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Four years ago I had the honor of being part of a team that helped the United Nations design and launch its newest global nuclear disarmament campaign.
Some of us were volunteers and some were UN staffers, but we all agreed that the stakes were high for the new campaign.
At the beginning of 2009 the United States had a new president, Barack Obama, who had campaigned on a platform that included “Marshalling a global effort to secure, destroy, and stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction.” In September of 2009, President Obama would become the first U.S. President to preside over a meeting of the fifteen-nation UN Security Council; and early in 2009 he announced his intention to craft and seek approval for a new, stronger global nuclear non-proliferation agreement at that meeting.
Our small group of artists, writers and communicators first met in February of 2009 with the UN’s Public Information Office in New York to try to pull together a set of potential campaign themes for the UN’s and President Obama’s historic effort. This, if you’ve never tried it, is truly hard. First, the UN communicates in six major languages, so every theme, tagline, slogan and sentence has to translate seamlessly into all of them. That means the normal techniques communicators use in effective public service communications campaigns – double entendres, irony, humor, etc. – simply won’t translate.
Second, the UN always has spending constraints. This meant no big advertising budgets, which drove us to try to be creative enough to get the message out by other means.
Third, we all knew that the world had heard about disarmament from the UN before – this was to be the latest of many previous campaigns, going back several decades, so we had to make this one different enough to be noticed.
The pressure was on. We all went back to our desks and thought about this overwhelming and unique challenge – how do you convince the world to disarm?
For inspiration I went to the writings of Abdu’l-Baha, and found it in his Montreal Daily Star interview:
“As to the question of disarmament, all nations must disarm at the same time.”
The imperative verb ‘must’ leapt off the page, and what struck me most was the forthrightness and boldness of that statement. The phrase ‘We must disarm’ lodged itself in my consciousness and would not leave.
After sleepless nights, long lists of literally hundreds of possible themes and much impassioned consultation, the group finally agreed that our recommendation to the Secretary-General would be the simple, declarative, three-word slogan We Must Disarm! Urgent, direct and honest, it also had the distinct advantage of utilizing the acronym WMD – which, since the Iraq War, the entire world recognized as the new abbreviation for Weapons of Mass Destruction.
We assembled a campaign around We Must Disarm!, pulling together experts in disarmament, designing graphics and recruiting well-known celebrities to help get the message out. Michael Douglas and Rainn Wilson agreed to be our main spokespeople, and they led an unprecedented Twitter promotion that immediately reached 5 million people when we launched the new global campaign in June of 2009, exactly a hundred days from the International Day of Peace in September. Our idea? For each of those hundred days, our UN spokespeople would tweet one of a hundred reasons to disarm to their millions of Twitter followers. Bolstered by news conferences, film, music and essay competitions and a worldwide push by millions of supporters, it worked – the message went viral, exceeding our wildest expectations, at least in part because the UN had never conducted a public education campaign this way before:
I have a vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. And I have a campaign, called WMD — We Must Disarm. We must disarm to save lives. We must disarm so that we can redirect precious resources to health, education and development. This year, the International Day of Peace, on 21 September, is dedicated to this cause. Between now and then, please join our campaign on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and the UN’s WMD-We Must Disarm website. Let your voices be heard. Let us convince leaders, once and for all, of the waste, futility and dangers posed by weapons of mass destruction. In the face of this catastrophic threat, our message is clear: Together, we must disarm! Thank you. – UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, 8/5/2009
On the day the We Must Disarm! campaign culminated in September of 2009, President Obama presided over the UN Security Council, which then unanimously approved UN Security Council Resolution 1887. The British newspaper The Guardian described it:
The world took its first concerted step towards getting rid of nuclear weapons today when the UN security council voted unanimously for a resolution on disarmament and non-proliferation. The summit in New York represented the first time the security council had met to focus on the elimination of nuclear weapons.
President Obama addressed the Security Council after the vote:
This very institution was founded at the dawn of the atomic age, in part because man’s capacity to kill had to be contained, and although we averted a nuclear nightmare during the cold war, we now face proliferation of a scope and complexity that demands new strategies and new approaches. Just one nuclear weapon exploded in a city — be it New York, Moscow, Tokyo, Beijing, London or Paris — could kill hundreds of thousands of people, and would greatly destabilize our security, our economies and our very way of life.
Once again, the United Nations has a pivotal role to play in preventing such a crisis.
The historic resolution that we have just adopted enshrines our shared commitment to the goal of a world without nuclear weapons, and it brings Security Council agreement on a broad framework for action to reduce nuclear dangers as we work towards that goal.
The UN continues to use the We Must Disarm! theme in its global efforts today, and Abdu’l-Baha’s exhortation to the world a hundred years ago has come full circle.
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