Achieving Disarmament: Strengths and Weaknesses of International NGOs

The author stresses the importance of NGOs working collectively to reduce risks associated with nuclear weapons proliferation, and highlights how one program, the Strategic Concept for the Removal of Arms and Proliferation (SCRAP), can effectively create the needed synergy between all such NGO’s, while complimenting other existing campaigns to end the risks associated with nuclear weapons proliferation.

By Akhshid Javid,6th December, 2015

The Rise of the Global Movement for Disarmament 

Since 1945, nuclear disarmament has been a concern for many organizations around the world.  Moreover, there have been strong waves of public support for disbandment of nuclear weapons across the globe over the last 50 years.

Small pacifist organizations and main religious groups voiced some of the earliest concerns after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed during World War II. This led to the formation of scientific groups and organizations with the goal of spreading the word about the dangers of nuclear warfare, while also mobilizing public support to ban nuclear weapons.1

The first wave of activism, after the atomic bombings in 1945, lost momentum as the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union assumed center-stage in global politics. However, when nuclear arms testing, especially that of the H-bomb, commenced during the late 1950s and early 1960s, the opposition came back with even greater fervor. Prominent intellectuals such as Albert Einstein, Linus Pauling, and Albert Schweitzer joined voice with the protest movement against testing and developing nuclear weapons. American and Soviet scientists held conferences on the danger of nuclear weapons, as illustrated in the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.

Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) with a concern about the use of nuclear weapons started forming globally. Such NGOs include the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in Australia, Britain, Canada, and New Zealand, the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) in the United States, Struggle Against Atomic Death in West Germany, and Movement Against Atomic Armaments in France. Anti-nuclear literature was widely circulated in the years following the nuclear bombing of Japan, and many advertisements with haunting images were published. Rallies were also organised throughout the world to protest against the development of nuclear weapons. Even in Communist nations, courageous individuals such as Russian nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov challenged the official nuclear policy.2

Public support, however, waned between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s as a decade of protests, publications, and advertisements led to the partial test ban treaty in 1963, which prohibited nuclear weapons testing above ground. In addition, the Vietnam War and its humanitarian dimensions led to activists shifting their focus away from the development of nuclear weapons.

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, the presence of radioactive contamination near nuclear power plants, notably after the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, revived anti-nuclear weapons activism. In addition, the Vietnam War had finally come to an end encouraging activists to return to the nuclear weapons debate. This led to the old anti-nuclear weapons organizations resuming operation, and new organizations forming.

By 1980, several groups banded together to oppose nuclear weapons even enlarging their opposition to encompass the new types of Euromissiles developed by both NATO and USSR. The fervor over banning nuclear weapons hit perhaps its highest point after 1980 due to the Reagan administration continually talking of an impending nuclear war. Many NGOs held protest demonstrations. Other demonstrations were held around the world even in East Germany, China, and the Soviet Union.3

Vocal Players

Many governments and NGOs have recognized the importance of disarmament education as a key factor in working toward disbandment of nuclear weapons. Education focused on disarmament helps reduce support for armed conflict and violence. For the past 30 years, the NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace, and Security has made education part of its mission to inform NGOs all over the world on the positions of various nations vis-à-vis nuclear warfare. This is to help monitor the status of nuclear treaties, and to deliberate on challenges and opportunities in controlling the world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons.4 The NGO Committee also enables NGOs to connect with governments to educate the latter on the risks of nuclear warfare.

Due to the involvement of NGOs in the negotiations of various treaties, particularly the Arms Trade Treaty that came into effect on December 24, 2014, more nation-states have recognized the danger of nuclear armaments for the world, and the lack of expertise in dealing with various nuclear issues. More governments have called upon these NGOs to provide critical information at various conferences and international fora on the dangers of nuclear warfare, to help formulate policies aimed at winning more nations not to resort to nuclear warfare in the future.

NGOs helped bring about the partial test ban, which eventually led to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty of 1996.  A key factor was The Parliamentarians for Global Action, an NGO composed of 1,000 state legislators from 80 different countries, which was cohesive and unified in its efforts.5

Certain well-established NGOs that provide fairly impartial information on all UN member states, even on those whose support they enjoy, are permitted to attend and observe meetings such as those at the UN offices in New York and Geneva. This kind of arrangement raises awareness and cooperation between the NGO community and the member states. The member states that either disapprove of these NGOs, or the treaties they support, choose to cooperate with the NGOs anyway in order to disseminate their own viewpoints around the world. Thus, establishing institutional relationships with the United Nations, and state authorities, is critically important for NGOs, not only for gaining and disseminating information but also for securing political and financial support.6

Nevertheless, organizations such as Landmine Monitor, and Reaching Critical Will, have to rely on their own for continued operation and success. When it comes to individual experts, having good connections with governments is very important because governments decide whether to assign these experts on official missions to be part of official delegations. It is, therefore, essential for such experts to enjoy the backing of a country’s government in order to be able to represent that country at international events. Having, thus, secured official sanction, security clearance, etc., their participation is facilitated at official meetings, a license which NGOs do not automatically receive.7  

One Goal, Several Agendas 

International NGOs have played a pivotal role in advancing disarmament-related issues at international, regional and national levels in the last few decades. It is, however, believed that due to differences in ideologies and agendas, many NGOs today are not as unified in their efforts as they were in the past in order to effect meaningful change in the non-proliferation and disarmament of nuclear weapons.8 This was quite evident during the 1995 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review and Extension Conferences. On a more recent and positive note, the Fourth Humanitarian Disarmament Forum held in October this year on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly First Committee on Disarmament and International Security in New York, brought together dozens of NGOs and activists from all parts of the world. There they shared their ideas, and deliberated on joint work at future campaigns.9 However, they concentrated on specific areas of interest and they did not seem to have a single guideline for the broader disarmament agenda. Metaphorically, one could say that they were looking at the individual pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and not the big picture.

The key for the NGOs of today to effect meaningful change is in their ability to come together, unite their agendas, and merge resources in order to put increased pressure on nation-states to adopt meaningful provisions that will result in actual reduction of nuclear armaments, and their proliferation throughout the world. Unity is one of the most vital elements of the success of NGOs work. The success of such unity was recently demonstrated in 2013, when The Arms Trade Treaty originally called for the number of state ratifications to be set at 65 but was eventually reduced to 50 thanks to the sustained efforts of the civil society coalition Control Arms.10

NGOs working in unity can have a major influence in effecting meaningful change on reducing risks associated with nuclear weapons proliferation. Without working together, NGOs would risk losing influence. This is recently demonstrated by the NGOs involved the Control Arms Campaign.  There, the NGOs wanted the number of ratifications for the Arms Trade Treaty reduced to 30, but only succeeded in reducing it by 15 votes instead of 35.11 Other important aspects that Control Arms wanted in the treaty were also watered down. This demonstrates that in order to exercise more influence in future negotiations on treaties governing nuclear weapons, NGOs must be more unified in their goals and approach.

World on a Knife Edge

Due to an array of new threats from such sources as ISIS, nuclear disarmament has become a back-burner issue. Unfortunately, this has led to the international community taking steps to keep nuclear warfare as an option in their armaments. Both the United States and Russia are threatening to withdraw from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Treaty after each accuses the other of having already violated it. While Saudi Arabia has indicated its willingness to possess a nuclear bomb even buying it from Pakistan if need be, 12 the United States has vetoed Egypt’s proposal for a nuclear-weapons-free-zone in the Middle East largely in support of its ally Israel which reportedly maintains 400 undeclared nuclear warheads in its arsenal.13 The United Kingdom and Canada second the US veto.14

Due to the recent Paris attacks and growing tensions in “hot zone” areas such as Ukraine, the South China Sea, and the Middle East, Syria in particular, more countries are looking toward boosting their own national security. This includes the development of their weapons arsenals, including nuclear warheads. The United States and the Russian Federation have slightly increased their numbers of nuclear warheads over the past year, while both countries are investing large sums of money to modernize their weapons programs.15 India, China, and most of the Middle East countries entertain similar plans with regard to their weapons programs.16 As a result of these factors, the process of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament have not only stalled but have actually also lost ground in recent years.

It goes without saying that the world is at a critical crossroad and the costs of overlooking it can be too high – as history has taught us.

Time to Unify Fragmented Disarmament Efforts 

Undoubtedly, more work is needed to effectively meet today’s collective security challenges, assist practitioners in multilateral disarmament negotiations and make the current disarmament mechanisms more effective.

One way of revitalizing the disarmament processes is to call on international disarmament NGOs, who work across a range of issues separately, to engage and collaborate with each other more cohesively so as to develop synergy in disarmament and the non-proliferation realm. The good news is that the SCRAP program (Strategic Concept for the Removal of Arms and Proliferation) could act as an umbrella in unifying the goals of the NGO community.

This comprehensive strategy, developed by the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS University of London, is in accord with Article 26 of the United Nations Charter and seeks to reinvigorate disarmament processes and offer alternatives to the current fragmentary, limited, step-by-step approaches by proposing the adoption of an internationally legally binding agreement for complete and general disarmament.

It aims at building a feasible global disarmament program, encompassing the elimination of all WMD and their delivery mechanisms, reduction and regulation of conventional armaments, and the promotion of global and regional confidence-building and security-promoting measures around military exercises and operations.

Rather than seeking to replace existing disarmament campaigns, SCRAP seeks to complement them by energizing the debate on global disarmament through a holistic approach and by drawing upon, updating and globalizing existing disarmament best practices. It aims at compiling these into a draft resolution to be tabled for adoption at international forums including the UN General Assembly’s First Committee, the UN Security Council, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and other relevant bodies.

SCRAP is a multi-stakeholder project bringing together a cross-national group of officials, practitioners, academics and students in order to foster dialogue and encourage ambitious and out of the box thinking about disarmament for agenda in the twenty-first century. SCRAP also supports a range of other disarmament campaigns, including the International Campaign to Ban Nuclear Weapons, the International Action Network on Small Arms and the Global Campaign on Military Spending.

Disarmament is an incredibly complex, long and arduous process with many reversals along the way. Yet its ultimate goal is clear. Using the metaphor of climbing a mountain, Professor Sam Nunn, a former US Senator, had once likened the goal of a world without nuclear weapons to the peak of a very tall mountain; because it is not fully visible from the base, it is tempting to think that the climb is impossible; yet paths are visible which lead to higher ground where other paths appear; each advance towards the summit reveals not only new challenges and obstacles but also new possibilities for reaching the desired goal.17


1 Wittner, Lawrence S., John Burroughs, Susi Snyder. The Role of NGOs in Achieving Disarmament. Web. 18 Nov. 2004. <>



4“Disarmament  Education.” Web. <>

5 Oppedisano, Sampson, “Examining The Influence and Critical Role NGOs & Civil Society Play In Disarmament and Arms Control Treaties and Negotiations” (2015).

6 Estabrooks, Sarah, “Opportunity, Tools and Support: NGO Engagement in the Security and Disarmament Field” (2008).Theses and Dissertations (Comprehensive). Paper 889.



  1. Control Arms Press Release Web <>  26 October 2015

10 Estabrooks, Sarah, “Opportunity, Tools and Support: NGO Engagement in the Security and Disarmament Field” (2008).Theses and Dissertations (Comprehensive). Paper 889.

11 Oppedisano, Sampson, “Examining The Influence and Critical Role NGOs & Civil Society Play In Disarmament and Arms Control Treaties and Negotiations” (2015)

12 Boardman, William, “No Progress on Nuclear Weapons Control – As Planned. Disarmament isn’t Happening….” Global Research: Centre for Research on Globalisation. 04 June 2015.                                              Web <>

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.

17 Cortright, David, Vayrunen, Raimo., “Towards Nuclear Zero” (2010), P144.

Dr. Akhshid Javid works part-time as Project Researcher for Strategic Concept for the Removal of Arm and Proliferation Program at the Centre for International Studies & Diplomacy of SOAS University of London.  During 2006-2013 he was diplomat at the Embassies & Permanent Missions of Afghanistan to the United Nations in Geneva and European Union in Brussels.

Prior to joining the Afghan Foreign Service, he worked as a researcher for a Member of the European Parliament with a seat in the House of Lords.

He received a PhD in International Relations from the Geneva School of Diplomacy (2011), M.A (2006) and B.Sc. (2001) from the Middlesex University. 


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