Thea Mjelstad says she does not regret missing out on a normal university experience: «This is happening right now.»
Thea Mjelstad says she does not regret missing out on a normal university experience: «This is happening right now.»

Studying to pass a nuclear ban

While other students were revising for exams, Thea Mjelstad was lobbying countries at the UN.

On a cold October morning in 2016, Thea Mjelstad stood outside the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She was cheerful, but resolved as she handed out coffee and cinnamon rolls to protestors. The demonstration demanded support from the Norwegian government for a ban on nuclear weapons.

Nine months later, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was finalized at the United Nations in New York City after years of work and months of discussion.

Mjelstad, a full-time student at the University of Oslo, was there when it happened.

Peace in practice

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) is a 10-year-old group present in 101 countries, including Norway. Their goal is complete elimination of nuclear weapons. Though the nuclear weapons states boycotted the treaty negotiations, activists say the idea is to pressure them. After a summer of nuclear threats lobbed back and forth between the US and North Korea, the issue is even more timely.

As an ICAN intern Mjelstad worked with social media and lobbied countries to join the treaty negotiations. She took three trips over the course of nine months, while also enrolled in classes at UiO in the Peace and Conflict Studies program.

«I’m taking that masters for a reason,» she said. «I want to work for these changes in the world, and for me it seems to stupid to pause and say ‘no, I have to do it when my degree is over,’ because this is happening right now.»

Mjelstad worked with ICAN on social media and lobbying during the discussions at the UN. Photo: Courtesy of Thea Mjelstad
Mjelstad worked with ICAN on social media and lobbying during the discussions at the UN. Photo: Courtesy of Thea Mjelstad

Norwegian government against ban

The treaty has received criticism though, including from Norway’s conservative government. They refused to take part in the treaty process, and cut ICAN’s funding in 2016.

This kind of ban could create divisions at a time when we’re seeing even more crises related to nuclear weapons.

Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer, Associate Professor UiO

According to a 2015 survey by Norwegian People’s Aid, 8 out of 10 Norwegians believe the country should work to ban nuclear weapons, and another survey showed 83 percent of Norwegians wanted the country to vote yes on starting the process for a treaty last year.

Work-study balance

In New York, Mjelstad lobbied countries to support the ban, with her list ranging from Iceland to Kazakhstan to Vanuatu. Mjelstad said she would sometimes work 14- to 16-hour days.

At the same time, she was tackling school work. When her mandatory seminars were rescheduled to take place during one of her trips, the professor said she would fail.

«I said, ‘Ok you can take me off the class.’ Because for me it wasn’t an option to skip the negotiations,» Mjelstad said. In the end, the university accommodated her absence, and she passed.

Still, she’s not a normal student. «I miss out on the chance to work with my fellow students. I miss out on that feeling of being a student,» Mjelstad admitted. «But that [anti-nuclear weapons] work has given me the motivation to take this masters.»

Courtesy of Thea Mjelstad
Courtesy of Thea Mjelstad
You don’t need to sit and wait for the nuclear weapons states; they will never give this up freely. They need to be pushed.

Thea Mjelstad, ICAN intern and Peace and Conflict Studies masters student

Concern and skepticism

Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer, Associate Professor at UiO’s Department of Political Science, has researched and written about nuclear strategy and non-proliferation. According to her, the issue is not so straightforward.

«This kind of ban could create divisions at a time when we’re seeing even more crises related to nuclear weapons, such as with North and South Korea,» she said.

In addition, she says it could negatively affect the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) and Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

«My concern is that this will help fragment what one can call the ‘global nuclear order,’ and the agreements that already exist,» Braut-Hegghammer said.

NATO released a statement saying the treaty «will not engage any state actually possessing nuclear weapons…and will neither enhance any country’s security, nor international peace and stability.»

Anne Marte Skaland, leader of ICAN in Norway, rebuked that attitude. «We used to think that as countries without nuclear weapons, there was little we could do. But now we have a new view...we can pressure nuclear states through a ban,» Skaland said.

Mjelstad was blunter. «It has never been the ones in power that said ‘Let’s give it up.’ It was not like that with slavery, or apartheid, or women’s right to vote, or now with nuclear weapons,» she said. «You don’t need to sit and wait for the nuclear weapons states; they will never give this up freely. They need to be pushed.»

Nobel nominee

ICAN is one of the organizations nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize this year. The winner will be announced at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo on Oct. 6.

Mjelstad admitted she hasn’t bought her ticket home from her masters fieldwork in Colombia in case the organization does win the prestigious honor. She says it’s a long shot, but it would be an important sign of support for countries who have stood by the treaty.

«This ban treaty is basically every other country [besides nuclear weapons states] saying ‘you know what, no, we’re done,’» Mjelstad said. «We’re sick of sitting around waiting for you to give up your weapons.»

Editor’s note: Indigo Trigg-Hauger and Thea Mjelstad study Peace and Conflict together at UiO, and Trigg-Hauger has attended ICAN events.