Activists head to Norway for Nobel prize

  • Ira Helfand

Staff Writer
Published: 12/8/2017 11:05:14 PM

NORTHAMPTON — When the Nobel Peace Prize is formally awarded Sunday to an organization that has pushed for nuclear disarmament, and successfully convinced the United Nations to adopt a treaty seeking the prohibition of nuclear weapons, a Leeds physician and local peace activists will be among those observing the ceremony.

Dr. Ira Helfand, a member of the steering committee of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, said he is heading to Oslo, Norway, to join representatives from the global community at the Peace Prize presentation.

“By giving the prize to ICAN this year, the Nobel commission has tried to shine the spotlight on the dangers we face from nuclear weapons,” said Helfand, co-founder and past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, which earned the Peace Prize in 1985.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was reached in July at the United Nations, where it was adopted by 122 countries. Since then, 53 countries have signed the treaty, and four have ratified it.

The treaty requires all ratifying countries “never under any circumstances to develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.”

Even with North Korea testing missiles and tensions rising among nuclear powers, including the United States and Russia, Helfand said there remains relative inattention to nuclear weapons, and the proliferation is not being addressed with the urgency the situation requires.

“We need to move away from the brink and toward a safer nuclear policy worldwide,” Helfand said.

Helfand will be joined overseas by Jeff Napolitano, executive director of The Resistance Center for Peace and Justice, and Sabine Merz, a member of The Resistance Center’s board of directors.

Napolitano said in a statement that his journey to Oslo marks a continuation of the work started by longtime peace activist Frances Crowe and is “an opportunity to make ridding the world of nuclear weapons the priority for humanity it deserves to be.”

Both Napolitano and Merz hope to work with international activists to push governments to implement the treaty.

In addition, The Resistance Center, formerly the American Friends Service Committee of Western Massachusetts, is partnering with NuclearBan.US, a campaign founded by Northampton residents Vicki Elson and Dr. Timmon Wallis, to offer advice for individuals, municipal leaders and organizations on how to comply with terms of the treaty.

The Peace Prize will be received by ICAN Executive Director Beatrice Fihn as well as Setsuko Thurlow, who survived the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima in 1945.

Helfand said the United States will not send its ambassador, and Britain and France will also not have their ambassadors present as a sign of their disapproval of the treaty.

In fact, President Trump has reversed course on President Obama’s efforts at disarmament.

“This administration has said explicitly that it will never sign this treaty. We, as citizens, have a big job ahead of us,” Helfand said.

Still, Helfand said the awarding is a milestone, though not the conclusion of ICAN’s work. “The end will be when the last nuclear weapon is dismantled,” Helfand said.

Helfand will also speak at an ICAN reception at the Austrian Embassy on Friday, and at other forums both Friday and Saturday.

In 1985, when Physicians for Social Responsibility earned the Nobel Peace Prize, Helfand recalls telling people that he hoped to attend a future ceremony when the award would go to President Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev for disarming their countries.

Now, Helfand said he has a different goal. “I look forward to returning at the time when the heads of the nine nuclear states have eliminated their nuclear weapons,” Helfand said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at

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