Antonios Eskander, Laura Varella and Laveen Safary



This research paper addresses the role public opinion can play in national and international disarmament movements; and proposes some recommendations as to how public opinion could be used to facilitate and expedite the entry into force of Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT); particularly through its ratification by the United States, and other states that are yet to sign and ratify the treaty.

1. Introduction

The Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBTO) is an international organization established by the States Signatories to the Treaty on 19th November 1996 and has its headquarters in Vienna, Austria. The objective of the CTBTO itself (once established following the treaty’s entry into force) will be to achieve the object and purpose of the Treaty, to ensure the implementation of its provisions, including those for international verification of compliance with the Treaty; and to provide a forum for consultation and cooperation among Member States. To this end, the Commission prepares for the entry-into-force of the Treaty and carries out the necessary preparations for the effective implementation of the Treaty, including the establishment of the verification regime as stipulated under the treaty. The Preparatory Commission consists of a plenary body composed of all States signatories to the Treaty and the Provisional Technical Secretariat.

CTBT prohibits “any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion’’ anywhere in the world. This treaty was opened for signature in September 1996. It has been signed so far by 185 nations and ratified by 170 nations. However, the treaty cannot enter into force until its ratification by 44 specific nations; 8 of which are yet to do so. These nations are namely; China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Iran, Israel, Egypt and the United States[1]. Ratification by the United States would be a major step towards universal ratification of the CTBT, but since the Senate’s refusal to give its advice and consent under the Clinton administration, momentum to put the CTBT in front of the Senate again has largely stalled.

It has not stalled completely, though. The issue is being considered at different level, including high-level ones; the lists of signatory and ratifying states continues to grow. But there has been no breakthrough in changing the stalled situation as far as attitudes of states, whose joining the treaty is indispensable, is concerned. This calls for reflection on all sides, including the civil society, about the need for new approaches that may have a potential for change[2].

In this paper the authors attempt to highlight some possible approaches to addressing this task. They look at some historical experience, where civil action has been helpful in putting the CTBT as a priority issue for international negotiations in late 1980s - early 1990s and at the history of successful work by the civil society aimed at facilitating the negotiations on and entry into force of another nuclear weapons related treaty – TPNW.


2. Brief look into the history

Grassroot movements mobilize individuals to take actions that are intended to influence social and political issues. They are considered bottom-up, rather than top-down efforts. This comes from their ability to harness the effort of ordinary people whose shared sense of justice and knowledge about a given issue can be used to influence policymakers. In growing the seeds of an idea into a flourishing cause through increased participation in the political process, grassroots movements are often said to create a sense of democracy; government by the people.


Nevada-Semipalatinsk experience

On the 28th February, 1989; in Almaty, Kazakhstan, the community gathered to listen to what Suleymenov envisioned in his campaign as a contender for the Supreme Council of the Communist Party of Kazakh SSR. Unpredictably, he began talking about the Semipalatinsk nuclear testing site and its lethal effect on citizens of Kazakhstan living downwind. His speech was quite bold, indicating his determination on the nuclear issue. He had the guts to voice a problem that had been in peoples’ minds all along, but no one could dare talk about. The meeting attendees came for a simple talk, but ended up leaving with greater purpose. After two days, Suleymenov formally announced the beginning of the antinuclear movement. From that moment a new story emerged; a story of the antinuclear movement in Kazakh land. The movement rapidly gained support from citizens of Kazakh demanding the closure of the testing site as mentioned by Suleymenov. This site was located in Semipalatinsk (now Semey). Thousands of people united in campaigns against nuclear weapons. The antinuclear campaign office was working around-the-clock receiving calls and letters from different parts of Kazakhstan and different organizations keen to help out. Several meetings and peace marches were organized throughout the year, receiving attention from the highest levels of power in the Soviet Union. The antinuclear protests were nonviolent and not suppressed by state power. The Kazakh SSR administration appeared to be supportive in organizing the peace marches.

Precedence was set by Nevada Semipalatinsk Antinuclear Movement (NSAM) in voicing the distresses of people from the Semipalatinsk region; the moment this movement had gained mass support by reaching the general public through this NSAM and Regional administration, district administrations, public institutions in districts and in Semipalatinsk, local media and institutional approach. Specifically, people in support of NSAM started addressing their concerns regarding nuclear tests to official administrations, causing a chain reaction. For instance, every district deputy addressed their appeals to the Regional Council of the Communist Party, and then deputies of Semipalatinsk region addressed the same appeal to the Supreme Council of KazSSR. In turn, all deputies of KasSSR addressed the appeal, requesting a Test Ban to the Supreme Council of USSR.

Examining the pattern of communication during 1989, we can see the evolution of an antinuclear mood among people who were officially addressing their worries to Soviet administrations. Even though both NDE and NSAM had the very same request of banning nuclear tests, the nature of their arguments differed based on the socio-economic status of each society. For example, NDE’s antinuclear arguments were mainly framed in terms of the religious beliefs and values of the protesters. Meanwhile, the arguments proposed by NSAM reflected basic needs: health and environmental security. Nonetheless, protesters from both KazSSR and the U.S. shared one noble idea: establishing peace in the world by rejecting the use of nuclear weapons. Therefore, both NDE and NSAM expressed a willingness to collaborate with each other in order to convince their governments to adopt a Nuclear Test Ban.

In the meantime, the same protests arose in the United States at a nuclear testing site in Nevada, uniting religious groups and environmentalists. However, in contrast with the protesters in Kazakhstan, Nevada antinuclear activists had been struggling with state suppression: 687 people were arrested in 1989 during what activists called the Lenten Desert Experience protests. Despite that, on September 24th, antinuclear activists from Nevada Desert Experience (NDE) encircled the Department of Energy building in Las Vegas in order to display their cohesion with Kazakh counterparts and to commemorate Soviet Union's 40th anniversary of the nuclear testing program[3]. Nevada Desert Experience became a persistent group representing long-term antinuclear activism. Ultimately, the group, which had started with simple protests at the end of the 1960s, evolved into an organization by the 1990s that was promoting the Test Ban Treaty concept at the legislative level.[4]

However, the antinuclear movement in the U.S. has a deeper history with a more complicated context than the antinuclear movement in the USSR. The U.S. case of nuclear brawl generated more than 80 groups challenging for either a partial test ban or a total freeze of nuclear testing. The early surge of antinuclear protests had its origins in the 1960s at the high peak of the Cold War, when about 50,000 women marched in 60 cities in the U.S. Large antinuclear demonstrations transpired throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Precisely 65,000 people were in attendance at a rally and match against nuclear power in May 1979 in Washington, D.C. In September of the same year in New York City, almost 200,000 people attended a protest against nuclear power. Antinuclear protests pave the way for a shutdown of a dozen nuclear power plants. Over the long haul, the American antinuclear movement took a legalistic and an assimilative direction.[5]

The above shows that the social society movements against nuclear testing in USSR/Russia and Kazakhstan, on the one hand, and in the USA on the other, managed to capitalize on the range of popular concerns by involving and integrating environmental, human security and ideological and religious factors. They succeeded in creating political environment conducive to successful negotiations on the CTBT, culminating in 1996 with the adoption of the text of the treaty and its opening for signature. But over time that was not enough ensure its entry into force. [6]


The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and its role in the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW)

A recent example of the essential role of civil society in the negotiations and adoption of a treaty is the work of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) regarding the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2017 and entered into force in January 2021. The treaty was a product of a partnership between civil society, international organizations and non-nuclear weapons states that, in the period of seven years, were able to negotiate a binding instrument that banned the development, testing, production, manufacture, acquisition, possession, or stockpile of nuclear weapons.

ICAN was launched in 2007 by several players who were frustrated with the lack of results within official arms control and disarmament institutions, particularly the Conference on Disarmament (CD) and the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). In those forums, nuclear-armed states controlled the narrative by insisting that nuclear weapons were a guarantee of their own security and that of their allies, while demanding that all other states adhere to a non-proliferation regime.[7] Hence, for almost seventy years nuclear-states refused to make meaningful progress on nuclear disarmament, which encouraged other players, who were systematically excluded from those discussions despite their interest in the agenda, to think of alternatives for achieving their goal of a global nuclear disarmament.

A bit earlier, two humanitarian disarmament campaigns achieved great success and strongly inspired the creation of ICAN: The International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) and the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC). The Oslo Process began in 2007 and the Cluster Munitions Convention was signed in 2008,[8] and ICAN was able to draw many lessons from those experiences.[9] One of those lessons was the fact that the treaty could be negotiated and adopted without the participation of nuclear-states. The lack of consensus in the agenda was one of the reasons why no progress has been achieved in the past decades, and ICAN decided to move forward, working with a small group of states and then pushing others to participate.[10] Nuclear-armed states evidently boycotted the negotiations and proclaimed their refusal to join, but the negotiations continued and some argue that the fact that the process could not be dominated and undermined by states opposed to its goals produced a new set of legal, political, and moral norms that are both clear and strong.[11]

Another lesson drawn by the landmine and cluster munitions campaigns was the need to incorporate a humanitarian approach to the discourse of nuclear weapons. The narrative created by the nuclear states was developed around the argument of nuclear deterrence, in which nuclear weapons were necessary for the protection of their people. The TPNW – and the process that produced it – changed this discourse, until now focused primarily as a security policy issue, by placing the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons at centre stage. Thus, the discussion around nuclear weapons became a discussion on the physical and psychological consequences experienced by people, and the effect on the environment, which inevitably brought the public closer to the debate.[12] In this regard, the role of climate scientists and the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) was fundamental in providing evidence that even a limited nuclear war would result in a nuclear winter that would threaten the food security of billions of people.[13]

The change of narrative also gave voice to groups of stakeholders who were not traditionally engaged in the nuclear weapons disarmament debate, such as organizations’ that work with humanitarian affairs, human rights, emergency relief and the environment[14]. By broadening the community, ICAN diversified the players and the arguments around nuclear disarmament, which was key to achieve a positive outcome. As stated by Acheson: “We actively sought to break down barriers, build up capacity, and bring people along, particularly those not normally engaged in thinking or acting against nuclear weapons.”[15]

Therefore, the triumph of the campaign can be credited to its efforts in democratizing the debate. First because it moved the discussion from forums where nuclear-states have more influence to places, such as the General Assembly, where each country has one vote and numbers make a difference in negotiations. Second because it amplified the discussion on nuclear weapons by framing it under a humanitarian approach, increased transparency during the negotiations and made the language more accessible to the general public, which facilitated the work of local groups in applying pressure domestically to their governments. Finally, the campaign broadened the scope of actors that participated in the treaty negotiations, bringing an important transformation in the field of international law making. Thus, the role played by civil society as an active participant in the TPNW negotiations was key to achieve a positive outcome to nuclear disarmament and to demonstrate the potential that civil society has in treaty negotiations, which will certainly impact other movements in the years to come.

One caveat has to be made here: the successful work of ICAN has not brought about fundamental change of attitude towards the TPNW in the nuclear weapon possessor states, and this is precisely the category of states which deserves particular attention from the CTBT NGO community (despite the fact that France, Russia and the UK have ratified the CTBT).

Several practices employed by the ICAN to promote ratification of the TPNW by a number of states, which allowed its relatively quick entry into force, may be of relevance for the civil society work to promote the CTBT. Among them are:

  • Active engagement with a variety of think tanks, including those, whose agenda may differ from goal of complete nuclear disarmament;
  • Well-orchestrated and well targeted approaches to national and local politicians, members of parliaments and state officials, including individual letters, appeals, signed by famous personalities and opinion leaders from various walks of life;
  • Good formulation of arguments, appealing to politically active groups of population, which is based on serious public opinion research, in parallel with research of governmental policies in a variety of countries;
  • Active work on the margins of various inter-governmental and non-governmental conferences and meetings, not necessarily devoted to the total prohibition of nuclear weapons;
  • Ability to identify and engage individual state official and high-level diplomats in order to promote the TPNW course.


3. Conclusion and Recommendations

The following elements have contributed greatly to the success of CTBT entry into force and should be considered strongly as ways of encouraging its ratification:

  • Focus on energizing civil society and public opinion in the United States in order to encourage ratification.
  • Encourage civil society to promote histories of negative impacts on people and land in the United States and elsewhere that resulted from nuclear testing.
  • Target constituencies that are likely to push their senators towards CTBT ratification.
  • Further a humanitarian discourse by disclosing data about the consequences of nuclear tests and include victims from nuclear testing in meetings with relevant players and events to the general public;
  • Include victims’ perspectives and amplify their experiences in order to raise awareness about nuclear testing and the importance of the CTBT.
  • Increase academic and popular interest in the stories of downwinders and the effects of testing in American communities through the commissioning of historians and providing downwinder communities platforms to share their experiences.
  • Increase public participation in the decision making process by sharing all governments positions regarding the entry into force of the CTBT and by promoting discussions around nuclear tests in accessible language and format (website, videos, podcasts) targeted at different publics that could support the agenda (environmental activists, youth, academics, peace activists, etc.)
  • Create materials about CTBT’s verification mechanism, its importance in monitoring nuclear tests and its effectiveness in preventing other types of harm.
  • Table discussions regarding humanitarian consequences of nuclear waste.
  • Make arrangements for more active participation in processes devoted to various “trending” issues, such as climate change. In this regard, civil societies have a wider freedom of maneuver compared to the CTBT preparatory Commission and its PTS, although some caution and discretion would be in order.
  • Establish closer cooperation with ICAN and other civil society organizations working on nuclear disarmament (without sacrificing own priority to issues of nuclear testing).
  • Actively look for opportunities that may be present in the currently evolving global picture of nuclear arms control. For example, there is an active discussion about whether China should join the current bilateral track of nuclear weapons arms control up till now limited to the two nuclear superpowers – the US and Russia. China is not in favor of doing this.

However, one may try to explore certain limited elements where engagement between China and the US on nuclear weapons issues may be more productive and thus pattern-setting, including the question of CTBT ratification (China has given indications that if the US ratifies the CTBT, its own ratification would not be delayed).


[1] UNODA Workshop, CTBTO: Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization Preparatory Commission, 57th session* (tent.), 10-12th November 2021, 57th Session* (tent)

[2] United Nations, United Nations and Office for Disarmament Affairs, Civil Society Engagement in Disarmament Processes (2016). “The Case for a Nuclear Weapons Ban”.

[3] (“NDE’s historical timeline”, 2012).

[4] “ibid”

[5] Christian Joppke (1992) “Explaining Cross-National Variations of Two Anti-Nuclear Movements: A Political Process Perspective’’, Vol.26, Issue 2.

[6] Arms Control Association (2002). “Arms Control Association ACA”. United States. (Web Archive) Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

[7] John Loretz (2021): Banning the Bomb, Smashing the Patriarchy / The Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons: How It Was Achieved and Why It Matters, Medicine, Conflict and Survival, DOI: 10.1080/13623699.2021.1973357.

[8] The Convention on Cluster Munitions, Dublin, Ireland, May 30, 2008.

[9] Motoko Mekata (2018) How Transnational Civil Society Realized the Ban Treaty: An Interview with Beatrice Fihn, Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, 1:1, 79-92, DOI: 10.1080/25751654.2018.1441583.

[10] Motoko Mekata (2018) How Transnational Civil Society Realized the Ban Treaty: An Interview with Beatrice Fihn, Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, 1:1, 79-92, DOI: 10.1080/25751654.2018.1441583

[11] John Loretz (2021): Banning the Bomb, Smashing the Patriarchy / The Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons: How It Was Achieved and Why It Matters, Medicine, Conflict and Survival, DOI: 10.1080/13623699.2021.1973357.

[12] Kmentt, Alexander (2021). “The Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons: How It Was Achieved and Why It Matters”. Routledge.

[13] John Loretz (2021): Banning the Bomb, Smashing the Patriarchy / The Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons: How It Was Achieved and Why It Matters, Medicine, Conflict and Survival, DOI: 10.1080/13623699.2021.1973357.

[14] Motoko Mekata (2018) How Transnational Civil Society Realized the Ban Treaty: An Interview with Beatrice Fihn, Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, 1:1, 79-92, DOI: 10.1080/25751654.2018.1441583

[15] Acheson, Ray (2021). “Banning the Bomb: Smashing the Patriarchy”. Rowman & Littlefield, p. 232 apud John Loretz (2021): Banning the Bomb, Smashing the Patriarchy / The Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons: How It Was Achieved and Why It Matters, Medicine, Conflict and Survival, DOI: 10.1080/13623699.2021.1973357.


Antonios Eskander is an Undergraduate student at the University of Canterbury and an intern at the Disarmament and Security Centre.

Laura Varella is a Brazilian human rights lawyer and a current LL.M Candidate in International Law at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.

Laveen Safary is a PhD Student in Environmental Science at Kenyatta University, A Managing Consultant at Pan African e-Waste Solutions Ltd, Kenya; and an adamant advocate for Climate Change.