton, in inner-city Melbourne: “At the first meeting with the Poola Foundation, they could see merit in an idea that seemed wildly optimistic to many, and their confidence in us was empowering.”
Mark remembers that ICAN didn’t have too many people to do its lobbying.
“They were a small organisation then, and they’re still a small organisation,” Mark says. "But they are smart, nimble and flexible and we’ve always been attracted to that. But ICAN’s work is multiplied by its role assisting and coordinating many diverse partner organisations."
The appeal of such small and dynamic organisations is that they are highly accountable, Mark explains. “You’re not putting a lot of money into an organisation trying to preserve and build its historical legacy. And these small organisations attract passionate people. It’s a case of identifying big elephants being tackled by a small, nimble and strategic organisations,” Mark says.
Mark and Eve are farmers first, rather than philanthropists: they run an environmentally innovative and sustainable 3378ha farm just north of Hamilton, in Victoria’s western districts. The practical lessons of farming and the impact climate change had on their operation led Mark and Eve to set up the Climate Institute from its inception in 2005. (It closed in 2017.) It was a long-term commitment, but not as long as the family’s commitment to ICAN.
The anti-nuclear campaigns of the late twentieth century featured massive peace marches around the globe. It was an issue of international importance for many years and then it slowly slid from public consciousness. “To a certain degree, things happened – like the Berlin Wall coming down in 1989 and the apparent decline in Russian power – nukes were still there but perhaps people felt a bit safer,” Mark says.
In more recent years, the nuclear threat is growing, with the changes in international leadership and shifting global alliances. None of the nine nuclear-armed states are disarming, all are investing massively in developing new more ‘usable’ weapons, and hard-won arms control agreements are being torn up. Armed conflict is growing in a climate-stressed world, and cyberwarfare adds new dangers. ICAN had never taken its eyes off its main goal and in 2017 the United Nations adopted the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. That year, ICAN’s critical role in negotiating the UN treaty was recognised with the Nobel Peace Prize.
Despite Mark’s assessment that he and Eve are both impatient, the ICAN commitment has lasted 13 years and there is still much more work to be done.
“We took a risk,” Mark says of the initial investment. “Our assessment is that the risk has paid handsome dividends. A Nobel Peace Prize seems to be a fair acknowledgement of successful funding. And ICAN still doesn’t have a lot of money…some people think nukes are too hard, but surely the threat of nuclear weapons and devastation is too important to ignore.”
Mark calls himself a ‘professional optimist’ and believes there can be an internationally supported ban on nuclear weapons. “We’re closer to getting to that now than we were in 2006. It’s not going to turn around in the next few years, but we’re committed, and we’ll keep supporting it,” Mark says. “You’ve got to give people hope and purpose – without the possibility of positive change, it’s all over, red rover.”