The Open-ended Working Group (OEWG) to “Develop proposals to take forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations for the achievement and maintenance of a world without nuclear weapons” began its first session in Geneva last week. Thus far, member states, members of civil society, and representatives of international organizations have engaged in discussions in the context of thematic panels such as “Multilateral treaty-based obligations and commitments”; “Nuclear weapon free areas”; “Other initiatives and proposals”; and “Lessons learned: Transparency, confidence-building measures and verification”. While the general tone seems to be positive inasmuch as this OEWG represents a welcome opportunity to address the substantive issues around nuclear disarmament, particularly in light of the prolonged stalemate effective across the UN disarmament machinery. Nevertheless, there remains hesitation from some member states regarding diverting attention from the Conference on Disarmament (CD), abandoning the so-called “step by step” approach, and taking any measures that might alienate the nuclear weapon states (NWS).
OEWG presentations from the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), academics such as Ward Wilson, and civil society representatives including those from Reaching Critical Will (RCW) and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) have enriched the conversation through concrete and substantive proposals and reflections on the current state of nuclear disarmament. Generally, members of civil society reiterated that maintenance of the status quo is simply unsustainable and unacceptable. Ward Wilson, author of Rethinking Nuclear Weapons, offered remarks on the “mistakes” made in understanding the utility, use, and overarching properties of nuclear weapons. In particular, Wilson underscored the myth of “deterrence” as well as the notion that nuclear weapons are anything but clumsy, immoral and dangerous. Likewise, Beatrice Fihn of RCW, a member of ICAN, reminded delegations that while the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is a “landmark” agreement representing the only binding, multilateral commitment to nuclear disarmament by the NWS, this commitment lacks a timeframe or any other concrete requirement beyond the obligation to simply “pursue negotiations.”
Issues stemming from a “Ban Treaty,” as opposed to a comprehensive treaty complete with disarmament obligations and a verification regime, were also addressed. Thomas Nash of Article 36, also a member of ICAN, outlined in more detail what a proposed “Ban Treaty” would require. Nash stated that such a treaty is envisioned by its proponents as “a step in a process—the ban would be an additional tool towards a nuclear weapons free world” noting that elimination usually follows prohibition. Furthermore, Nash identified three “framings” for a ban on nuclear weapons—fulfilling existing disarmament obligations, particularly those codified in Article VI of the NPT, building on nuclear weapon free zones, and banning all forms of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Additionally, much attention has been rightfully paid by civil society to the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and the refocusing of the disarmament debate on this humanitarian initiative that has been reinforced through joint statements at the NPT Preparatory Committee (Prep Com) in May and the UNGA First Committee last October.
While the substance of the panelists is important in its own right, the general exchange of views among member states revealed continued reluctance to fully embrace comprehensive proposals for moving forward on nuclear disarmament. Moreover, many delegations are still loath to engage in a process perceived as “alternative” to the CD. Ambassador Mehta of India, representing a nuclear weapon state outside of the NPT regime, was clear in her general statement that nuclear disarmament can only be achieved “by a step-by-step process underwritten by a universal commitment and an agreed multilateral framework that is global and non-discriminatory,” as well as reached by consensus. Likewise, Ambassador Hoffman of Germany supported the notion that “a big bang creating a world without nuclear weapons is highly unlikely” and, therefore, “building blocs” were needed to make practical progress towards this larger objective. Ambassador Hoffman went so far as to say that it is “simply not true” that the “step by step” approach has not yielded results and that the NPT, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the IAEA safeguards and Additional Protocol are examples of successful results. The delegation of Sweden agreed that the “most viable” way forward was a continuous process of adding agreements and commitments to existing ones to build a “stronger international regime.” Such a regime, the Swedish delegation argued, would require the nuclear possessor states’ participation. This is a position in stark contrast to that of ICAN and other civil society advocates who believe that a treaty negotiated by non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS) would be a ‘game changer’ regarding the legal framework governing nuclear weapons and, thus, have an impact beyond those states that would be most likely to formally adopt it in the first instance (impacting the nuclear possessor states—the NPT NWS as well as the DPRK, India, Israel, and Pakistan).
In contrast to those delegations that continue to cling to the perceived indispensability of a “step by step” approach, the delegation of Ireland strongly (and in our view rightly) spoke out against this approach in its general statement debunking the myth that the “step by step” approach is the only logical way forward. The delegation questioned the narrative of ‘sequencialism’ proposed by other states noting that such “steps” are neither identified nor clearly explained. The Irish delegation also called for an appraisal of conceptual terms during the OEWG, as well as a robust review of the practical implications of such proposals and concepts. Ultimately, unwavering commitment to a sequential approach has not, as the delegation of Germany insisted in its statement, yielded results at the level necessary for achieving genuine nuclear disarmament. More specifically, in terms of the “successes” identified by Ambassador Hoffman, there is much to be desired. The NPT’s credibility has been increasingly questioned due in large part to the failure to convene a conference on the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East as well as the lack of tangible progress with regards to Article VI obligations. The levels of frustration around the inability to fulfill the items laid out in the 2010 NPT Action Plan, most especially the 22 items that related to disarmament, are only growing (as evidenced by the decision of the Egyptian delegation to withdraw from the recent NPT Prep Com session). Furthermore, while negotiation of the CTBT is welcome, its seemingly permanent status in “entry-into-force limbo” is hardly impressive and the IAEA safeguards and Additional Protocol have a distinct non-proliferation bias.
Precisely what the OEWG will yield, beyond the resolution-mandated report that it must submit to both the upcoming session of the First Committee in the fall and to the CD, is unclear. Nevertheless, the Irish delegation was correct in stating that reiterating proposals and concepts is not enough. Rather an emphasis on “taking forward” negotiations and assessing the practical implications of approaches are vital to the success of the OEWG. If the obligation to develop proposals to “take forward” multilateral disarmament negotiations is not vigorously pursued throughout these OEWG sessions, it will be difficult to label them a success, as opposed to a lost opportunity.