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Scilla Elworthy, Ph.D., UK, is founder and Director of the Oxford Research Group, a civil society organization working with military and security issues. She was a publicity manager, then a consultant to UNESCO on womens’ issues and to the Minority Rights Group on self-help organizing against starvation from famine. In March 2000 the ORG co-hosted a new conference in Beijing, on the US plans for a missile defense (NMD). (More on:


Scilla Elworthy

In 1982, in a period when many worried about the huge build-up of nuclear weapons, I had come to New York for the Second Special Session of the United Nations on Disarmament. The diplomats at the UN had been discussing for a week without any disarmament happening at all. Then there was a demonstration on the streets of New York which drew a million people from all over the world to express their passionate wish that nuclear weapons be abolished. I spent all day in this swirling mass of people and was deeply impressed — it was peaceful, joyful and, I thought, pretty powerful. I don’t think there have ever been more than a million people on the streets to protest anything; the New York Times gave it five pages next day.
Back in the UN building at the world conference, however, not a thing had changed. Not one millimeter of one country’s position had changed. There might as well have been no demonstration the day before. I was pondering this while strap-hanging on a tram on Broadway, as one does, and suddenly I thought if we could find out who really makes decisions on nuclear weapons — the people behind the scenes who devote their lives to it — and talk to them, personally, not shout at them from the street, then perhaps something might change.
So I came home to Woodstock near Oxford and gathered two friends around my kitchen table to do just that. We had no idea where to start, so we started with what we thought would be the most difficult — China. To cut a long story short, four years later we were quite respectable — we were called the Oxford Research Group (O.R.G.), with eight members, we had funding from Quaker charitable trusts, and we had published our first book, setting out “How Nuclear Weapons Decisions are Made”. We have now, in 1998, published about thirty titles; we are still a small group with many of the original members, and we work on a tiny budget from a private house on a riverbank in a beautiful village near Oxford.
Since the beginning we used research to see if the original idea of groups of citizens in dialogue with decision-makers would work. After a successful pilot project, we eventually had 70 groups involved — women’s groups, Quaker groups, groups of doctors or teachers or churchpeople who were concerned about the nuclear build-up and were willing to undertake some homework and a long-term project. We gave each of them an information pack on one British decision-maker as well as his counterpart in China (because it was important that the groups tackled this as a world problem and not just a western one). We also offered guidance as to how to undertake the project — how to get beyond their own anger, how to do some research in order to be able to write an initial letter which would make sense to a decision-maker, how to prepare for a meeting. We recommended to always end it by asking for a written response, so the issue would not conveniently be left pending, or to ask one official to get in touch with another with whom they had spoken and knew had a positive position. Etc.