Saturday, August 08, 2020

How Norway crippled Nobel laureate ICAN by cutting vital funding

On Sunday the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) receives the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. It is a slap in the face for Norway’s Blue-Blue government which brought the organisation to its knees two years ago by cutting all its funds. Norwegian aid accounted for almost 90 per cent of ICAN’s budget.

Ruth Mitchell of ICAN
Photo: Takver

The prestigious peace prize is the biggest international media event in Norway and ICAN, a global network organisation, is receiving this year’s prize “for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons,” according to the Norwegian Nobel Committee.

In July, 122 UN member states adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The Nobel committee, a body independent of the government and appointed by the Norwegian Parliament, hails ICAN as the leading civil society actor in the endeavour to achieve the prohibition of nuclear weapons under international law.

Notwithstanding the broad international support, none of the 29 members of the world’s most powerful military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Norway included, has signed the agreement. Nor has any of the countries in possession of nuclear weapons.


The odd truth is that the UN treaty was achieved on the heels of the Norwegian Humanitarian Initiative on Nuclear Weapons, initiated by the former Red-Green government led by Jens Stoltenberg (Labour), who now happens to be Secretary General of NATO.

The Red-Green government poured hundreds of millions of crowns into its nuclear disarmament efforts, drawn from the aid budget. The efforts were solidly anchored at the Prime Minister’s Office and led from the Foreign Ministry. 

The Norwegian initiative peaked at the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons Conference, held in Oslo in March 2013, and hosted by Norway’s then Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide. 

Henriette Killi Westhrin, Secretary General at Norwegian People’s Aid and a former State Secretary (Socialist Left), tells Development Today that it was here the process toward the UN treaty started.

“It was the first meeting place for this process and then others took over the baton,” she says.

The important factor was that the new initiative focused on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and not security policy concerns, she notes.

During the Stoltenberg government’s two terms in office, Norwegian and international organisations working on the humanitarian track of nuclear disarmament were generously funded. 

Among them were ICAN, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA), which together received more than NOK 40 million from the Norwegian aid budget in the period 2009-2015.  

In addition, the government directed huge amounts to research both at home and internationally about the humanitarian consequences of a nuclear war. In 2013 alone, the budget line in the Norwegian aid budget for development and disarmament amounted to NOK 175 million. Norway was almost alone in funding these kinds of activities.

“Norway was the engine in the environment working on the humanitarian consequences and had a huge impact, much larger than one would expect a small country like Norway could have,” Westhrin says. 

In the fall 2013, the Labour-led government lost the election and a minority government consisting of the Conservative Party and the anti-immigration Progress Party took over. At home, funding of the humanitarian initiative continued, but the government did not show much enthusiasm.

Internationally, Mexico followed up on the Oslo conference with a new conference in February 2014. And in December of the same year, Austria hosted a conference in Vienna and pledged to work for a prohibition of nuclear weapons.

By 2015, a large majority in the UN General Assembly had adopted three UN resolutions on nuclear disarmament, none of which Norway supported.

In the meantime, Norway had started to reduce the funding to the NGOs driving the humanitarian nuclear disarmament track. Both ICAN and NPA lost their funding. In 2015, both ICAN and NPA were informed that they would lose their funding the following year.

In 2015, 86 per cent of ICAN's income (CHF 808,895) came from Norway. Although ICAN got several new smaller donors, its overall revenue dropped to almost one-third (CHF 354,000) in 2016.

This October, after the peace prize was announced and a few days before Børge Brende resigned as Foreign Minister, he wrote in an article in the daily Aftenposten defending the decision to terminate funding to ICAN. He argued that ICAN’s applications could not be approved because they did not qualify as Official Development Assistance (ODA) as defined by the OECD. Moreover, their work did not contribute to eradicating poverty, the main goal of Norwegian aid, he wrote.  


Each year Norway reports its ODA to the OECD for approval. The Parliament has decided that all Norwegian aid funds should be eligible for ODA reporting to the OECD. In the field of disarmament, however, this rule has often been disregarded by Norway.

The OECD does not consider disarmament activities of weapons of mass destruction such as nuclear weapons to be ODA. Such efforts are rather seen as being a public good that benefits both rich and poor countries. 

Development Today has scrutinised a range of documents about Norway’s reporting of disarmament projects to the OECD since 2009. These documents show that the OECD has, time and again, rejected some of the Norwegian disarmament projects reported as ODA. In spite of these repeated rulings over several years, both the Red-Green and the Blue-Blue governments continued to fund such projects from the aid budget. 

Budget propositions to the Parliament show that successive Norwegian administrations have been well aware of the OECD’s misgivings. The Foreign Ministry has repeatedly written that disarmament projects that cannot be reported as ODA will be funded from outside the budget. But this has hardly materialised. Instead, the ministry has continued to take funding from the aid budget to finance such projects in violation of OECD rules.

In the budget for next year, funding in this area has virtually dried up. The government proposes that peace information efforts currently receiving NOK 0.3 million from non-aid funds should be terminated. And the ODA budget line for development and disarmament is reduced to a mere NOK 10 million.

Since ICAN is in practice excluded from applying for aid money, it is hardly possible for the organisation to find Norwegian funding. But in the wake of the Peace Prize announcement, the Parliament has decided that ICAN will receive NOK 2 million in support next year, funded from outside the aid budget.  

Westhrin at NPA says that when the funding for the humanitarian disarmament initiative vanished, the organisation decided to use money from its own reserves to finance one position to continue the work. In addition, NPA offered an office for the Norwegian branch of ICAN.

ICAN headquarters in Geneva had to reduce its from seven to two after Norwegian funding dried up. When the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was adopted this July, NPA seconded one of its staff members working on these issues to ICAN in Geneva to help out.

“There was a need for massive follow-up. Due to the lack of funding, the secretariat was so small that it was brought to its knees,” she says.

After the peace prize was announced in October, NPA again drew on its reserves and funded a temporary position to help ICAN organise “a dignified and nice” reception in connection with the prize ceremony.

“We hoped the [difficult] funding situation for working with disarmament was temporary and thought it was important that the efforts did not stop, despite Norwegian authorities no longer being willing to finance it,” Westhrin says.

 So far NPA has spent NOK 2.5 million from its reserves to support this work.

The Norwegian government says real disarmament must happen through balanced and verified reductions in nuclear weapons. Moreover, non-proliferation efforts must prevent new states and terror organisations from getting access to nuclear weapons. The Labour Party has also supported this approach.

But on Thursday, three days before the Peace Prize ceremony at Oslo City Hall, disarmament campaigners won a small victory. A majority in the Parliament, including the Labour Party, will ask the government to review what the consequences would be for Norway if it signed the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.