The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded Friday to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, a group of mostly young activists pushing for a global treaty to ban the cataclysmic bombs.

The award of the roughly $1.3-million Cdn prize comes amid heightened tensions over both North Korea's aggressive development of nuclear weapons and U.S. President Donald Trump's persistent criticism of the deal to curb Iran's nuclear program.

The group "has been a driving force in prevailing upon the world's nations to pledge to co-operate ... in efforts to stigmatize, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons," the Nobel committee chair said in the announcement.

Geneva-based ICAN has campaigned actively for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons adopted by the United Nations in July, but it needs ratification from 50 countries. Only three countries have ratified it so far. Canada didn't participate in treaty negotiations and has not signed onto it.

Nobel Peace Prize awarded to nuclear watchdog1:10

"We live in a world where the risk of nuclear weapons being used is greater than it has been for a long time," said Berit Reiss-Andersen, leader of the Norwegian Nobel Committee.

Speaking at a news conference after the announcement, ICAN executive director Beatrice Fihn said the hours since the win have been "a bit overwhelming."

The prize, she said, is a tribute to the "tireless efforts" of anti-nuclear weapons campaigners around the world. ICAN leaders later popped open some bubbly to celebrate the prize, and held up a banner with the name of the organization in their small Geneva headquarters.

"We are trying to send very strong signals to all states with nuclear arms, nuclear-armed states — North Korea, U.S., Russia, China, France, U.K., Israel, all of them, India, Pakistan — it is unacceptable to threaten to kill civilians," Fihn said.

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Berit Reiss-Andersen, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, announces Friday that the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize goes to ICAN. (Heiko Junge/NTB scanpix/Associated Press)

She said all nations should reject the weapons before they are used again. Reiss-Andersen noted that similar prohibitions have been reached on chemical and biological weapons, land mines and cluster munitions.

"Nuclear weapons are even more destructive, but have not yet been made the object of a similar international legal prohibition," she said.

Last month in Berlin, ICAN protesters teamed up with other organizations to demonstrate outside the U.S. and North Korean embassies against the possibility of nuclear war between the two countries. Wearing masks of Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, protesters posed next to a dummy nuclear missile and a large banner reading "Time to Go: Ban Nuclear Weapons."

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Activists with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons protest against the conflict between North Korea and the U.S. with masks of U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean ruler Kim Jong-u in front of the U.S. Embassy in Berlin on Sept. 13. (Britta Pedersen/dpa/Associated Press)

The impact of the award may be to get more traction for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, says Beyza Unal, a Nuclear Weapons Policy expert with the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. The treaty is the first legally binding international agreement to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons, with the goal of leading toward their total elimination.

In an interview with CBC's Thomas Daigle, she said the award to ICAN should boost efforts to get the required 50 signatories for the treaty to go into effect. "We are at the tipping point where states could make a decision on where they'd like to go with regards to nuclear weapons," Unal said.

Dozens of countries, included Canada, were absent from treaty talks and did not vote. 

Oeivind Stenersen, a historian of the Nobel Peace Prize, told The Associated Press that the prize committee wanted "to send a signal to North Korea and the U.S. that they need to go into negotiations." 

He said, "The prize is also coded support to the Iran nuclear deal. I think this was wise because recognizing the Iran deal itself could have been seen as giving support to the Iranian state."

Former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev has hailed the committee's decision, saying it reinforces the position that he and Ronald Reagan took at the Reykjavik summit a generation ago. Gorbachev, who has himself campaigned against nuclear weapons since leaving office in 1991, said he was "very worried that military doctrines again allow the use of nuclear weapons."

He added in a statement: "I would like to remind about a joint statement we signed with Ronald Reagan: A nuclear war can't be won and must never be fought."

Although the 1986 Reykjavik meeting collapsed at the last minute, it led to the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty that banned all land-based cruise and ballistic missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometres.

Beyza Unal

Beyza Unal of the Royal Institute of International Affairs says the award to ICAN should boost efforts to get the required 50 signatories for the treaty to go into effect. (CBC)

Achieving the lofty goal of the treaty, eliminating nuclear weapons, may prove elusive. "Getting some success from the work is extremely hard," Unal says, referring to ICAN.

While advocates for the ban argued that the risks around nuclear weapons are too high, nuclear-armed states have long argued that the weapons act as a deterrent.

In March, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, said member states need to look at the current situation.

"There is nothing I want more for my family than a world with no nuclear weapons," Haley said. "But we have to be realistic. Is there anyone that believes that North Korea would agree to a ban on nuclear weapons?"

North Korea voted for the ban treaty but has not yet become a signatory.

'No right hands' for nuclear weapons

Two days before her organization won the Nobel Peace Prize, Fihn sent a tweet that turned awkward: "Donald Trump is a moron." Fihn told a news conference after the prize announcement that she was trying to make a joke, "which I kind of regret now," based on reports that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had said the same of Trump.

But, she added, "I think that the election of President Donald Trump has made a lot of people very uncomfortable with the fact that he alone can authorize the use of nuclear weapons."

She said Trump's election has put a spotlight on what "nuclear weapons really mean," saying there are "no right hands for the wrong weapons."

Asked by journalists whether the prize was essentially symbolic, given that no international measures against nuclear weapons have been reached, Reiss-Andersen said, "What will not have an impact is being passive."

With files from CBC News and Melissa Kent