As fears mount about the possibility of a nuclear conflict, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded Friday to a coalition of disarmament activists who lobbied for the global treaty recently approved by the United Nations to ban atomic bombs.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee said it was honoring the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons for its work "to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons" and for its efforts to achieve the treaty that was adopted by 122 countries in July but has yet to take effect.
The award is an attempt to reinvigorate efforts for worldwide nuclear disarmament, a goal that appears increasingly out of reach at a time when North Korea has been carrying out provocative tests of its nuclear technology and trading threats of annihilation with President Trump. The heated rhetoric has raised fears that a miscalculation could spark a confrontation that spirals out of control.
At the same time, tensions are escalating between India and Pakistan, and between the United States and Russia, all of which are working to improve their nuclear arsenals and delivery systems.
The U.S. administration has also signaled that Trump could next week decertify the 2015 agreement that imposed curbs on Iran's nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief, a decision that could lead to the unraveling of the landmark accord.
"We live in a world where the risk of nuclear weapons being used is greater than it has been for a long time," Berit Reiss-Andersen, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said when she announced the prize in Oslo. "Some states are modernizing their nuclear arsenals, and there is a real danger that more countries will try to procure nuclear weapons, as exemplified by North Korea."
Though she said the committee wasn't "kicking anybody's leg with this prize," she noted that none of the nine nuclear-armed powers have so far supported the weapons ban.
The United States and close allies, including France and Britain, have sought instead to strengthen the nearly half-century-old Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which aims to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons but does not ban them outright.
After Friday's announcement, U.S. officials reiterated their opposition to the new treaty, which they view as reckless and misguided.
"Unfortunately, we are seeing a deterioration in the overall security environment and growing nuclear capabilities of certain states," a State Department official said, speaking anonymously in keeping with administration guidelines. "This treaty ignores the current security challenges that make nuclear deterrence necessary and risks undermining existing efforts to address global proliferation and security challenges."
Although the Nobel committee was explicit in saying it was not sending a political message to a specific leader, it was clear that there were implications for both Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who have invoked the threat of nuclear force.
During the presidential campaign, Trump suggested the best path was to arm additional countries, such as South Korea and Japan, with nuclear weapons. And he once reportedly asked White House advisors why not use nuclear weapons, since the country possesses them.
"Is this going to lead to a settlement of the North Korean nuclear crisis?" said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Assn., a Washington think tank. "No, the only way we are going to do that is if we have direct, unconditional talks that lead somewhere.
"But it is clear from the Nobel committee's statement and the timing that the award is a very strong and poignant rejoinder to the threats and counter-threats that are being lobbed between Kim Jong Un and Donald J. Trump."
Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization welcomed the attention brought to the issue of preserving world peace but said what was needed was "a verifiable and balanced reduction of nuclear weapons."
"Since the end of the Cold War, NATO allies have dramatically reduced the number of their nuclear weapons," he said. "But as long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance."
The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, a Geneva-based coalition known by the acronym ICAN, disputes the premise that nuclear weapons are a legitimate and essential source of security.
"We can't threaten to indiscriminately slaughter hundreds of thousands of civilians in the name of security. That's not how you build security," the group's executive director, Beatrice Fihn, told reporters after Friday's announcement.
The 10-year-old alliance, which says it has members in over 100 countries, pressed for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which would enter into force after it has been ratified by 50 parties. So far, only three have done so.
"This prize really is a tribute to the tireless efforts of many millions of campaigners and concerned citizens worldwide who, ever since the dawn of the atomic age, have loudly protested nuclear weapons, insisting that they can serve no legitimate purpose and must be forever banished from the face of our Earth," Fihn said.
She said ICAN received a call about the award minutes before the official announcement, but she thought it was a prank until she heard the group's name spoken during the televised ceremony.
Arms control advocates celebrated the news.
"People are worried. They correctly feel closer to nuclear war than at any time in decades," said Joseph Cirincione, president of the San Francisco-based Ploughshares Fund, which has provided support to ICAN in the past.
The disarmament movement, he said, is at a "dead stop" with 15,000 nuclear weapons in the hands of leaders such as Trump, Kim and Russia's Vladimir Putin. "It freaks people out, and it should," he said.
He admitted to some initial doubts about the little-known group — until he attended a conference it sponsored in Geneva in December 2014. There, he said, he saw a true grass-roots coalition of civil society activists come together and convince scores of states to take a stand against nuclear proliferation.
The European Union's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, also welcomed the decision to honor ICAN, saying in a tweet, "We share a strong commitment to achieving the objective of a world free from nuclear weapons."
Mogherini was herself thought to be a leading contender for this year's peace prize with Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, for their work on the 2015 Iranian nuclear accord.
Others had more mixed feelings about the award going to ICAN.
Thomas Countryman, who served as assistant secretary of State for international security and nonproliferation during the last six years of the Obama administration, likened the move to the decision to honor President Obama with the peace prize in 2009 — years before his arms control efforts yielded results.
"It acknowledges potential and hope more than concrete achievement," Countryman said from Belgrade, Serbia, where he had a speaking engagement.
He said it remains to be seen whether the new treaty — which he contends has its flaws — will accelerate the task of eliminating nuclear weapons. "But it will certainly stand as a strong global statement on the morality of the possession or use of such weapons," he said. "In that sense, the award is very well-deserved."
It is a message that resonates deeply in Japan, where those who lived through two atomic bombings in the closing days of World War II have long spoken out against nuclear weapons. The attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 killed an estimated 214,000 people.
"I'm delighted that ICAN, which has taken action to abolish nuclear weapons like us, won the Nobel Peace Prize," Sunao Tsuboi, a 92-year-old survivor of the blasts, said in a televised statement, according to wire reports. "I want to offer my warmest congratulations."
Times staff writers Zavis reported from Beirut and Wilkinson from Washington. Staff writers Barbara Demick in New York and Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing contributed to this report.
3:35 p.m.: This article was updated with reaction from Japan and a former Obama administration official.
1:50 p.m.: This article was updated with reaction from the U.S., NATO, European Union and arms control advocats.
5:55 a.m.: This article was updated throughout with staff reporting.
3:20 a.m.: This article was updated with comments from Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons .