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SFHS graduate a mover in global campaign to ban nukes

October 21, 2017

By Rebecca Moss
The New Mexican

Michael Spies

Michael Spies, Courtesy Photo

It was midmorning in early April 2009, and a crowd had gathered in Prague’s Hradcany Square to hear the American president speak. As Barack Obama took the stage, an assortment of small flags from many nations waved from outstretched hands. The sky behind him, a mix of fog and light, took on a yellow glow.

“Just as we stood for freedom in the 20th century,” Obama said, “we must stand together for the right of people everywhere to live free from fear in the 21st century. … As a nuclear power, as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act.”

This moment laid the groundwork for a shift in policymaking and activism surrounding nuclear disarmament — denouncing nuclear weapons not merely as untenable, politicized tools of warfare but as among the world’s gravest humanitarian crises, said Michael Spies, a former Santa Fe resident who, somewhat unintentionally, has spent much of his adult life working on nuclear weapons policy.

Spies recently played a lead role in the United Nations’ adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, drafted by a campaign that won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize earlier this month.

“You don’t necessarily grow up planning to work on nuclear weapons issues,” said Spies, 36. But, he added, “it is something that is very personal for me, and I have been able to make it work professionally.”

Spies, whose mother was a chemical engineer in the aerospace industry during the Cold War, was born in California but moved to New Mexico at age 14. He is a graduate of Santa Fe High School and The University of New Mexico, where he studied political science and psychology.

His interest in peace activism dates back to 2003, when the public was enraged about war in Iraq. Spies decided to join the Green Party and focus on peace efforts. He also became one of the first young recruits of a local organization pushing for nuclear disarmament.

“I was at a peace rally in Old Town Albuquerque and listening to somebody speak about the connection between New Mexico’s economy and the labs, and connecting it to peace work,” Spies said. “It was Greg Mello at the [Los Alamos] Study Group.”

After six months of working with the group, Spies moved to New York, intending to get a master’s degree in politics at New York University. Instead, he was offered a job with the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy as a policy analyst.

Several years later, in September 2009, a job came up at the United Nations’ Office for Disarmament Affairs, and Spies applied, “sort of on a whim.”

He would join the agency just as the humanitarian framework Obama outlined in Prague was gaining traction. It set the foundation for Obama’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, and led to new international nuclear agreements. That work, in turn, paved the way for this year’s Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

Spies, who eventually earned his master’s degree, was one of the top U.N. officials working on the treaty — informing diplomatic proceedings and reporting to the U.N. deputy secretary general — during negotiations that led to the treaty’s adoption this summer.

At the U.N., he said, you “find yourself in a place where you are really a resource to governments that are trying to move different ideas through the system.”

The treaty was drafted by the Switzerland-based International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons — better known as ICAN — a coalition of more than 460 pro-disarmament, nongovernmental organizations in 100 counties. It was adopted, with a majority vote of nations, July 7 in New York. No nuclear-armed nations participated in the vote, including the U.S., which opposes the measure.

Negotiations will begin this fall between countries working toward the treaty’s ratification.

In Prague, Obama spoke about how a powerful but peaceful movement during the 1989 Velvet Revolution allowed Czechoslovakia to break free from the repressive influence of the Soviet Union. That “showed us that small countries can play a pivotal role in world events, and that young people can lead the way in overcoming old conflicts,” he said.

Spies said a younger generation and scores of non-nuclear nations have been central to adopting the disarmament treaty.

“Previously, in any disarmament project, we could really only move forward if it had the support and the leadership of the nuclear weapons states,” he said. “This is the first time the initiative moved forward despite their skepticism and opposition.”

Young people led the way, he said, “using social media to get their message across.”

ICAN, led by 35-year-old Executive Director Beatrice Fihn, reaches 21,400 followers on Twitter and 83,000 on Facebook. Its social media feeds feature videos of young representatives at work inside the United Nations and news interviews with ICAN members from American and foreign language media.

In addition to prohibitions against developing, testing, producing, manufacturing and stockpiling nuclear weapons, the treaty outlines a number of humanitarian commitments. Among them: victim assistance and environmental remediation of areas contaminated by the use or testing of nuclear weapons.

“A lot of the new energy that came into this issue has been motivated from this humanitarian base,” Spies said. “I think it was very natural for the community to want victim assistance to be recognized.”

The Nobel Prize comes at a time of increasing anxiety about nuclear weapons as tensions flare between the U.S. and North Korea over the latter’s weapons testing. President Donald Trump and some members of Congress also have indicated a renewed interest in nuclear bomb testing, which has been banned since the 1990s and replaced with supercomputer modeling.

Additionally, the Trump administration will be revising the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review at the beginning of 2018, a process that Spies said will be important to watch.

Though his world has expanded far beyond the high desert, Spies said he still feels ties to New Mexico for a variety of reasons.

“I do still consider New Mexico to be home,” he said. “And a large part of the fate of the state is tied to nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation because of the labs. … Whatever development happens internationally, that has an impact on the local situations.”

In the meantime, work remains to be done. This fall, negotiations will begin between countries as signatures are gathered in support of the ratification of the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. It will be a busy time for Spies.

“I have always felt very, very lucky,” he said, “just to have the opportunity to be here.”

Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or rmoss@sfnewmexican.com.


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