2017 Nobel Peace Laureate comes to the College

Alison Levitt

On April 4 Dr. Kathleen Sullivan, 2017 Nobel Peace Laureate, nuclear disarmament activist and educator, presented at Colby. Sullivan sat down with the Echo to talk about her career path, thoughts on the current state of the country and her definition of activism.

Sullivan was brought to campus by the Oak Institute for Human Rights.

Sullivan has been a disarmament educator for almost 30 years, and an activist for almost her entire life. Sullivan attributes her beginnings in activism to the Reagan-era fictional film “The Day After.” This film, focusing on a nuclear winter, piqued both Sullivan’s interest and fears about nuclear weapons and the importance of advocating against them. Sullivan followed through on this interest when she was in college in Boulder and returned from a disturbing trip to Rocky Flats, the site of all production of plutonium cores for nuclear weapons in the United States. She returned to campus after this visit and founded Rocky Flats Student Action Coalition and led teach-ins about the perils of nuclear weapons. The main material used at Rocky Flats is plutonium, a substance so deadly that the smallest contact could be lethal. Sullivan educated her peers and family about Rocky Flats, but it was not until the government raids in 1989 that her fears were validated.

While Sullivan’s activist career began in college, that is certainly not where it ended. Education has been a major part of Sullivan’s career, and her program Hibakusha as well as her involvement in International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) are testament to that. Sullivan and a friend founded Hibakusha after learning about a Japanese non-government organization called Peace Boat that is dedicated peace and sustainability. Part of Peace Boat’s mission is to allow atomic bomb survivors around the world to share their stories. Sullivan believes in the importance of sharing testimonies with young people, which is one of the key values of Hibakusha Stories, an activist program from New York. Their main goal is to pass the knowledge of the devastating impacts of the atomic bombings onto a new generation of students.

In terms of ICAN, Sullivan points to atomic-bombing survivor Setsuko Thurlow as the “main inspiration” for the movement. Thurlow was able to give both the ICAN movement and non-proliferation treaty review meetings at the UN a sense of humanity. She spoke to Sullivan and the UN committee about the human impact of nuclear weapons rather than strictly focusing on the technical aspects of weapons, which appeals to individuals’ pathos and has changed the way nuclear weapons have been discussed. Sullivan became involved with ICAN in 2007 when she was invited to a conference in Australia and since then has worked to develop the program, which culminated in a 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.

Sullivan expressed some wariness towards the current state of the world in terms of nuclear weapons. She calls this a “scarier time than the Cold War” because of the pervasiveness of nuclear weapons today. Sullivan explained that the world has moved beyond just five nuclear powers to nine, with Israel not admitting to having nuclear arms and the United States and North Korea having “unstable human beings in charge of launch codes.” This is a frightening notion, which is why Sullivan argues that we need to focus on “consequences rather than the abstraction of nuclear weapons.” Sullivan believes that the current White House administration is actively operating against her theories on how to abolish nuclear weapons. She states that the “military budget is obscene,” and some of the money could be used to meet human needs, which would “go a long way in human security.” She also feels that climate change will cause further displacement in terms of nuclear weaponry, and is not being properly addressed by the government. Sullivan states that “we are still investing in technologies that lay waste the world” and “as long as that keeps happening, increase in violence and war will continue.”

Sullivan’s main emphasis in her conversation with the Echo and her presentation is the importance of activism and standing up for what is right and important. She stated that “activists make people scared. I think it’s really important for us to recognize that people can and do make a difference, and that’s the only thing that ever brought change to our world.” She emphasizes that with activism and education then we can create a more “passionate and interesting world.”

Next week, on April 16, the Oak Institute for Human Rights will bring Ludovic Bonleux to campus for a film screening of Guerrero and Director Q&A.