Youth Participation in International Nuclear Disarmament


This article explores the role of youth and student activism in the context of nuclear disarmament at the United Nations. How is youth actively participating in political processes at the international level? Are today’s youth less aware of the dangers posed by nuclear weapons, and if so, does the lack of effective youth participation weaken nuclear disarmament processes? What is the level of risk that youth face if the nuclear issue is neglected, and at what cost to future generations? It is worthwhile to explore the role of youth in nuclear disarmament to assess the value of youth participation in UN fora. Gaining a better understanding of theses question may help to make progress not only in nuclear disarmament, but also in other sectors in which youth are finding solutions. This article will further consider alternatives to youth participation at the UN, and suggest the possibility of alternative channels for meaningful political action.

The Imperative of Sustainable Development

“Sustainable development is the development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” [1]

Today’s generation of 1.8 billion young people, aged 10 to 24, is the largest the world has ever known.[2] It is the generation faced with the monumental tasks of tackling climate change, staggering levels of inequality, and technological innovations. The threat of nuclear weapons in the maintenance of international peace and security is increasingly important for youth. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) found in their 2018 Yearbook that despite limited reductions in world nuclear forces, the modernization and renewed focus on nuclear weapons continues.[3] This is worrying considering the total world military expenditure rose to $1739 billion in 2017.[4] Apart from the humanitarian, health, and environmental destruction done by the use of weapons in conflict, the investment in armaments over human needs is an irresponsible abuse of government power and a violation of their responsibility to serve the people. The current $1739 billion global military expenditure is unsustainably high and could be used to strengthen education, social institutions, and economic development. It is thus imperative that youth lead the way to a world free of nuclear weapons, in which governments responsibly choose to invest in humans and the environment rather than weapons of destruction and war.

International Peace and Security Architecture

Disarmament is a vital provision permeating all aspects of United Nations (UN) institutions, without which the UN could not function. Article 26 of the UN Charter mandates the least diversion for armaments of the world’s human and economic resources, and the establishment of a system for the regulation of armaments.[5] The Committee on disarmament and international security recognized in the 1st Resolution of the General Assembly that disarmament is an essential step towards the urgent objective of prohibiting and eliminating atomic weapons, and major weapons, from national arsenals, and called for the regulation and reduction of armaments and national armed forces. Disarmament and the reduction of military spending is thus necessary to allow for development, human rights and prosperity; making it an indispensable measure to achieving all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and ensure peace and security as mandated in the UN Charter. Furthermore, the interlinkages between development, peace and security, and human rights as mutually reinforcing principles are currently in focus.

As a sign of transformation in the UN disarmament process, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was negotiated and adopted on July 7, 2017. The Ban Treaty is the first legal standard on nuclear prohibition and it was relentlessly advocated for by civil society in prioritizing humanitarian considerations. The TPNW reflects the changing balance of concerns in the field of disarmament among security, humanitarian, gender and ethical concerns. This shift away from a security centered discussion towards humanitarian concerns is fueled by the advocacy and activism of civil society; composed of NGOs, academia, women, youth, and other groups.

The participation of youth in the maintenance of peace and security is increasingly on the agenda of the UN. On 9 December 2016, UN Security Council Resolution 2250 (UNSCR 2250) became the first Resolution on Youth, Peace and Security to recognize the importance of young people in the maintenance and promotion of international peace and security.[6] It is a landmark resolution which urges Member States (MS) to give youth a greater voice in decision-making at the local, national, regional and international levels, as well as to enable young people to meaningfully contribute in peace processes. UNSCR 2250 refers predominantly to youth participation in conflict and post-conflict settings, countering terrorism and violent extremist, peacebuilding and conflict resolution. Concerning disarmament, it encourages those involved in the planning for disarmament to consider the needs of youth affected by armed conflict. Although these measures are forward-looking in many ways, the lack of explicit reference to youth participation in the nuclear disarmament context raises questions as to why this is. What exactly does youth participation in nuclear disarmament look like at the UN?

Youth Participation in UN Nuclear Disarmament

Youth are influential actors in nuclear disarmament through direct participation in UN fora and activism. Youth demonstrate meaningful participation at UN conferences by appealing to states and by representing a constituency typically marginalized in political platforms. Over the last few years, strong cases of such contributions can be seen in practice.

For example, in the 2017 TPNW negotiations, a youth working group submitted a paper discussing the necessity of involving youngsters  in the negotiations.[7] The paper amplifies global network of youth advocates for nuclear abolition and expresses the valuable expertise which young people bring to negotiations.

Secondly, youth engagement in the UN High Level Conference on Nuclear Disarmament in 2018. UN summits and High Level conferences have been established by the UN General Assembly to elevate the political traction on key global issues. Youth were very active in the High Level conferences on sustainable development, climate change, and oceans. Such conferences led to considerable achievements in sustainable development, such as the Paris Agreement, and the 14-point action plan for the ocean.[8] Youth can help ensure similar success in the realm of nuclear disarmament. In 2017, youth appealed to world leader to participate constructively in the 2018 UN High Level Conference on Nuclear Disarmament. The appeal called on world leaders sign the TPNW and mobilized political will among states to participate in the 2018 High Level Conference on Nuclear Disarmament.[9]

Thirdly, Japanese students called for nuclear disarmament at the 2018 Committee on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva. The CD is a negotiating body in Geneva that has made no substantive progress whatsoever for nearly two decades. 20 high school students ambassadors, candidates for the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize, submitted signatures from about 110,000 people to the CD.[10] The petition urged the UN to do more to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons. Their efforts were commended by the secretary general of the CD, who further encouraged the participation of young people around the world in the nuclear disarmament movement.

The full and effective participation of youth is no easy task at the international level and young people face adversity to articulate their demands. Youth participation is essentially a contested concept by many MS, and is even considered undesirable for some. For example, the Japanese youth ambassadors brought forth a petition on nuclear weapons between 2014 and 2016 to the CD, but in 2017 were unable to due to opposition from China and other countries.[11]

The nuclear abolition movement is bolstered by youth networks advocating for a nuclear-weapons-free world outside of negotiations UN international days help to raise public awareness on disarmament; seen for example by The International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons (Nuclear Abolition Day) on September 26, International Peace Day on September 21, and International Youth Day on August 12. Generating enthusiasm for a cause which has largely evaporated from public consciousness since the Cold War is a challenge, yet civil society plays an important role in this regard. Public education aims to generate discussion on nuclear disarmament where a lack of interest is typically seen. Awareness of the issue, especially among younger generations who grew up after the Cold War, is limited; which translates into limited youth participation at the UN.

Call to Action

What is the risk of youth remaining passive on the issue of nuclear disarmament? Similar to climate change, time is not a luxury given the indiscriminate and irreversible impact of nuclear weapons. The rising global military budget is another alarm ringing, yet so many are simply unaware of this reality. These are no small concerns to youth who envision an equitable, environmentally sustainable, peaceful and non-militarized society. The voice of youth is powerful and asserting greater representation in all political processes should be the priority of governments.

“Young people should be at the forefront of global change and innovation. Empowered, they can be key agents for development and peace. If, however, they are left on society’s margins, all of us will be impoverished. Let us ensure that all young people have every opportunity to participate fully in the lives of their societies.” -Kofi Annan[12]



[1]  Our Common Future, United Nations.

[2] Progress study on youth and peace and security, United Nations. 2 March 2018.

Click to access Progress%20Study%20on%20Youth%2C%20Peace%20%26%20Security_A-72-761_S-2018-86_ENGLISH_0.pdf

[3] Modernization of Nuclear Weapons. SIPRI, 2018.

[4]  Global Military Spending. SIPRI, 2018.

[5]  UN Charter, Article 26.

[6]  UNSCR 2250. 9 December 2015.

[7]  Youth and Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament Negotiations. United Nations. 31 March 2017.

[8]  Youth plan actions for nuclear abolition day and the 2018 UN High Level Conference. Abolition 2000. July 10 2017.

[9] Reach High for a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World. Abolition 2000. November 2017.

[10]   Japanese students call for nuclear abolition in Geneva. The Mainichi. August 28 2018.

[11] In Geneva, students call for nuclear disarmament. The Japanese Times. 31 August 2018.

[12]  Kofi Annan. AZ Quote.


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