1982 to 2000
Oxford Research Group (ORG) was founded in 1982 at a time of crisis in relations between the Western powers and the Soviet Union, characterised by a renewed nuclear arms race. It began as a series of questions nagging at its founder, Scilla Elworthy. Who are the people who make decisions on nuclear weapons? Do they know of and talk to their opposite numbers in rival countries? What would happen if they discussed their worldview and decisions in discreet engagements with their informed critics?
Frustrated by the opacity of nuclear decision-making and sensing a missed opportunity for more rational debate and policy, Elworthy set about forming a group of researchers to explore these ideas, literally around her kitchen table in Oxfordshire. While informed by Elworthy’s Quakers values, the idea was not to be a pacifist organisation but a bridge between those with radically different ideas on defence and security policy in search of new ideas and alternatives to the status quo.
Over the next decade ORG became a steadily more established and respected organisation, opening-up nuclear decision-making in the United Kingdom, NATO and other nuclear-armed states, securing exchanges between their policy-makers and perfecting the conditions for discreet dialogue between them and civil society. Along the way Elworthy was nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize (in 1988, 1989 and 1991) and won the Niwano Peace Prize (in 2003) for her work with ORG. ORG became a registered charity (in 1988) and nuclear arms control became a reality.
During the 1990s ORG continued to focus on nuclear weapons but its work expanded to wider security issues while maintaining its discreet dialogue methodology for peaceful engagement and change. Particularly significant was the unprecedented series of exchanges between top-level British and Chinese military officers and civil servants. Late in the decade, ORG was also influential in exploring and exposing the “subsidy trap” that supported British arms exporters.
2001 to 2014
In mid-2001 ORG began what would become a significant shift in its work with the launch of Prof Paul Rogers’ Global Security Briefings series, exploring the potential for major security challenges from the global margins. Within months, the 9/11 attacks shifted the global agenda onto such issues. ORG has tracked and critiqued the War on Terror response ever since, advocating for a radical shift in security policies away from reactive military responses and towards addressing the structural challenges of inequality, exclusion and violence.
Also in 2001, Elworthy began a project to assess the evidence for conflict prevention policies succeeding in avoiding war. From a seminal report, War Prevention Works, grew a new organisation dedicated to funding grassroots peacebuilding initiatives and in 2003 Elworthy left ORG to run Peace Direct. She continues as a patron and advisor to ORG. Dylan Matthews, who wrote the 2001 report for ORG, returned to Peace Direct as its Chief Executive in 2015 and the two organisations continue to work together.
Between 2004 and 2007 ORG relocated from Oxford to London and also moved further away from its original nuclear brief to establish work in several new sectors. This was the genesis of ORG’s work in the Middle East, pioneered by psychoanalyst Gabrielle Rifkind applying her insights to the established model of discreet dialogue between seemingly intractable opponents. Prof Oliver Ramsbotham, with ORG since its earliest years, also brought has strategic engagement methodology for conflict resolution. ORG has pioneered preventive diplomacy and strategic thinking projects in Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Iran, Syria and Yemen, as well as with many external parties to conflicts in the region.
ORG’s work in support of a nuclear deal between Iran and the international community was particularly influential. Using its networks of senior contacts in Iran, the US, Russia and EU states, ORG quietly built and nurtured relationships at the highest political level and facilitated off-the-record dialogue with Iranian officials involved in the official negotiation and decision-making process. This helped move the frozen negotiations forward and create a vision for what a final resolution deal might look like. This was realised in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreement.
Also established in 2006-2007 was the Sustainable Security Programme, expanding on Paul Rogers’ work on marginalisation, climate change and geopolitics, as well as ORG’s work on recording of casualties in armed conflict. Between 2007 and 2014 ORG’s Every Casualty Programme sought to coordinate and systematise global efforts to enhance the technical, legal and institutional capacity, as well as the political will, for every single casualty of armed conflict throughout the world to be recorded, civilian as well as combatant. Since 2014, Every Casualty Worldwide has pursued this work as a separate organisation.
2015 and beyond
ORG’s current structure took shape in 2017-2018 around the strategic concept of intervention points to help break out of a global cycle of conflict and violence. In early 2017 Gabrielle Rifkind established the independent Oxford Process to continue to work on preventive diplomacy as the latest of ORG’s sister organisations. The Middle East Programme subsequently rebranded as the Strategic Peacebuilding Programme, focused on laying the foundations for effective and lasting conflict resolution through innovative and strategic dialogue and analysis. In 2018 it expanded its work to include the Palestinian diaspora and a major new project on rethinking Yemen’s peace process.
In January 2018 ORG added a new programme, Remote Warfare. Focused on defining smart, strategic interventions that contribute to lasting peace settlements, this is the evolution of the Remote Control Project, hosted by ORG since 2013 and continuing ORG’s mission of increasing the transparency and accountability of the defence sector. Together with the Sustainable Security Programme, which focuses on promoting global environmental, economic and security cooperation to sustain peace, this constitutes ORG’s commitment to breaking out of the cycle of conflict and violence.