High School Students from Japan, US, and Russia discuss the Nuclear Ban Treaty in Monterey

April 13, 2018
Masako Toki

Students and teachers from Japan and Russia joined their peers from the United States to participate in the Critical Issues Forum (CIF) Conference, which was held in Monterey, CA, March 30–31. This annual event is sponsored by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (MIIS) as part of the center’s commitment to nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament education. The CIF program, in particular, focuses on engaging high school students, who will become the leaders of tomorrow, on nuclear issues.

High school students from Japan, US, and Russia discuss the Nuclear Ban Treaty in Monterey.

For the past twenty-one years, the CIF Conference has chosen challenging, timely, and relevant topics in the field of nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. This year’s topic, “Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons: Achievements, Aspirations, and Challenges Ahead,” allowed participating students to explore one of the most challenging issues in the contemporary nuclear field: the fundamental difference between disarmament advocates and deterrence advocates. The CIF challenged students to reconcile the seemingly incongruous positions between these two camps. Students also investigated the role of existing nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament treaties, including the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) and these treaties’ relationship with the newly adopted Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, commonly referred to as the Ban Treaty. In addition, students learned about the role of civil society and the importance of international collaboration in this exceptionally adversarial geopolitical landscape.

The Ban Treaty resulted from the advocacy efforts of civil society organizations and like-minded non-nuclear-weapon states (NWS) during heightened tensions between nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWS). One hundred and twenty-two states at the United Nations adopted the Ban Treaty on July 7, 2017, after less than one year of negotiations. Two months later, on September 20, the Ban Treaty opened for signature. The international community of states is divided on its support for the treaty; CIF encouraged its students to find common ground between opponents and proponents and begin to develop their own perspectives. The Russian, Japanese, and American students who presented their projects at the conference have been researching and learning about nuclear weapons and the Ban Treaty for over a semester.

Opening of the Conference

The CIF Conference opened on March 30, when students from six Japanese high schools, seven American Schools, and three Russian schools, along with one Japanese High School Peace Ambassador, convened in Monterey to share their perspectives on the Ban Treaty and promote cross-cultural understanding. Following opening remarks by CIF Project Manager Masako Toki, CNS Founding Director Dr. William Potter warmly welcomed the CIF students and reiterated the importance of youth engagement in the field of nuclear weapons issues, and reaffirmed CNS’s commitment to next generation training and education in this field. Dr. Potter’s welcome was followed by remarks by MIIS Dean Dr. Jeff Dayton-Johnson, vice president for academic affairs.

The conference also opened with messages from Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs at the United Nations Izumi Nakamitsu and Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono. Ms. Nakamitsu’s recorded video message encouraged CIF participants to use their creativity and courage to analyze nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation.

Mr. Kono congratulated the participants on undertaking such significant studies, and commended a CIF student’s designation as Youth Communicators for a World without Nuclear Weapons by the Japanese Foreign Ministry. CIF students in 2016 and 2017 were also designated as Youth Communicators.  

Student Presentation Highlights

The CIF conference is a unique opportunity for high school students to present their semester-long research on topics related to nonproliferation and disarmament to their peers. All student presentations were creative and innovative, including simulations, initiatives for educational outreach, and analysis of the Ban Treaty. Each school demonstrated an understanding of the Ban Treaty and its effect on the current nonproliferation regime, and offered a new solution or perspective. Many students noted the implications of NWS and states with nuclear deterrence arrangements refusing to sign the Ban Treaty and sought common ground between these hold-out states and Ban Treaty supporters.

Students also engaged with each other’s presentations in the short Q&A session after each presentation. Students from different countries came together to ask about their peers’ experiences and perspectives. Such dialogue between students allowed them to begin to forge the cross-cultural communication needed in international security studies.

Pacific Grove High School, a local Monterey high school that also provided the conference hosts, Juliana Heritage and Sterling Halberstadt, kicked off the student presentations, highlighting the importance of local and youth outreach in raising awareness for the Ban Treaty. Pacific Grove students also shared details of the awareness-raising campaign that they implemented at their school.

Students from Dr. Olga Mohan High School in Los Angeles, CA centered their presentation on how and why nuclear weapons exist. After outlining the success of the Ban Treaty, Dr. Olga Mohan students identified fear as the primary reason NWS do not sign and ratify the treaty. From there, they widened their analysis to consider how countries might overcome fear, such as through increased trust and international cooperation and exchange. The students concluded by describing the Nuclear Free Schools initiative spearheaded by Dr. Olga Mohan High School.

Choate Rosemary Hall, a long-time participant of the CIF project from Connecticut, presented a four-step pathway to disarmament that included: de-lethalization (according to the school presentation, this means making existing nuclear weapons less dangerous through enhancing nuclear security), delegitimization, minimization of the number of nuclear weapons, and elimination. In their analysis, the Choate students invoked humanitarian concerns, international law, and the importance of actions and precedent set by United States. When looking at the United States, they also considered the financial burden of maintaining retired nuclear warheads, and identified ways those funds could better serve the global community.

Kwassui High School from Nagasaki, last year’s host school, considered how the Ban Treaty will interact with existing treaties such as the CTBT and the NPT. Kwassui High School students identified three paradigm shifts needed to abolish nuclear weapons: transferring world leadership from nuclear weapon states to non-nuclear weapon states, replacing principles of nuclear deterrence with humanitarian law, and expanding nuclear disarmament network horizontally through grassroots activities.

Soka Senior High School from Tokyo explored Japan’s relationship with nuclear weapons by comparing Japan’s reliance on extended nuclear deterrence from the United States with Japan’s other stated security priority—human security. This in-depth analysis clearly highlighted Japan’s challenging security dilemma. To better understand the Japanese government’s position, the students interviewed several nuclear policy experts, including government officials. After identifying the security of Japan as the highest priority, the students concluded that the Japanese government should not justify nuclear weapons as a means of security, despite the volatile security environment in East Asia.

Students from School No. 41 from Novouralsk, Russia, presented an eloquent analysis of the current challenges, tensions, and opportunities presented by the Ban Treaty. By focusing on the successes achieved so far in nuclear disarmament, School No. 41 considered the momentum generated by civil society, and suggested nuclear divestment as another venue toward disarmament.

View each school’s presentation (video will be posted soon.)

Keynote speakers and panels

The conference benefitted from two distinguished keynote speakers: Jon Wolfsthal, director of the Nuclear Crisis Group at Global Zero, and Susan Southard, lecturer and author of the book Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War. Mr. Wolfsthal covered a wide range of topics, including the current nuclear landscape and imminent threats, his public service with the Department of Energy and later as a high-ranking official with the White House during the Obama administration, and his perspective on the Ban Treaty. He also verified the power of high school students’ involvement in social, political, and security debates citing the example of the recent massive protests against gun violence led by high school and college students. Mr. Wolfsthal also added that nuclear disarmament debates in the United States lack momentum, and therefore CIF students have an important role in generating such momentum.  After his remarks, he answered student questions regarding his role in President Obama’s historic Hiroshima visit and his education and career path. He later participated in the Q&A for Choate Rosemary Hall’s presentation by asking the students a clarifying question regarding the financial burden of maintaining retired nuclear warheads.

Watch Jon Wolfsthals’s presentation (coming soon).

Susan Southard shared her sympathetic feelings toward the hibakusha, or atomic bombing survivors, and her respect for the five hibakusha she interviewed for her book, Nagasaki: Life after Nuclear War. She began her keynote with an anecdotal story of her time as an interpreter for hibakusha, and how this experience led to her to realize that there was no book in English that detailed the lifelong suffering and advocacy of the hibakusha after the bombing. She decided to create such a book to present the resiliency of the hibakusha to an English-speaking audience.

As a storyteller, she empathized the importance of individual and national narratives as related to the use of the atomic bomb in Japan. She also spoke to the challenges associated with conducting the extensive scientific, social, and political research behind her book. In the following Q&A, Southard answered questions relating to the research and writing process, her experiences interviewing hibakusha, and the educational experiences of students learning about the atomic bomb in different countries.

Watch Susan Southard’s keynote address (coming soon), or download her PowerPoint presentation.

Panel discussions

This year’s conference also included two panel discussions. The first panel discussion, titled “Youth Education and Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” consisted of four CIF students (Jiaqi Kaki Su from Choate Rosemary hall, Juliana Heritage from Pacific Grove High School, Gulnara Nurullina from Zelenogorsk, and Ryotaro Homma from Kaisei High School), Susan Southard, and Ms. Sarah Bidgood, CNS senior research associate who moderated the panel discussion. Each CIF student shared their experience studying and participating in CIF activities and how their experience had a positive impact on their critical-thinking skills.

The second panel, titled “Transformative Education in Nonproliferation and Disarmament,” featured three CNS graduate research assistants and current students of the Master’s Program in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies at MIIS, Kayo Oda, Joseph Rodgers, and Paul Warnke. These three graduate students were able to share their educational background and the development of their interest in nonproliferation. Each of the panelists’ interest began after high school when they participated in internship programs related to the field of nonproliferation and disarmament. They commended CIF students for engaging on this topic as early as high school. CIF students lined up to ask panelists a variety of questions, including their views on the Ban Treaty. Each of the panelists provided a nuanced and careful assessment of the nuclear political landscape and encouraged the CIF students to continue to pursue their path in disarmament by being present and taking advantage of all opportunities available.

Cross-cultural activities

During the conference week, all international participants had an opportunity to experience cross-cultural, educational activities such as visiting Stevenson School, a local high school.  All students had informal opportunities to engage with each other during activities such as Jeopardy, a competitive trivia game, and a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. These experiences enriched students’ understanding of American education and culture.

Japanese students were able to stay with host families in Monterey as another part of their cross-cultural experience.


CIF’s mission to promote youth education in nonproliferation, disarmament, cross-cultural understanding and cooperation, and critical thinking is extremely important given the volatile international security landscape. This year’s CIF Conference was especially timely, coming in the wake of the civil-society victory in pushing for the creation of the Ban Treaty. By studying the process and humanitarian origins of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, these students are well equipped to contribute to the conversation regarding nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament.

The role of youth education in disarmament prepares future leaders with the tools to begin thinking creatively and innovatively about issues humanity has grappled with for decades. Many students who participated in the CIF conference will take their experiences, knowledge, and idealism with them as they mature into young adults entering the nonproliferation field. This year’s topic, “Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons: Achievements, Aspirations and Challenges Ahead,” captures some of the most difficult challenges of today’s nuclear disarmament debate.  It is our hope at CNS that CIF students are able to celebrate achievements such as the Ban Treaty while understanding that the work of nuclear disarmament is far from done. Though many challenges remain ahead, building connections and cultivating international understanding can have a positive impact in these efforts.

This year’s CIF project was made possible by generous funding from the United States and Japan Foundation, Tom and Sarah Pattison Fund, and the Tokyo Club.

Participating Schools

United States
Choate Rosemary Hall, Wallingford, CT
International Polytechnic High School (iPoly), Pomona, CA
Harker School, San Jose, CA
Dr. Olga Mohan High School, Los Angeles, CA
Pacific Grove High School, Pacific Grove, CA
Punahou School, Honolulu, HI
Rock University High School, Janesville, WI

Hiroshima Jogakuin Senior High School, Hiroshima
Kaisei High School
Kansai Soka Senior High School, Osaka
Kwassui High School, Nagasaki
Nagasaki Higashi High School
Soka Senior High School, Tokyo
Hiroshima University High School (Miharu Kobayashi, High School Student Peace Ambassador)

School No 41, Novouralsk
Lyceum, Lesnoy
School No 164, Zelenogorsk

Photo Gallery and Learn More

View the CIF report on the conference that includes numerous photos

Visit the CIF website to learn more about the project!

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