Taking Forward Multilateral Disarmament Negotiations

13 May

The forthcoming Open-ended Working Group (OEWG), which will convene in Geneva for fifteen working days this year, has its first session from 14-24 May (with follow-up sessions 27-28 June and 19-30 August). The OEWG is a result of resolution A/C.1/67/L.31 tabled at the 2012 session of the First Committee by Austria, Mexico, and Norway entitled “Revitalizing the work of the Conference on Disarmament and taking forward multilateral disarmament negotiations.” This initiative was one of the more concrete results from the sixty-eighth session of the First Committee as it offered a tangible method of seeking to break the impasse currently paralyzing much of the UN disarmament machinery, including and most importantly, the so-called single, multilateral negotiating body for disarmament—the Conference on Disarmament (CD). The resolution called for the established of an OEWG (open to the participation of all member states as opposed to the limited membership of the CD) to “develop proposals to take forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations for the achievement and maintenance of a world without nuclear weapons” as well as for the submission of a report to the next session of the General Assembly reflecting the discussions held and proposals made whereby a record of the work of the OEWG would be available to impact future discourse. The OEWG will be chaired by Costa Rican Ambassador Manuel Dengo.

While the mandate of the OEWG has never been entirely clear, it is assumed that the group will take up substantive issues rather than procedural ones. Ambassador Dengo wrote in his letter to member states which included a draft program of work for 14-24 May session, “The main purpose of the May session will be to promote better knowledge and understanding of the different aspects of nuclear disarmament and the challenges faced by multilateral nuclear disarmament.” As noted in Ambassador Dengo’s memo, the OEWG will operate in an interactive manner consisting of thematic panels with a more general exchange of views held at the conclusion of each panel. The centrality of interaction among member states, experts, civil society representatives, international organizations, and other relevant stakeholders is a most welcome aspect of the process. Discussions on disarmament, even when they are labeled “debates,” rarely feature such interactivity. Themes to be covered by the OEWG include: multilateral treaty-based obligations and commitments; nuclear weapon free zones (NWFZs); transparency, confidence-building measures and verification; the necessary framework to achieve and maintain a world without nuclear weapons; and the roles and responsibilities of nuclear weapon possessing states and non-nuclear weapon states.

While this thematic discussion is important, it would seem counterintuitive to discuss substantive proposals for taking forward nuclear disarmament negotiations without specifically addressing the procedural questions around the stalemate that continues to plague the CD (the de-facto reason why the OEWG has been established in the first place). Separation of the substantive from the procedural will not provide the necessary comprehensive approach to breaking the negotiating paralysis in the field of disarmament.

The current position of the nuclear non-Proliferation (NPT) nuclear weapon states (NWS), also known as the permanent 5 (P5), is that they will not participate in the OEWG, which is an unfortunate development. The P5 has generally opposed all initiatives and proposals that are perceived as “alternative” processes labeling them “distractions” from the measured, “step-by-step” approach they see as necessary to achieve nuclear disarmament. France, Russia, the UK, and the US all voted against the October 2012 resolution with China abstaining. During explanations of vote (EOV), the delegations of France, the UK, and the US offered a joint statement noting that the proposed OEWG seeks to “circumvent” established mechanisms such as the CD and the UN Disarmament Commission and does not clearly fit into the NPT framework and corresponding 2010 Action Plan. The same type of reasoning was offered with regards to the recent humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons conference held in Oslo in March 2012 that the P5 states jointly decided to boycott.

This reasoning is weak at best and hypocritical and contradictory at worst. The P5 themselves have started a so-called “alternative” and parallel process in the form of the Nuclear Security Summits (NSS) that began in Washington, DC in 2010, which was followed-up with another NSS in Seoul in 2012. Moreover, the argument that the work of the OEWG does not “fit into the NPT framework” is disingenuous. As is noted often and with an increasing sense of urgency and frustration by non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) at NPT meetings, Article VI obligates the NWS to pursue good faith negotiations for the unequivocal and complete elimination of their nuclear arsenals. Establishing a body, not to mention one without a negotiating mandate, to discuss a range of themes related to Article VI obligations clearly fits within a larger framework of engagement and in no way threatens the (seemingly faltering) NPT regime.

The more pressing threat to the NPT regime is burgeoning frustration (embodied in the decision of the Egyptian delegation to withdraw from the 2013 NPT Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) session) over the failure to convene a conference on the establishment of a NWFZ in the Middle East pursuant to the 1995 resolution on the Middle East and the 2010 NPT Action Plan. The Egyptian delegation ominously stated in its final remarks to the 2013 NPT PrepCom before withdrawing, “We cannot continue to attend meetings and agree on outcomes that do not get implemented, yet to be expected to abide by the concessions we gave for this outcome,” referring to the indefinite extension of the NPT in exchange for the promise of the establishment of a NWFZ in the Middle East. It would seem that this growing fissure in the NPT framework, the so-called “cornerstone” of the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime, is of much greater concern than the establishment of an OEWG, which is essentially an opportunity to discuss and brainstorm proposals without obligating any state to commit to binding agreements over already existing agreements (even those whose validity is now being seriously questioned).

The threats to the NPT regime, the increasing isolation of the P5 during the Oslo humanitarian consequences conference, the recent NPT PrepCom, and the forthcoming OEWG session, have all further opened up conversation among NNWS and civil society over the role these states should play in “taking forward” multilateral negotiations. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and others in civil society have advocated for NNWS to take the lead in establishing the necessary framework to obtain a world without nuclear weapons rather than continuously wait for the P5 to meet their Article VI obligations. ICAN has advocated for a “Ban Treaty” building on momentum spearheaded by the NNWS through the humanitarian consequences initiative that would hopefully change the global, political, and legal landscape surrounding the continued existence of nuclear weapons by negotiating and concluding a ban on the use, possession, stockpiling, trade, and manufacture of such weapons. Such a ban could be a simple treaty composed of general obligations with room for additional protocols to which the NWS could eventually sign, but would not necessarily have to negotiate. This course of action has been perceived as an approach different from a Nuclear Weapons Convention (NWC), which envisages framing obligations not only to prohibit the development, testing, production, stockpiling transfer, use, and threat of use of nuclear weapons, but also to ensure their elimination through disarmament obligations and a verification regime (such as the obligations and verification mechanism in the Chemical Weapons Convention). A NWC, therefore, would necessitate the participation of the nuclear weapon possessors.

Whether there is a question of sequencing or whether a “Ban Treaty” could serve as a precursor to a NWC is not necessarily of the question of highest importance, but rather it is how to achieve nuclear abolition as comprehensively and quickly as possible. Perhaps a ban negotiated by the NNWS would inspire the P5 to negotiate an agreement among themselves to eliminate their arsenals in a reasonable period of time. Nevertheless, the call to NNWS to take a more prominent and active role in pursuing the goal of nuclear disarmament is essential to future progress towards this objective. Maintenance of the status quo is simply no longer an option given the stalemate across the UN disarmament machinery and the obstinacy on the part of the P5 with regards to any new proposals or initiatives seeking to address disarmament. Clearly they fear losing “veto power” derived from the consensus rule and the inherent imbalance in the NPT that ultimately privileges the NWS and their “step by step” process.

As the OEWG begins it work, there is some hope that the proposals gleaned from the discussions will provide the necessary injection of momentum to take forward disarmament negotiations that will genuinely make progress in nuclear disarmament, although it would seem that this will have to be done without the nuclear possessor states, which include the P5 as well as the DPRK, India, Israel, and Pakistan (those outside of the NPT regime). “Nobody should assume that any regime structured on a have/have-not principle can be sustained forever,” argued Angela Kane, UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, at the Annual NATO Conference on WMD Arms Control, Disarmament, and Non-Proliferation on 6 May 2013. It is time for an honest appraisal of strategies through the OEWG for nuclear disarmament that do not perpetuate a regime that maintains the status quo.

 

–Katherine Prizeman

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: