Being Civil Society

College students from Japan march in Vienna on June 20 with a banner to mark the first meeting of states parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. (Asahi Shimbun/Tabito Fukutomi)
College students from Japan march in Vienna on June 20 with a banner to mark the first meeting of states parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. (Asahi Shimbun/Tabito Fukutomi)

by Frances Jeffries 

A very traditional question in September is:  How was your summer? or What did you do on your vacation?

My summer was one of seeing new as well as familiar things through new eyes, of thinking about new approaches to seemingly intractable problems.  Specifically, I was privileged to attend, as a civil society observer, the International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) Forum, the Republic of Austria Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons Conference, and the United Nations’ First Meeting of the States Parties of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW 1MSP), all held in June 2022 in Vienna, Austria.  My goal was to learn how to strengthen the ways in which civil society organizations can work with governments and others to eliminate the existential threat of nuclear weapons.  

The ICAN Forum focused primarily on issues and perspectives of interest to civil society organizations, such as Massachusetts Peace Action (MAPA). More than 700 delegates from around the world representing many organizations gathered to consider the aspects of their work that enable all of us to work together effectively and efficiently to abolish nuclear weapons. The second and third meetings  emphasized considerations of the countries involved and included comments from civil society organizations.  Significant topics addressed in these meetings included international law, working with parliamentarians or legislators, gender inclusion, and intergenerational interactions. 

 For me, a few of the “take-away” considerations from the sessions are as follows:

  • Working across generations can be challenging for representatives of cultures that have no clear roles for “elders.”  Some of the discussion of generational issues revealed a lack of respect and understanding for the unique contributions of older and younger generations.
  • When speaking with parliamentarians or legislators, remember that they may not think or believe the same ideas as you or I.  It is incumbent upon the messenger to communicate in such a way that the listener can understand.  It is not the initial obligation of the person listening to make the adjustment. 
  • Each country brings its own concerns and perspectives, which require at least a minimal understanding of international law.  We cannot work toward the abolition of nuclear weapons without some legal knowledge.  
  • Together we must resolve key issues regarding the use of nuclear energy and the the value of deterrence as a political tool if we are to have a sustainable treaty and peace.  
  • The damage done to people and the environment at nuclear weapons testing sites has long-term consequences without any apparent solution.  Those consequences include fallow land, poisoned water, and gene mutations transmitted to future generations. 

While these “take-aways” may seem obvious and simple, for me they are strong reminders of the importance of testing our assumptions.

“What I did my summer vacation” continued into August in New York City where considerations for abolishing nuclear weapons were addressed at the United Nations at the 10th Review Conference for the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).  Concurrent with the formal meetings of the States parties, there were also side events within the United Nations, as well as outside events such as the International Peace and Planet Network Conference organized by the International Peace Bureau and held at All Souls Church in New York City.   The side events held in the United Nations afforded opportunities to discuss actions, initiatives, and position statements with conference participants in smaller settings.  

Civil Society Observers were allowed to sit in the General Assembly to hear firsthand the speeches by representatives from the attending nations. Each presenter gave a five-minute statement about nuclear weapons, the NPT, the TTPNW, and the specific concerns of his or her country.  Some presenters commented on Russia’s attacks on Ukraine, and several others noted that the media did not always offer fair and balanced reporting.  These speeches are in video and text formats at  From the vantage point of the Fourth Floor Gallery, we could see several hundred of us in the same space, working together for a full month, and building relationships, some of which are useful in ongoing efforts to build peace.  

Attending these conferences offered opportunities to learn with others, to identify actions for change, to effect change and to find partners in the movement to end the dangerous situation in which we find ourselves.   It is clearer to me than ever before that 

  • the power for change and for sustaining peace is in civil society – That’s US!;
  • we are agents of change;
  • we need to guard against negative predictions and comments and watch for opportunities to make progress toward eliminating nuclear weapons; 
  • collaboration is essential and requires us to modify and adapt in order to be more effective; 
  • humanitarian organizations must realign their strategies and actions to be proactive rather than just reactive; and, 
  • new approaches are absolutely essential and must be considered if we are to survive.  


Additional information about registering as a civil society observer as well as offering side events and comments at United Nations meetings may be found at (check individual meeting for designated point of contact).

Frances Jeffries chairs MAPA’s Fundraising Committee and is active in our Nuclear Disarmament Working Group and Public Engagement & Movement Building subcommittee.