Teaching Disarmament and Non-Proliferation

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Article
  • 2012•09•06

    Madoka Futamura and Nicholas Turner

    Knotted Gun

    UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

    In early August, the world commemorated the 67th anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — events that stand as tragic testament to the devastating effects of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).

    Such weapons remain among the greatest threats to international peace and security, and to humanity itself. However, small arms and light weapons are also a concern; it is estimated that these kill more than half a million people each year. The recently released Small Arms Survey 2012 estimates the annual value of the legal trade in such weapons at US$8.5 billion — more than double the level of 2006.

    International efforts towards disarmament and non-proliferation seek to address these threats, with the ultimate goal of general and complete disarmament under effective international control. Although considerable progress has been made, through a range of treaties and conventions, more than 20,000 nuclear weapons remain in existence, and recent efforts to negotiate a global treaty regulating the trade in conventional arms ended in failure.

    Disarmament and non-proliferation education

    Education can be a valuable tool for raising public awareness and empowering new generations to advance the disarmament and non-proliferation agenda. As noted by Secretary-General Kofi Annan in a landmark UN study in 2002, a new generation is growing up without the constant fear of nuclear war; we need to guard against ignorance and complacency as “what we know little about, we care little to do anything about”.

    The importance of disarmament and non-proliferation education (DNPE) was first acknowledged in an international setting at the tenth special session of the General Assembly (on disarmament) in 1978. Since then, a sense of urgency has been rising, in part because of the changing international security context, with the potential for WMD terrorism becoming a pressing global concern. With each passing year, there are also fewer and fewer opportunities to access the living memory of the hibakusha (atomic bombing survivors), a valuable testimony for understanding the inhumane nature of nuclear weapons.

    In the ten years since the UN study was adopted, although the value of DNPE has been widely recognized, its meaning and methods remain subject to many differing interpretations by the teachers, researchers, students, diplomats and non-governmental organizations involved in DNPE efforts. To explore the varied perspectives, on 10–11 August 2012 UNU brought together experts from these stakeholder groups at a Global Forum on Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Education in Nagasaki, co-organized with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan and Nagasaki City.

    Education for disarmament, or about disarmament?

    DNPE involves a much broader range of activities than traditional classroom teaching. For many non-governmental organizations and campaigners, DNPE is about embracing and promoting the concrete goal of total abolition of WMDs. They consider DNPE as primarily a form of advocacy, a way of building a social movement for action by appealing to universal moral values, often with less emphasis placed on developing objective analysis and scientific theory.

    But for academics and researchers, DNPE must cultivate critical thinking and an understanding of such complex issues as the realpolitik of international relations, the mechanisms of arms races, and arguments both for and against deterrence. This approach, which seeks an understanding of why states are motivated to develop and maintain weapons, welcomes diverse views (including the views of those who see the utility of nuclear weapons) and encourages people to understand — but not necessarily accept — different and conflicting arguments.

    Both of these perspectives are present in the 2002 UN study, which lists the first aim of DNPE as learning “how to think rather than what to think” about the issues, while at the same time embracing the overarching goal of empowering individuals to contribute to disarmament.

    This would seem to present an inherent contradiction, as encouraging individuals to critically examine (for example) the validity of “a world free of nuclear weapons” may potentially lead them to disagree with the goal of DNPE. Indeed, the relationship between the goals and approaches of DNPE — and between advocacy and education — is not without controversy. This point was evident throughout the discussions at the Global Forum.

    But in the absence of technical knowledge, skills and critical thinking, advocacy is less likely to influence policy. Similarly, there is clearly a moral element to any debate about disarmament, and achieving further progress requires advocacy to engage and mobilize people to work for positive change. The balance between education and advocacy has important practical implications not only for how DNPE is designed, but also for whom it targets.

    Education for whom?

    The discourse surrounding DNPE tends to focus on young people, schools and universities, and the need to educate future generations. But a broader view, adopted by the aforementioned UN study, sees it as a “lifelong and multifaceted process”. In that sense, DNPE is public education targeting all of society (including older generations, and policymakers).

    The challenge is how to convey the message and ethos of disarmament and non-proliferation broadly and deeply. Educators and activists are beginning to harness new technologies, such as the Internet, social media and distance learning, to enhance engagement with a broader audience and encourage more participatory learning.

    As one example, the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) provides online resources for teachers and students, including a “Cyber School Bus”. Such new technologies can be a powerful catalyst for raising global awareness, sharing information and prompting people to act for change.

    Sharing historical and contemporary experiences

    DNPE emphasizes the need to share knowledge and understanding of the devastating and inhumane impact of weapons. A number of NGOs and international organizations, for example, are working to share the eyewitness accounts of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki hibakusha with people around the world.

    Others have also been affected by radiation: from nuclear tests, or from accidents such as those at Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi. The Fukushima incident, in particular, raised global concerns about nuclear security and safety, and heightened people’s awareness of and interest in the effects of radiation. Such contemporary cases need to be shared and researched together with the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, so as to make the DNPE message more universal and relevant to a broader audience.

    At the Global Forum, educators discussed ongoing efforts to bring together various hibakusha and other victims of nuclear radiation, to share their views and teach young people about the impacts and dangers of radiation. (See outcomes of the Global Forum, summarized in the 2012 Nagasaki Declaration.)

    Advancing DNPE

    There is growing interest in DNPE, and as its tools and technologies evolve, there will be increased opportunities for such education to make a difference.

    However, there continue to be many different interpretations of what exactly DNPE is, and whom it should target. Currently, DNPE is implemented through a broad range of differing, innovative approaches that sometimes contradict, or even conflict with each other.

    The Global Forum showed that promoting interaction between the diverse actors involved in DNPE can enhance understanding of these disparate views and approaches, and forge new partnerships for collaboration. In particular, constructive engagement between governments and civil society (as promoted by UNU and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan in a 2012 working paper) has emerged as a promising model for future activities.

    Such initiatives will be essential for advancing DNPE, and for finding new and better ways for education to contribute to the ultimate goals of achieving a world without nuclear weapons and with better controls on conventional weapons.