Swords into ploughshares

When Ernie Regehr and Murray Thomson started Project Ploughshares in 1976, their initiative was only supposed to last six months.

Just over forty years and many awards and accomplishments later, Ploughshares stands as one of the leading peace research organizations in Canada.

How did it all begin?

The seeds of Ploughshares were first sown four decades ago when two groups of people, each working separately on a common concern, came together.

Ernie Regehr—witnessing the links between militarism and under-development while working in southern Africa—teamed up with Murray Thomson (then-Director of CUSO) in 1976 to create a Working Group called “Ploughshares.” With the help of a bit of seed money and support (from CUSO, Canadian Friends Service Committee, Conrad Grebel University College, and Mennonite Central Committee), they studied the role of the international arms trade in impeding social and economic progress in developing countries.

Meanwhile, that same year, John Foster of the United Church had also convened a Working Group called “Canadian Defence Alternatives,” which aimed to educate the public on the increasing militarization of national security policy in Canada.

When these two groups merged together, Project Ploughshares was born.

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“Let us beat our swords into ploughshares,” by Evgeny Vuchetich (for the UN, 1959).

Emerging as the ecumenical voice on defence policy and disarmament, Ploughshares—formally established as a division of the Canadian Council of Churches—provided a critical assessment of the expansion of the Canadian arms industry, the nuclear arms race, and the impact of the world’s massive and growing stock of “swords” on security and development.

Not surprisingly, calling for the transformation of “swords into ploughshares” (Isaiah 2:4) was not an easy sell with political decision-makers.

As staff wrote in the very first issue of the The Ploughshares Monitor (which hit the shelves in April of 1977),

It is a common assertion of federal politicians and government officials that there is “no constituency” for peace issues. Public interest in the arms race, nuclear proliferation, and related issues is said to be minimal, making it difficult to place these items on the national political agenda. However, people with an active concern about these issues know otherwise. There is a “peace constituency” out there….

Over the decades, Ploughshares has proven that the peace constituency is alive and well!

Our office copy of the very first Ploughshares Monitor (Vol. 1, No.1)!

Serving as the focal point for broader church and civil society participation, they have shaped public policy conversations on some of the most complex international security challenges—from nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation, to conventional arms control, weaponization of space, reduction of armed violence, and more.

Some of this work has focused on mobilizing Canadians to act for peace.

In the 1980s, for instance, during a time of deep public anxiety about the Cold War, Ploughshares not only led a high-level church leaders’ delegation to meet with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau on nuclear disarmament, but they organized Canadians to send two million postcards to MPs, urging them to oppose the modernization of nuclear arsenals.

Later, in the lead-up to the 2003 war on Iraq, Ploughshares co-wrote Prepare for Peace in Iraq, a statement endorsed by 40,000 Canadians, which helped influence the government’s decision not to participate in the “coalition of the willing.”

Other elements of Ploughshares’ work may have been less visible to the broader public, but have played a significant role in furthering various agendas of the global disarmament community.

indexIn 1986, for example, they created the only database on Canadian military production and exports, still used by international organizations researching the global arms industry.

Since 1987, they’ve published the annual (and popular!) Armed Conflicts Report, which monitors the number and nature of conflicts worldwide.

And in 2003, they initiated the annual Space Security Index project, the first and only comprehensive and integrated assessment of space security.

In addition to providing technical expertise, Ploughshares has co-founded some important coalitions (the International Action Network on Small Arms, Mines Action Canada, etc.) and provided thoughtful leadership on others (like Control Arms Coalition). This civil society collaboration has been particularly important in the development of a convention like the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).

Since the 1990s, Ploughshares, in partnership with other NGOs, actively and persistently promoted a treaty to regulate the trade and transfer of conventional weapons. In 2013, this decades-long endeavor finally paid off when, after rigorous negotiations, the UN adopted the ATT—a monumental achievement for the disarmament community.

Over the last number of years, they’ve weighed-in on many important public debates: in 2010, they critiqued the planned Joint Strike Fighter Jet program, long before it became top political news; this last year they’ve questioned the government’s $15 billion Saudi arms deal through innumerable op-eds and interviews; and, most recently, they’ve called out Canada—once a disarmament champion—for its absence at UN negotiations to create a worldwide nuclear ban.

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Ploughshares staff, past and present (photograph by Emilia Zibaei–at the 40th anniversary celebration; from the Ploughshares website)

As new staff have come on board, Ploughshares has been able to delve more deeply into research on fully autonomous weapons systems, and to expand into new areas such as refugees and forced migration.

Known for its credible research, precise analysis, and long-term commitment to advancing policies for peace, Project Ploughshares as consistently punched well above its weight.

Where will the next 40 years lead?

Jenn Wiebe is Director of the MCC Ottawa Office and serves on the Governing Committee of Project Ploughshares