Students Tackle Nuclear Weapons Abolition

Seminar Promotes Inventive Thinking In Response to Global Challenges

By Lillian I

On October 14, the Center welcomed fifteen students from eight Boston-area universities to its first-ever student peace seminar. The session, the first of two, was conceptualized and facilitated by pioneering feminist peace educator Betty Reardon and Zeena Zakharia, Assistant Professor of International and Comparative Education at UMass Boston. With Center founder Daisaku Ikeda’s 2009 nuclear abolition proposal as a guide, the facilitators and students tackled the challenge of abolishing nuclear weapons and how to engage, empower, and inspire civil society to take action on one of the world's most pressing issues.   

At the beginning of the seminar, Dr. Reardon said, “Welcome to learning together. Welcome to trying to build a little community for one day in which we can share our hopes and possibilities for peace and the abolition of nuclear weapons.” She then shared her thoughts on the recent Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on July 7, and said to the students, “We have a treaty, we have a goal, we have a lot of work to do, and we are going to do it together.”

seminar

At the beginning of the seminar, the students, representing eight nationalities and a number of fields of study, shared the concerns that drew them to this gathering, including the question of whether nuclear weapons can really be abolished, a lack of concern amongst civil society on the issue, and a fundamental distrust between individuals, groups, and countries. Adding a nuanced insight to the conversation, one student remarked that her friend, a Bosnian refugee, finds a sense of comfort in the power and protection that comes with nuclear weapons.

For the rest of the day, they engaged in what Dr. Reardon called “a learning process and a very difficult struggle” on the challenge of nuclear abolition. She expressed her admiration for how Mr. Ikeda's peace proposals demonstrate his capacity to envision alternatives to the present realities such as a world without nuclear weapons and to engage in the inventive thinking required to design and describe actual policy steps toward the realization of the vision. Dr. Reardon also encouraged the students, observing that they, too, have the capacity to emulate Mr. Ikeda’s approach. “What we have to do," she said, "is ask the right questions and use those questions to deepen our thinking.”

For one of their main activities, students were asked to identify similarities and differences between Mr. Ikeda’s 2009 Nuclear Abolition Proposal and the recently adopted UN nuclear ban treaty. Students remarked that both the proposal and the treaty recognize the ethical imperative of a nuclear free world and the responsibility of all nations and states to uphold and protect people’s rights to live. One student noted the inaccessibility of United Nations language, and felt that Mr. Ikeda’s proposal contained more readily achievable actions for civil society and placed more emphasis on the importance of public engagement.

In response to this latter point, one student asked, “How do we make people care and how do we give them a way to voice their care? How do we make caring cool?” Another student commented, “It needs to be taught to young people from the beginning that nuclear weapons is not an option that brings security.”

Zeena Zakharia

Students had the opportunity to practice what they learned by engaging another participant in dialogue, with one taking the role of an advocate of nuclear abolition and the other the role of a skeptic. Before the dialogue exercise, Dr. Zakharia (above) clarified, “Your goal is not to win an argument. The goal is to really listen to the concerns and fears of the other person and move together in conversation in order to gain a deeper understanding of each other.” Dr. Reardon also offered questions the students might think about when engaging someone in dialogue: What do they think is really important and worth struggling for? What motivates them? What are they scared of? Why does that fear make so much sense to them but you don’t quite get it?

After the dialogue role-play, students reflected that one common obstacle was the issue of trust. “If I get rid of my nuclear weapons,” the skeptics repeated, “will you really get rid of yours?” Dr. Reardon encouraged the participants to ponder this point further, saying, “Fundamentally, if we cannot trust each other, in the end, we cannot live together.”

At the conclusion of the seminar, the facilitators encouraged the students to “start their own campaign” and think about what they might do to inspire civil society to take action on the issue.  This same cohort of students will gather again in February 2018 to report their experiences and continue the dialogue. Dr. Reardon recommended three things for them to consider in the interim as they deepen their engagement with the challenge of nuclear abolition.

  • the institution of war, looking at how it functions in order to see how nuclear weapons put that system and all life in jeopardy,
  • the climate crisis and its interrelation with nuclear weapons as two existential threats to our survival, and
  • gender justice, meaning not just equality between men and women, but a transformation of a world of hierarchy and differential power into a world where women are recognized as full human beings endowed with dignity. The rising of women is the rising of the whole human race.

To conclude, Dr. Reardon, now in her late-80s, expressed her great joy at the results of the seminar and remarked, ”I want to know what the world would be like when you all are 40 years old. I think it would be a world I’d be very happy to be in, because I’ve been very happy to be with you today.”

Although many students had, at the outset of the seminar, expressed their apprehension about a lack of knowledge about issues related to nuclear weapons, by the end of the day they reported a remarkable transformation, saying that they now felt empowered and motivated to discuss the issue of the abolition of nuclear weapons among their friends, in their social networks, and at their universities.

 

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