28 September 2012
The anti-nuclear movement argues that the abolition of nuclear weapons is ultimately both desirable and possible. The movement’s recent fortunes, however, suggest a more complicated picture, as Lawrence Wittner’s profile of the movement demonstrates.
By Lawrence Wittner for United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR)
Editor’s Note: Today we feature Lawrence Wittner’s 2010 status report on the anti-nuclear movement, which was published by our partners at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR). Please remember that the report came out during a high-water mark of enthusiasm for nuclear abolition, which makes it as much of a social document as a profile of the abolitionist movement, the challenges it continues to face, and how it might strengthen itself in the future.
The vision of a world without nuclear weapons has not only inspired a widespread and important social movement in past decades, but continues to do so today. Nuclear disarmament is currently a central demand of the world peace movement—a complex network of organizations drawn together on the international and national levels, as well as on the basis of constituency. In addition, nuclear abolition garners the support of many other civil society groups, such as religious bodies, labour unions, environmental groups and political parties. Furthermore, much of the public also backs the development of a nuclear-weapon free world. This article will examine today’s activist campaign against nuclear weapons, as well as public opinion. It also will explore some of the obstacles faced by disarmament activists and discuss how the efficacy of their disarmament campaign might be improved.
The largest global peace association is the International Peace Bureau (IPB), founded over a century ago and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1910. The IPB consists of 320 member organizations in 70 countries, plus some 20 international networks. In addition to the work of its affiliates, over the past year the IPB has participated in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki commemorations of the atomic bombings of 1945, helped plan the major non-governmental organization (NGO) conference and rally at the opening of the 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, and supported groups working for a nuclear weapons abolition treaty (usually referred to as a Nuclear Weapons Convention). It has also produced a major study of nuclear weapons spending and other dimensions of the nuclear menace and participates in the Special NGO Committee on Disarmament in Geneva.
International associations of professionals also play key roles in the ongoing nuclear disarmament campaign. International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), another Nobel laureate (1985), has some 57,000 members and affiliates in 63 countries. As an organization of doctors and other healthcare professionals, IPPNW emphasizes the medical and public health dangers of nuclear weapons, as indicated in its recent publication, Zero is the Only Option. It makes presentations at United Nations events, at governmental and parliamentary briefings, at medical association meetings and at medical schools, and works to promote a Nuclear Weapons Convention.
The International Association of Lawyers against Nuclear Arms (IALANA), headquartered in Germany and with offices in the Pacific region, South Asia and the United States, has drawn upon the legal expertise of its members to work with IPPNW and the International Network of Engineers and Scientists against Proliferation (INESAP) in fashioning a model Nuclear Weapons Convention and championing its adoption. IALANA also presses for the application of international humanitarian law to nuclear weapons. INESAP is not a membership organization, but has built a network of hundreds of activists in 25 countries. It champions a nuclear abolition treaty and is active in addressing technical issues of disarmament, such as devising appropriate verification systems for a potential abolition treaty.
The nuclear disarmament movement draws on additional strength from a number of pacifist internationals. These include the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, Pax Christi and the War Resisters’ International. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) is particularly active in the anti-nuclear campaign, which it supports through its Reaching Critical Will project.
International organizing for nuclear disarmament has also made headway among politicians. Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, designed to encourage members of legislatures to become engaged in disarmament, now claims over 700 members of parliament from 75 countries. Mayors for Peace has been even more successful in building a worldwide movement. Headed by Hiroshima mayor Tadatoshi Akiba, Mayors for Peace has to date won the endorsement of mayors from 4,207 cities in 144 countries and regions. The organization champions the development of a nuclear-weapon-free world through meetings, presentations, letter-writing, loaning exhibition materials and other campaigning activities.
Peace organizations that agitate for nuclear disarmament also operate on the national level, and some have substantial memberships. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament UK, which is waging a spirited struggle against the modernization of the United Kingdom’s nuclear weapons programme and for a world without nuclear weapons, has 35,000 members. In the United States, Peace Action (the result of a merger between the Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy and the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign) claims 100,000 members and works at opposing modernization of the US nuclear weapons production complex, encouraging US ratification of nuclear disarmament treaties, and pressing for a nuclear weapons convention. Other large national organizations that champion nuclear disarmament include the Japan Council against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs and the Japan Congress against A- and H-Bombs, as well as France’s Mouvement de la Paix (Movement for Peace).
Of course, there is considerable membership overlap between international and national organizations. Even within a state, many individuals enroll in more than one group. Thus, an accurate count of the number of people who are members of peace and disarmament organizations is impossible to obtain. Nevertheless, it seems likely that people who belong to organizations that make nuclear disarmament a high priority number in the millions.
In addition, there are powerful international civil society organizations that, despite their focus on other issues, support nuclear disarmament and provide it with enhanced credibility. These include the International Trade Union Confederation (which gathered millions of signatures on a nuclear abolition petition in the run-up to the 2010 NPT Review Conference), the International Committee of the Red Cross (which long ago called for the abolition of nuclear weapons and continues to do so), the World Council of Churches (which recently renewed its demand for a nuclear-weapon-free world), and Greenpeace. Powerful political parties— especially in the Socialist International, the world body of social democratic and socialist parties—also champion nuclear disarmament and the development of a nuclear-weapon free world. Sometimes the relationship of these kinds of mass organizations with nuclear disarmament groups is quite close. For example, the UK Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament has trade union affiliates with over a million members.
In recent years, disarmament organizations have utilized new technologies to reach out to members of these sympathetic civil society organizations and to the general public. The Internet, of course, provides disarmament groups with the opportunity to use mass e-mail messages and listservs to reach their own members and mobilize them for action. Just as important, however, the development of attractive websites and the electronic forwarding of messages assist such groups to secure a larger public audience for their ideas and activities, as well as to attract financial contributions and new members. The rapid growth of electronic publications is particularly useful for disarmament activists, as these new media enable them to break out of the confines of the older, more conservative print publications and television networks. Social networking, too, is helpful to disarmament groups, for it is conducive to linkages and interest group formation.
Anti-nuclear organizations have initiated a number of campaigns for the abolition of nuclear weapons. The oldest of them is probably Abolition 2000, which was organized in 1995 because of dismay among disarmament NGOs that states parties, in renewing the NPT, had left the elimination of nuclear weapons off the agenda. During the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, a number of NGOs got together and signed the Abolition Statement. Since then, Abolition 2000 has grown to over 2,000 organizations in more than 90 states, but remains a very loose, largely unstructured network, without much focus or common direction for the activities of participating organizations.
A smaller, but more dynamic and more sharply defined venture began in 2006 with the establishment of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). Initiated by IPPNW and inspired by the successful International Campaign to Ban Landmines (as well as the failure of the 2005 NPT Review Conference), ICAN today has the backing of more than 200 organizations in 60 countries, including IPPNW, IALANA, the International Network of Scientists and Engineers for Global Responsibility, Mayors for Peace, Pax Christi International, WILPF, the International Trade Union Confederation and the World Federation of United Nations Associations. It focuses on commencing international negotiations for a Nuclear Weapons Convention, and it produces materials in support of this. Three additional nuclear abolition campaigns should be noted. Mayors for Peace supports other efforts, including ICAN, but has also promoted its own campaign since November 2003. Called the 2020 Vision Campaign, it is designed to rally support for the elimination of nuclear weapons by the year 2020. It has been endorsed by the parliament of the European Union, the US Conference of Mayors and the Japan Association of City Mayors, among others. The Middle Powers Initiative, founded in 1998, is a collaboration among eight international NGOs and “middle power” governments. Together, they work to convince nuclear-weapon states to take immediate steps to reduce nuclear dangers and begin negotiations to eliminate nuclear weapons. Finally, Global Zero, established by a group of high-ranking political and military leaders in December 2008, is working to build support for stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons, securing all nuclear materials, and ultimately eliminating all nuclear weapons. As befits a rather “Establishment” movement, Global Zero is a top-down effort focused on garnering elite support. It has steered clear of peace and disarmament groups, although it is making efforts to appeal to the general public, for example through promotion of the film Countdown to Zero.
These nuclear disarmament organizations and campaigns have done much to contribute to the widespread support nuclear disarmament enjoys among the general public. An opinion poll conducted in 21 states around the world during 2008 found that, in 20 countries, large majorities—ranging from 62% to 93%—favoured an international agreement for the elimination of all nuclear weapons. Even in the one holdout state (Pakistan), 46% (a plurality) supported it. Overall, an average of 76% of respondents favoured such an agreement and only 16% opposed it. Among non-nuclear states, support for nuclear weapons abolition was 65% in Turkey, 67% in Thailand, 68% in Iran, 70% in Azerbaijan and in the Palestinian territories, 80% in Ukraine, 81% in Indonesia, 83% in Egypt, 86% in Nigeria and the Republic of Korea, 87% in Mexico, 93% in Argentina and 96% in Kenya. Even among the nuclear powers, there was broad support for nuclear abolition, including 62% in India, 67% in Israel, 69% in the Russian Federation, 77% in the United States, 81% in the United Kingdom, 83% in China and 87% in France.
The May 2010 NPT Review Conference in New York provided an excellent opportunity for the nuclear abolition movement to mobilize this support. One of the high points of this mobilization occurred on 30 April and 1 May, when an international conference, “For a Nuclear Free, Peaceful, Just and Sustainable World”, convened in New York City’s Riverside Church. Welcomed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, approximately 1,000 activists from 25 countries came together to exchange information and ideas. On 2 May, thousands of activists participated in an international nuclear abolition rally in Times Square, a march to the UN Headquarters and a peace festival in Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza. Two days later, in the UN General Assembly Hall, the organizers of the mobilization presented the United Nations with more than 17 million petition signatures calling for commencement of negotiations on a nuclear abolition treaty.
Lawrence S. Wittner is Professor of History Emeritus at the State University of New York at Albany. His latest book is Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, 2009).
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