Leading Change, Changing Leadership: ICAN Will Miss Beatrice Fihn!

Susi Snyder, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)

Leaders don’t crave power for its own sake; rather, power gathers toward them and they use it to craft the world they wish to create.

Beatrice Fihn is a leader. She’s a woman who listens, learns, and isn’t afraid to work hard. A rare mix, and an unstoppable force. It’s why she was the natural choice to become the first Executive Director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), why her perseverance and dogged determination led the campaign through ups and downs, and why in 2017 she (and Setsuko Thurlow) became the first women ever to accept a Nobel Peace Prize for anti-nuclear weapons work.

Beatrice Fihn holds a megaphone containing the ICAN logo in her right hand and a sign in her left hand that reads "the ban is here, time to get louder!" She is posed in front of unmarked buildings in Geneva.
Beatrice Fihn in Geneva. Credit: ICAN | Aude Catimel.

After almost a decade at the helm, however, Beatrice is leaving ICAN. In yet another demonstration of great leadership, she’s stepping down on January 31 to create space for new ideas and new thinking to take the campaign forward. It’s a loss for the moment, but likely a long-term gain for the campaign because ICAN is entering into a new phase.

The campaign has accomplished a lot. It’s changed the conversation about nuclear weapons from the abstract language of geopolitics to one focused on the very human impact of weapons designed to incinerate cities. That shift led to the reality that nuclear weapons are now prohibited under international law. The First Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition on Nuclear Weapons has set the instrument up for continued success, including meaningful participation from affected communities. An intersessional process is underway, making it the most effective instrument on nuclear weapons currently in force. And that’s in less than a decade.

ICAN as a campaign is poised to end nuclear weapons forever. Under Beatrice’s leadership, the campaign has grown to more than 650 partners in over 100 countries. These organizations are determined to act for the end of nuclear weapons, positioned to persuade all those within their spheres of influence. Over the years the campaign has grown and changed, and Beatrice’s leadership has helped identify areas where it could be stronger—and then built them up.

The nuclear weapon issue is once again at the forefront of many minds. The risk that nuclear weapons will be used in anger is higher than it’s been in generations. And while many look at this risk from a clinical, sterile, geopolitical perspective, many do not. Instead, they have some understanding of the catastrophe that would result if nuclear weapons were used. That’s because ICAN has made that a top issue in the campaign, in a way that is accessible and not terrifying.

Everyone knows, in theory, that nuclear weapons are terrifying. But when Putin started threatening nuclear weapons use, raising Russian nuclear force levels, and putting everything we love at risk, it was a shock and caused a lot of people to freeze. Not Beatrice. She quickly called up someone within the ICAN network and put together resources on nuclear anxiety. It’s one tiny illustration of why ICAN, and the world, are so lucky that Beatrice decided to put her energy into nuclear disarmament.

Under Beatrice’s leadership, ICAN has made working on nuclear weapons fun again. She has inspired a new generation of activists, while motivating and mobilizing the old guard to keep up the pace.

Susi Snyder and Beatrice Fihn. Both have blonde hair, are wearing black jackets, and are smiling at the camera. They appear to be in a meeting room together, with flags in the background.
Beatrice Fihn (left) and Susi Snyder (the author) in Rome. Credit: Susi Snyder.

When I first met Beatrice, I knew she’d change the world. We joked during our time working together at the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom that in the future we’d win a Nobel Peace Prize. I remember introducing her to someone saying, “One day she’ll be a foreign minister.” But that proved to be an understatement because she understands the interests of more than one country or one region. Beatrice is a global changemaker. 

ICAN will continue with fresh energy and insight, and the benefits left behind by a great leader who has blazed a trail lighting the way for many more to come.

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