In this Career Spotlight, we have the pleasure of speaking with Gem Romuld, an impassioned advocate leading Australia’s push to draw attention to the catastrophic threat to humanity that nuclear weapons pose.
Gem Romuld is the Australian Director the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons and Director of Quit Nukes. As ICAN Director, she leads the campaign and volunteers working to lobby Canberra to sign and ratify the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
During her studies in law and communications at the University of Technology Sydney, Gem became involved in campaigns to stop uranium mining and the establishment of radioactive waste dumps. Experience working as a radio producer and Outreach Coordinator for Australians for War Powers Reform also gave her significant communications and advocacy experience.
ICAN is an Australian-born campaign awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 for its advocacy and work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and ground-breaking efforts to achieve a nuclear-based prohibition for such weapons. ICAN is a coalition of non-government organisations from over 100 countries promoting universal endorsement of the UN Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The Treaty has been ratified and entered into force on 22 January 2021, making possession and use of nuclear weapons illegal under international law.
To begin, would you mind telling us about what sparked your interest in advocacy? Was there a particular event or time you recall that triggered your passion to get involved in disarmament and nuclear abolition?
As a student I went along to a public event in Sydney to hear from Traditional Owners from Muckaty, NT, who were in middle of an 8-year campaign to stop a nuclear waste dump being built on their land. This is where I began to understand the term “radioactive racism” and learn how all aspects of the nuclear fuel chain impact on First Nations people and the environment. This elder from very far away was standing there, urging the crowd of people to help her protect country from nuclear waste. You have to take that seriously.
Nuclear weapons were exploded on Aboriginal land in WA and SA in the 1950s and 60s, leaving a long-term radioactive legacy with intergenerational health impacts that are still felt today. It’s clear to me now that nuclear weapons don’t serve anyone except the nuclear-armed leaders and the weapons companies that make a mint producing them, year after year. They don’t address any of the real security threats we face today, instead enhancing insecurity as we all live under the nuclear shadow.
As a former radio producer, what skills and lessons were you able to transfer into your advocacy roles?
Producing radio is really fun and interesting, and it helped me become confident to talk to and learn from all sorts of people, shaping programs for broadcast. It also forces you to condense information and present it in a way that will be compelling and appropriate for new ears but also share something new for those in the know. This is something we are constantly doing in campaigning, shaping and disseminating ideas and messages that we hope will inspire and motivate those on the receiving end.
You’ve had an outstanding career in advocacy. Where do you find the ongoing spirit and resilience to continue with ICAN? How does working on a justice campaign impact your life? What has winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 done to elevate the ICAN mission?
Thank you! It can be difficult sometimes to bring 100% to the work when the obstacles we face are monolithic and change is so hard-won. We are taking on a culture of “nuclear deterrence” that has existed for decades. The notion that nuclear weapons provide protection is deeply embedded in our brains, it has been purposely put there by the nuclear-armed states, their sympathisers and the weapons companies themselves, and it is getting in the way of actual disarmament. However, more and more people understand that threatening to use weapons of mass destruction is shameful and unacceptable, and we are seeing the norms of the 2017 UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons take hold.
I take great inspiration from people impacted by nuclear weapons use or testing, such as the hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), nuclear veterans and First Nations people who know what nuclear weapons do and are calling out to the rest of us to shut them down. I’m also buoyed by the fact that we’ve already achieved what many said was impossible, by working with a global majority of countries to ban nuclear weapons. Now we have this powerful tool, it’s time now to put it to work. Number 1 on my agenda is to catalyse an ever stronger push for Australia to join the ban.
As for the Nobel Peace Prize, it’s been an incredible campaign asset! It lends legitimacy to our work and demonstrates to the world that we are on the right track. It’s so special to put it in the hands of everyday people, parliamentarians, First Nations nuclear test survivors, councillors, unionists, activists, artists and anyone who wants to take some pride in the first Nobel Peace Prize awarded to an Australian-founded group. There’s no doubt the Nobel opens doors, but we can’t rest in its glow, there is much work to be done.
What are the benefits of working on public awareness campaigns, with governments, non-governmental organisations and community? What advice would you give students and young professionals looking to pursue a cause of their own?
It is incredibly satisfying to combine my work with something that I deeply care about. I genuinely want to get to work in the morning! Sometimes it is hard to switch off and the content can be overwhelming, but I know that creating change is a long haul and that our work needs to be sustainable. I committed myself to collective organising and grassroots activism long before I found ICAN and gained employment. Creating meaningful change is usually done on a shoestring and always means fundraising, but I would fiercely encourage anyone fired up about changing the world for the better to seek opportunities, get a crew together and make something happen. Even if that something is small, you never know where it may lead.
What key learnings have you gained while across the Pacific and with First Nations peoples who are so directly impacted by the catastrophic environmental and humanitarian harm of nuclear testing?
It’s critical to listen and learn from people impacted by nuclear weapons, as their experience is expertise. Here in our region we see a very profound intersection between colonialism, nuclear weapons and climate chaos. First Nations peoples land was taken and used for decades of radioactive experimentation, with people the guinea pigs. Now, as sea levels rise, the legacies of radioactive contamination and waste remain, long after the UK, US and France packed their bags and left. There has been very little compensation or accountability delivered, but now the next generation are driving the movement for nuclear justice, and that is truly exciting.
What attributes do you think make the best leaders, particularly those in social movements? How can early-career starters begin honing these leadership skills?
Campaigning requires determination, persistence, a critical eye and eternal optimism, while maintaining humble gratitude for those who have come before us. We are regularly honing our strategy to ensure we are using our capacity and resources as effectively as possible, while always leaving the door open for experimentation and new ideas. I think we need to be able to bring other people on board the vision we are striving for. Articulating why and how something will change, and convincing people it is possible, gets you well on your way.