Tag Archives: Nuclear disarmament

Guns and Roses: The UN Delivers Uneven Messaging on Disarmament and Development, Dr. Robert Zuber

25 May

The week just ended did not always bode well for the United Nations in its efforts to find meaningful consensus on core issues affecting the health and sustainability of our planet.

On Thursday, the co-chairs of Intergovernmental Negotiations on the Post-2015 Development Agenda – Ambassadors Kamau and Donoghue — were subject to some serious blow-back on their efforts to prepare a document on Sustainable Development Goals that would be fit for inspection by Heads of State when they come to New York for the opening of the UN General Assembly in September.  The co-chairs attempt was to lightly edit the outcome document, eliminating un-clarities and even blank spaces where data should have been inserted, such that heads of state could concentrate on endorsing obligations rather than searching for missing text.

Nevertheless, one by one, the G-77 and China, the African Group, CARICOM, the Arab Group and others urged the co-chairs to accept and pass along to the President of the General Assembly the negotiated consensus document intact, even with its obvious flaws.   For this majority of states, reopening agreed text means also reopening opportunities for the large powers to manipulate outcomes and meanings.  The related discussion within Conference Room 4 on the use of “vulnerable groups” was valid at one level – it is important in our deliberations and the actions they set in motion to avoid the stigmas of group labeling  – but this concern was interpreted by many in the room as also an issue of trust more than content.

This (largely rhetorical) lack of trust, even in a process overseen by such highly respected diplomats, was evident in other areas of UN activity.  For instance, in the UN Security Council, the current president (Lithuania) struggled to gain support for a far-reaching resolution on small arms that incorporated some important dimensions (including robust gender perspectives) to help address the scourge of illicit weapons. Lithuania made the strongest possible case for why the UN system needs to place more emphasis on addressing illicit arms flows and the massive community-level violence that follows from any collective failures in this area.

The resolution that Lithuania championed certainly made progress in sharpening our understanding of the deep dysfunction caused by so many weapons in the ‘wrong hands,’ and in its suggestions for how to strengthen arms embargoes and work more effectively with other UN agencies. But this process was also bogged down in controversy – related to the unwillingness of the US and others to allow the resolution to explicitly reference “non-state actors” in its prohibitions – that caused an extraordinary number of Council members to abstain during the vote.  There was also, at least from our viewpoint, confusion among some Council members as to whether our remedial strategies are up to the global challenges posed by illicit small arms. This confusion was evidenced in part by excessive referencing to the Arms Trade Treaty, a limited process that is not yet ready for prime time and that, at its best, will restrict the intended destinations of manufactured arms without impacting either their quantity or their lethal potential.  Other referenced response options, including marking, tracing and stockpile management commonly associated with the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms, are equally valuable and equally works in progress.

The US, which in the minds of some shed its ‘shadow’ oversight of UN weapons-related architecture this week — preferring instead to point aggressive fingers at states that it felt tried to ‘sabotage’ progress – made clear that the small arms resolution is a significant, if tentative step forward. What the US did not mention, and caused others to wonder about, is that the P-3 role in the resolution controversy might be an effort to assert a “right” to arm non-state groups serving national interests based on distinctions between terrorists and “legitimate” opposition forces.  Trust issues perhaps emanating from such an alleged “right” motivated some Council members to question (unfairly) the legitimacy of the resolution itself, but certainly motivated a critique of Council working methods that left, once again, some members shaking their heads while the P-3 questioned the flexibility and good faith of all but themselves.

Finally it was not until late in the evening of May 22 when delegates completed the task of tossing flowers on the grave of the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Amidst various accusations from Canada, the UK and other states about which delegations ‘wrecked’ the conference, it had been clear for some days that the ‘wreck’ had already occurred.   The tentative hope for a Middle East WMD Free Zone, the avalanche of energy around the allegedly ‘new’ humanitarian initiative, the unprecedented Marshall Islands lawsuit, none of this had power to overcome legacies of bad faith that have long since blocked meaningful progress towards fulfillment of the NPT’s disarmament pillar.    Even if Egypt and the US had been able to suspend their spitting fight long enough to agree to some sort of deal that both shed light on Israel’s nuclear arsenal and preserved the US’s pride of place as facilitator of the Zone process, the lack of progress on disarmament would have placated few of the diplomats and even fewer NGO participants.  The absence of both urgency and flexibility by at least a few key states cast a dark shadow over the UN system that no amount of finger-pointing by Nuclear Weapons States or their NAM counterparts could hope to lift.

The ‘step by step’ approach advocated by the P-3 could be useful inasmuch as it creates the prospect of feedback loops to help assess progress, to ensure that we don’t stubbornly adhere to a policy that has been found to undermine the very goals it seeks to achieve. But in a UN context, step-by-step is more often a formula for institutional and diplomatic inertia, a systemic failure to match urgency with initiative.   We should avoid as much as we are able recklessness in our movements, but global events compel us to move.  Global citizens beg us to move. Apparently, Paper Smart misplaced that memo.

When we as a collective body cannot figure out how to push forward on urgent matters threatening the planet, the odds are that mixed motives are in play.   They were in play as the post-2015 negotiating sessions moved forward on a final text.  They were in play as Lithuania tried to ‘herd cats’ towards an agreement on small arms that generated some suspicion but avoided direct opposition.  They were certainly in play in the NPT as states – especially the P-5 — once again asserted the primacy of their own security interests over the increasingly clear and compelling disarmament interests of the global public.

The lessons for the week are as mixed as the outcomes.   Despite the fussing, the GA president will get a set of development goals and objectives to present to heads of state.  Moreover, the process will come attached to metrics and mechanisms for assessment and funding that can help us honor commitments made to end poverty, heal the planet, unleash the talents of women and indigenous people, and much more.

On small arms, Lithuania’s resolution adds good value, specifically in its gender referencing, more effective sanctions,and unusually warm and supportive regard for the parts of the UN system already tasked with many important activities related to small arms flows.   What role the heavily-referenced Arms Trade Treaty will play remains to be seen, though delegations are urged to revisit some of its intrinsic limitations – some significant– that will require a great deal of complementary work from other disarmament stakeholders if we are indeed serious about controlling arms flows.

On nuclear weapons, despite the contention of some states and NGOs of a “humanitarian tidal wave” that will overcome the objections of stiff-necked nuclear weapons powers, we are still in need of combined and multiple strategies that not only link legal, political, moral and humanitarian advocates but that create venues for discourse that are broad and kind, and that help widen circles of concern far beyond what the nuclear disarmament field has achieved to date.  We have our doubts about these possibilities, but also trust many of the diplomats and NGOs seeking to ensure security based on the least possible levels of armament.

What is probably not in doubt, however, is that a week of sometimes head-scratching objections, half-measures and outright disrespect has not raised levels of public endearment regarding the UN system.  We wasted vast quantities of time, energy and money of diplomats and NGOs; we insulted the honor and dignity of our political friends and opponents; we failed to match the urgency of our analysis with commensurate remedial measures.

We all need a bit of rest and then return to the UN ‘armed’ with more roses and fewer weapons, ready to do better than “mixed messaging” to persons facing security threats and development deficits who need more from us than we have so far been able to provide.

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Some Immanent Risks at the 2015 NPT Review Conference

5 May

Editor’s Note:  The following piece from Angela Trang Hoai Thi Nguyen represents her initial impressions of the NPT Treaty Review at UN Headquarters.  Angela is of Vietnamese lineage, was raised in Norway, and is a master’s student of Annie Herro, a longtime associate of our office who teaches at the University of Sydney. It is always good for us (and hopefully for others as well) to see UN processes through the eyes of younger people in our office who are seeking their own place in this work. 

Well-thought and rational decision-making entails inter alia reducing as much risk as possible in order to reach the most optimal outcome. But as I have observed in the opening sessions of the 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference (NPT), global decision-makers have, unfortunately, increased and reinforced the risks that could threaten the future of the NPT. With virtually no exception, member states reiterated their commitments to the elimination of nuclear weapons to achieve a nuclear-free world. However, the apparent emptiness of some of the promises given cannot be ignored. The question is whether those empty words are an outcome of so many multilateral deadlocks and disappointments or if this is intentional political rhetoric. If it is the latter then we can sensibly talk about a deliberate creation of risk factors impeding progress to achieving the objectives of NPT. If the former is true, the frustration creates disadvantages for NPT as it strives to become (as noted by DSG Eliasson and others) a “critical public good.”

Although all states emphasized commitments to building on efforts toward disarmament, the prevention of proliferation, and the general strengthening of the NPT regime, there appears to be little flexibility in their positions. Thus, the first week of NPT Review Conference did not seem particularly promising to me despite the high rhetoric, as equally high risks create both a vacuum and impediments to the realization of NPT objectives.

The risks exist in many forms. First, a mutually reinforcing mistrust derives from the need by some states to impose a nuclear security regime on the current state of global insecurity. Nuclear-weapon states continue to retain an effective (at least) minimum nuclear deterrent for as long as (these states say) the global security situation makes it necessary. Ironically, the necessity of being in possession of nuclear weapons to maintain global security only intensifies the security dilemma, in which actions by a state intended to heighten its security lead other states to respond with similar measures, creating more tensions and insecurity. Thus, while nuclear-weapon states claim nuclear deterrence is a means to maintain international security, it is recognized by the majority that it is rather the opposite.

Perplexingly, almost as soon as the NPT Review Conference opened, an NPT side event hosted by one of the leading nuclear-weapon states sought to address the “need” for further modernization of nuclear weapons and the will to do exactly that. The unavoidable obsession and blindness of the security dilemma that was played out, whereby narrowly defined national security interests jeopardize international security, creates potential grave dangers and threats. Modernization does not contribute to building trust and predictability, but fuels an undesirable Cold War mentality that we thought we had put behind us. As long as nuclear weapons exist, there is no real safety. No amount of rationalizing can change this.

Given these strange events, not only does the NPT conference risk empty promises and short-sighted interests, it also risks the marginalizing of (mostly) men and women of principle striving to realize their full NPT obligations. Although, unilateral disarmament is out of question, it is a simple matter to strive to uphold one’s part of an agreed deal, especially one as important as Article VI of NPT. While the status quo is clearly unsustainable, NPT nuclear weapons states continue to insist that other parties to keep the binding obligation of non-proliferation, while they themselves refuse to see their part of the equally fundamental responsibility to eliminate weapons and achieve a nuclear-free world. Desiring change requires that all parties make an effort to assess the performance of others, but more importantly to change themselves. This requires the qualities including persistence and self-discipline, which remain in short supply in regards to the achievement of the objectives of NPT. Additionally, as being principled seems impossibly challenging for some states at this stage, it is probably utterly senseless to ask instead for true generosity of policy and spirit, another quality much appreciated as it creates attractive role models that could contribute much to a world of peace and security.

In conjunction with the NPT Review Conference, a side event on eliminating “Hair-Trigger Launch Readiness” highlighted a report by Global Zero Commission on reducing the unintentional risks of use of nuclear weapons. In many ways, the event was a wake-up call reminding all of the unimaginable dangers that can occur when our nuclear security technologies (and their ‘high alert” status) go very wrong. Gen. Cartwright recommended particular restraint during moments of high stress and short timelines, as there is almost no room for good and rational decision-making. Moreover, the potential for a false alarm in a nuclear high alert system remains ever present. Given the risks of miscalculation that could lead to a nuclear launch, the grave humanitarian consequences that would follow from our follies and limitations should be more than enough to remove incentives for a reckless response. The danger that nuclear weapons can put an end to the human race makes the threat or use of nuclear weapons a crime against humanity. Thus, it is a moral imperative that the international community no longer allows senseless measures associated with “deterrence,” such as high alert weapons status, to be employed.

Regarding humanitarian consequences, we are also at risk of reaching a cross roads. A crucial test case is North Korea (DPRK), where its inhumane governance, highly related to its objective to invest in nuclear programs, represents a crime against humanity. As time passes, starvation and repression continue to take lives and cause other grave physical and psychological sufferings. Member states must bear in mind the consequences of the UN’s unsuccessful engagement with the DPRK which only perpetuates grave violations of human rights. Although there are risks related to any Security Council action, it is important that the world not stay quiet. The best outcome would be for the DPRK  to return to the NPT and come into full compliance with both the treaty and their obligations under international human rights law.  Balancing risks and violations in the DPRK context represents a grave global challenge.

The NPT process faces several challenges of non-compliance. In the Middle East, there are at least two nuclear weapons-related issues that remain to be resolved. First, although a framework agreement with Iran has been reached, which in many ways signals a positive achievement towards fulfilling the goals of the NPT, key parameters of the deal are far from settled and hard work remains to be done. The devil is in the details, and transparency and verification will be essential to any final agreement. Secondly, Israel remains outside the NPT and continues to undermine the possibility of a WMD-free Zone with its undeclared weapons of mass destruction. The risks of non-cooperation and non-compliance are therefore most worrisome in regards to regional efforts to end proliferation and build a nuclear-free world. Moreover, although, peaceful use of nuclear energy as guaranteed by the NPT help to address serious global challenges including Ebola, cancer, and food safety, it is important to have solid verification mechanisms in place to identify cases of misuse and proliferation. Our threshold must be able to balance and identify rightful use and any non-compliant intentions.

In order to reduce some of the risks created by short-term strategic interests, insecurity, miscalculations, non-compliance and other NPT-related matters with implications for international peace and security, it is necessary to state something very obvious:  the objective of the universality of nonproliferation and disarmament cannot be achieved if all states do not abide by their commitments. As Deputy Secretary General Eliasson underscored, the process for NPT fulfillment has clearly stalled. We must therefore rebuild it on stable, common ground, reinforcing shared interests for the public good. Dialogue and cooperation are key to achieving the three pillars of NPT; thus, we must use every possible communications channel and create trust-building conditions for strategic stability and predictability.

Additionally, there is a need to push our collective ambitions. A Middle East free of nuclear weapons and WMD seems highly ambitious at this moment, but as John Kerry stated, ambitious goals are always the ones worth pursuing. Then, I believe the next phase of this ambition is to create accountability mechanisms to eliminate impunity for states in non-compliance, whether understood as breach of the treaty or inaction, accountable for their policies. As world state leaders should be greatly ambitious, their nuclear goals and standards must also be set at a high level. Only then can we remove risks to the NPT and reinforce the responsibility that lies with each member state in creating a world free of nuclear weapons.

Angela Trang Hoai Thi Nguyen

Twilight Zones:  Keeping a Fading Light on Disarmament Obligations

7 Sep

A line in the UN Journal for September 8 invites diplomats and observers to an ‘informal’ meeting of the Disarmament Commission, a body that has, by the admission of most who participate in it, fallen short of any reasonable expectations for its performance.

A reputation like the one attributed to this Commission, rightly or wrongly, has led increasingly for calls to pursue disarmament outside of existing international structures.   Such structures clearly add value to certain weapons-related processes – cluster munitions come immediately to mind — but are not without their detractors.  Indeed there is legitimate concern that self-selected policy settings tend to accelerate the pace of ‘like mindedness’ that crowds out the thoughtful and critical assessments of weapons policies that can help eliminate policy errors and create new disaramament consensus among all UN member states.  Reservations, as many others have noted, should not automatically imply efforts to demean or weaken.

That said, there is one area that has a tenuous relationship to the disarmament policy grid, that can and should attract more diplomatic interest, and that might even help to revitalize interest in more formal disarmament structures of the UN – the Nuclear Weapons (and proposed WMD) Free Zones.

The inspiration for this post derives much from the policy work and strategic thinking of UNODA’s Michael Spies.   He correctly identifies the ‘highly fragile and weak’ international regime governing the possession and spread of nuclear weapons.  He also identifies ways in which the zones can help to close loopholes that allow non-nuclear weapons states to continue to contribute in varying ways to (and derive the benefits from) the arsenals of the nuclear weapons states.   And he identifies the different ways in which the common strengthening of the zones can help promote a safer, nuclear free world.

Spies makes clear that paying closer attention to the zones can clarify responsibilities for non-nuclear weapons states in confronting the inability of the nuclear weapons powers (those acknowledged by the NPT and those not) to honor disarmament obligations.  Such attention can also help solidify standards of policy and infrastructure that can both elevate the effectiveness of individual zones and more directly ensure that states participating in any of the zones can speak with a clear and unified voice when seeking due diligence on security and disarmament from the nuclear weapons powers.  Such ‘consolidation of standards,’ to use a term favored by Spies, can also help states monitor each other to ensure that they are not condemning nuclear weapons possession on the one hand while simultaneously providing cover or support for states committed to keeping nuclear weapons as a signature feature of their military doctrines.

Another value from our standpoint is that states participating in more robust zones can thereby enhance their capacity to work together on a wide variety of security matters affecting conditions both within and between regional states.   While we have no data to support this assertion directly, it has always seemed to us that the relatively robust structure of Latin America’s OPANAL (Treaty of Tlatelolco) could be a particularly useful starting (not an end) point for the creation of common standards of zone organization and conduct.  Clearly there are other factors promoting Latin America’s leadership in this area including growing economies, the relative absence of armed violence and grave human rights violations, and excellent interventions by international organizations including the UN’s regional disarmament office in Lima (UNLiREC).  As the Latin American region becomes more politically stable, efforts to create and sustain regional security frameworks (ie. UNASUR) that distance themselves from the US and other larger powers  provide additional hope that Latin American states can forthrightly examine OPANAL’s own strengths and limitations while promoting commonly adhered standards for zone conduct that are very much in the interests of the global commons.

In so many respects, the international security situation seems to be moving steadily towards a dark place.   But the zones represent a lengthening (if fading) light, a chance for the regions – especially those regions not currently drowning in insurgencies or groaning under bloated military expenditures — to make their case for alternatives to a world awash in illicit (or profoundly destructive) weapons and the weapons-dependent doctrines of possessor states.

The nuclear weapons free zones have not, in our view, gotten the attention they deserve from the UN’s mostly-stalemated disarmament architecture.   Before the disarmament sun sets entirely, there are many more opportunities to promote more effective, robust, common standards for the zones that can leverage more integrated regional security arrangements and especially close loopholes that needlessly accommodate the needs of nuclear weapons powers.  Such opportunities must be seized while the twilight remains.

Dr. Robert Zuber

The Emotional and Psychological Trauma to Our People Can’t Be Measured In Real Terms

31 May

Editor’s Note:  Lia Petridis Maiello is a frequent contributor to this blog.   John Burroughs of the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy is both an office mate and is also deeply involved with the Marshall Islands suits. 

The Republic of the Marshall Islands in the northern Pacific Ocean is not only a breathtakingly beautiful island state, but has recently moved into the public eye by starting a bold initiative that is widely interpreted as a “David against Goliath” undertaking.

The Marshall islands were subjected to dozens of nuclear tests, carried out by the U.S. after 1945.

According to the Associated Press, the island group filed suit in late April against each of the nine nuclear-armed powers in the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands. It also filed a federal lawsuit against the United States in San Francisco.

The Marshall Islands claims that instead of negotiating disarmament, the nine countries are modernizing their nuclear arsenals, spending $1 trillion on those arsenals over the next ten years.

“I personally see it as kind of David and Goliath, except that there are no slingshots involved,” David Krieger, president of the California-based Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, told AP. The Foundation is acting as a consultant in the case and is hoping that other countries will join the legal effort, Krieger points out.

Russia, Britain, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea are included in the indictment. The last four are not parties to the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), but appear to be, according to the lawsuits, bound by its provisions under “customary international law.” The NPT, considered the cornerstone of nuclear disarmament efforts, requires negotiations among countries in “good faith” on disarmament, AP reports.

None of the countries had been informed in advance of the lawsuits. The case found broad recognition within the international press.

The Foreign Minister of the Marshall Islands, Tony de Brum, explains in an interview the impact the nuclear tests had and still have for his citizens and what he hopes this lawsuit can achieve for the island state and the world community.

You grew up on the island of Likiep during the 12-year period when the United States tested 67 atomic and thermonuclear weapons in the atmosphere and under water in the Marshall Islands (1946-1958). What are your memories on the impact these tests had for the island of Likiep and its inhabitants? Environmentally, politically and psychologically?

My memories of the tests are a mixture of awe, of fear, and of youthful wonder. We were young, and military representatives were like gods to our communities and so our reactions to the tests as they took place were confused and terrifying. We had no clue as to what was happening to us and to our homelands. Our elders, including my grandfather, tried to stop the tests in petitions and communications to the UN but were not successful. I personally witnessed the injuries to some of our countrymen from Rongelap and to this day cannot recall in words my sense of helplessness and anxiety without severe emotional stress. But for as long as I can remember, the explosions and the bizarre effects that lit up our skies are still a source of pain and anger. How could human beings do this to other humans?

While in later life many attempts have been made, both in good and bad faith, to reconstruct the impact of the testing on our people, only the physical and environmental effects can be discussed with some confidence. The emotional and psychological trauma to our people, both young and old, cannot be measured in real terms. The pain is real and the uncertainty is overwhelming. As a young lady said to me when showing me pictures of her dead deformed infant child, “God did not create my baby. He cannot be so cruel.”

The Republic of the Marshall Islands recently filed an extraordinary lawsuit at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, suing all nine nuclear weapons possessors for failing to eliminate their nuclear arsenals. But only three of the nine nuclear states named by the lawsuit generally accept the rulings of the International Court of Justice. What do you hope for the outcome of this case?

My country has exhausted all means within our limited power to bring attention and closure to our outstanding nuclear issues with our former Administrative Authority, the United States. Mechanisms jointly established for dealing with outstanding claims for physical injury and property damage have fallen way short of satisfying even the basic findings of the Nuclear Claims Tribunal formed under treaty agreements. This is due mostly to the withholding of critical information necessary for us to make informed decisions regarding our nuclear past and our uncertain future. To this day the United States still refuses to release information we have identified and requested under established processes. All the while we have to cope with displaced communities, skyrocketing medical costs, dangerously radioactive environments, and deprivation of use of traditional lands.

The United States tells us they have satisfied their obligation under the Free Association Compact, a Treaty, and that they will not entertain any claims or requests for meaningful assistance in this issue. In fact, the US Supreme Court refused to hear the cases of the People of Bikini and the People of Enewetak seeking damages for their destroyed homelands. After seeing what mere testing of these terrible weapons of mass destruction can do to human beings it makes sense for the Marshallese People to implore the nuclear weapons state to begin the hard task of disarmament. All we ask is that this terrible threat be removed from our world. It is the best we can do as collateral damage in the race for nuclear superiority. Our sacrifice will be for naught if the nuclear countries do not stand up and take notice of the evil that nuclear weapons present to our earth.

Do you think that this case can help to create enough international momentum for the Non-Proliferation-Treaty (NPT) to be treated — due to its near universal adherence — as part of customary international law by which all states must abide, regardless of whether or not they actually signed the treaty?

We believe that it is sensible and logical for the world community to consider this matter as one of customary international law. To do otherwise is to gamble with the future of the world.

What effects would that have on the discourse of nuclear disarmament worldwide?

It should stimulate intelligent discourse and wise solutions. For what would it gain the world for instance, to be protected from climate change, only to suffer massive destruction from nuclear weapons? All our efforts to be sane about the future must be connected to survival and peace. The right hand cannot be out seeking climate peace while the left is busy waging nuclear war.

Looking at the status quo of this discourse, how do you evaluate the outcome of the recent NPT PrepCom at United Nations’ headquarters in New York City which closed without adopting the Chair’s draft recommendations to the Review Conference?

The outcome of the recent NPT PrepCom appeared to be more “business as usual,” with the nuclear-armed parties to the treaty essentially evading their Article VI obligations or claiming they were fulfilling them in a step by step manner, while at the same time continuing to modernize their nuclear arsenals and relying upon them in their military strategies. It is clear that the nuclear-armed states are not pursing negotiations in good faith to end the nuclear arms race and to achieve complete nuclear disarmament, as they are obligated to do under Article VI of the treaty.

You have also been advocating on the issue of climate change, a grave concern that affects not only the Pacific Islands, but has obvious global consequences. Are there linkages between nuclear disarmament and climate change? Considering that both issues climate change, as well as nuclear disarmament are political matters of tremendous significance, which one, in your opinion, has the capacity of being addressed faster by the international community?

I hit upon this somewhat in question four but clearly one cannot isolate climate change from the other most pressing issue of world security today. They go hand in hand, and must be dealt with in a coordinated and universally accepted pathway. As a country that has seen the ravages of war, suffers the lingering effects of nuclear tests, and facing the onset of a rising sea, we see all these to be threats of equal force against world peace and human life. But finger pointing and challenges of who goes first must now stop and sane and intelligent human beings must confront this insanity with firm confidence and clear peaceful intentions.

Lia Petridis Maiello, Journalist

Five Lost Weeks

9 May

Editors Note:   Our hope is to use this space for multiple pieces of commentary motivated by the largely unsuccessful end to both the 2014 Disarmament Commission and the NPT Preparatory Committee. Additional information on both the DC and NPT can be found on the Reaching Critical Will site. 

With applause emanating from most delegates to the NPT Preparatory Committee, five weeks of disarmament commitments from diplomatic missions, Secretariat officials and others was drawn to a close.  The Disarmament Commission. The NPT Review Committee.   Hundreds of government statements.  Many more hours of deliberations.   Millions of dollars in airfare, accommodations, interpreters and more.  The opportunity costs have been staggering, the opportunities themselves largely wasted.

Welcome to spring 2014, a time when some of us anticipated a slight breath of new momentum on disarmament, at least with fingers crossed, but even those modest expectations were effectively suppressed. The Marshall Islands lawsuit in the ICJ was the one glimmer of hope among the many dim flickers of disarmament possibility.

The mood inside the NPT room mirrored some familiar dynamics. On the one hand, diplomatic reverence for the NPT persists, a bit like holding on sentimentally to an automobile that once held promise but is not beginning to show signs of rust.  As Ambassador Roman-Morey wisely noted, we are dealing now with 2014 issues.  The vehicles we employed in 2010 might need a bit of upgrading now.

On the other hand, modifying agreed treaty text within a highly imbalanced and politicized security system allows powerful states to open up pathways to consolidate their own national interests at the expense of others.   And we know that once opened, those pathways are invariably exploited.

The NPT process appears to be caught in a trap of its own making.   A highly political treaty in its own right without independent mechanisms to ensure compliance, the NPT is known by its three pillars as well as its key “essentialist” notions. Foremost among these notions is the NPT’s insistence that the designation of “nuclear weapons states” is not directly tied to the actual possession of such weapons.   This creates needless wastes of energy trying to convince some current nuclear powers to adopt a treaty which, in essence, denies the existence of weapons that everyone knows they have. According to NPT logic, if France were tomorrow to rid themselves of their weapons they would remain a “nuclear weapons state,” while Pakistan, the DPRK, etc. will forever be non-nuclear weapons states regardless of how large their arsenals become. Israel would as well, of course, which makes some modicum of sense, albeit cynical, since they do not acknowledge the existence of weapons that are widely known to exist.  Apparently, there are neither clear points of entry, nor clearly marked exit signs, within the NPT.

The Middle East WMD-Free Zone, a pillar of the 2005 Review Conference, remains a large unfulfilled promise, taking on the character of ‘suggested behavior’ rather than a fundamental, treaty-related commitment.   This is not what was intended in 2005 and is not what is needed now.  After all, we have collectively solved tougher technical and political challenges over the past nine years than getting this conference up and running.

From the outside, the NPT (and its non-outcomes) looks like nothing more than standard UN disarmament politics, disconnected from the public security longings that help inspire state connectivity to the UN in the first place.

In our experience, the good will on the floor of disarmament negotiations is surprisingly sincere, but it also masks deep levels of distrust that play out in multiple policy venues beyond the reach of weapons.  It also hides a diplomatic rotating door that leaves large gaps in institutional memory that new diplomats can only attempt to fill.

Diplomats do their best but then, with few exceptions, they quickly rotate home or to new posts overseas.   For their part, many NGOs parachute in to share their preferences and then go home as well, learning little about how UN headquarters functions including the ways in which their presence is manipulated by states to articulate plausible (but not necessarily successful) outcomes.

Still five weeks of policy attention in a dangerous world should yield more than commitments to revisit commitments.    It is getting harder and harder for those of us who have pretentions to being answerable to global constituents to explain how governments seemingly hold local security needs and aspirations in such little regard.

These constituents can’t experience for themselves the uneven power dynamics and hidden deals that characterize so much of the UN’s disarmament machinery.  They can’t fathom what it takes to create consensus from 194 state positions, all mediated by often extraordinary diplomats who can’t make many more binding policy commitments than the NGOs can.   They can’t grasp why the politics of states, over and over, take blanket precedence over the security needs of communities.

Diplomats will never get this time back again.   The global community, for its part, might never fully regain the confidence that states are truly promoting the community’s best security interests. We’ll have to wait until 2015, it seems, for a full cost accounting of the trust deficits that have only widened during these five long weeks.

Dr. Robert Zuber

Disarmament Deadline: Powering Down a Three Year Cycle

20 Apr

In reviewing the most recent versions of the Disarmament Commission Working Papers submitted by the Chairs of both Working Group I (nuclear weapons) and II (conventional weapons), it would seem that we are getting close to some kind of agreement whereby recommendations will be forthcoming that can both bind the two Working Groups within a successful process and provide real guidance to a disarmament community badly in need of deliberative assistance.

Without disclosing the specific contents of these Working Papers (negotiations on text language are well under way), we would like to offer the following comments:

After three weeks and, in essence, three years of the current policy cycle, it is imperative that the Disarmament Commission renders a set of recommendations on its two policy objectives – nuclear disarmament and confidence building in the field of conventional weapons.   As we have noted in other contexts, the value of these recommendations lies as much in building confidence in the Disarmament Commission itself as in providing working ‘capital’ to inspire movement on some of the difficult disarmament challenges that we all face.

Confidence, of course, is largely in the eyes of the beholder, but Working Group II especially seems to have found the language to facilitate some movement in that direction, in part by keeping in mind the nature of the deliberative process – recommending next steps in areas such as stockpile management or ending the diverted arms trade rather than engaging in preemptive policy precedents that are the proper domain of other parts of the disarmament machinery.

The ‘bar’ regarding Working Group I is set higher of course, since the objective is the elimination of a potentially devastating weapons system rather than spreading confidence to address a range of weapons tasks, from marking and tracing to regulation of the global arms trade.   Still, as weapons of all kinds increase in destructive potential and find new pathways (i.e. unmanned aerial vehicles, outer space) for threat or use, an approach that is disarmament-focused (more than about mere regulation) and at the same time committed to greater trust building among states should be able to result in shared policy advice.

That task is hardly a modest one.  As noted by Working Group II, confidence building measures cover a broad range of mutually reinforcing activities of a political, military, economic, social, humanitarian and cultural nature.  This is important point, tying the work of disarmament to other core functions of the international community and reminding diplomats and others that all work on weapons includes confidence building dimensions.

Some delegations have taken their Working Group responsibilities quite seriously. Mexico for instance has offered its own recommendations for achieving nuclear disarmament, joining other proposals offered by the Non-Aligned Movement and the League of Arab States, as well as the significant input on Working Group I drafts offered by Iran, Egypt, China, Brazil, the UK, Morocco, South Africa and other states.

The essence of Mexico’s position takes account of the fact that, “in the past, weapons have been eliminated after they have been outlawed.  We believe that this is the path to achieving a world without nuclear weapons.”

While delegates seem united in affirming the need for the total elimination of nuclear weapons, Mexico’s strong commitment to a legally binding instrument towards that end is unlikely to be echoed in the final Working Group I document.  Indeed there are several other items of importance to us that are also unlikely to be included:  modernization comes to mind as does a stronger insistence on convening a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction-Free Zone conference with full engagement by regional states.   In addition, it would also be useful from our standpoint to reaffirm that nuclear disarmament and its conventional counterpart are best promoted through multiple lenses – humanitarian to be sure, but also legal, political and even ethical.   A combination of lenses that can reinforce commitments and inspire greater will to abide by them seems to us to be the most propitious path.

But the most important thing now is to produce a document that satisfies the basic commitment of the Disarmament Commission to the productive policy engagement by the remainder of the UN’s disarmament machinery.   While disarmament is a matter of utmost urgency, this particular deliberative body must show it can first walk before being expected to move at a more urgent pace.

Some good, sound, actionable suggestions from each Working Group that provide guidance without threatening work in other disarmament settings would be a welcome outcome of this final week of a long and winding cycle, welcome for the Commission’s future as well as for the wider world.

Dr. Robert Zuber

Why Disarmament Matters — and the Need for Constant Reminders

15 Apr

Editor’s Note:  This piece was originally published in Huffington Post. 

Recently a group of disarmament scholars and policy experts met in New York City to honor Peter Weiss, President Emeritus of the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy (LCNP), for his lifelong commitment to a subject of permanent gravity that often remains in a political, legal and generational stalemate. Equally importantly, the function served as a reminder to the public that in particular, an emotionally compelling topic such as nuclear disarmament needs be at the forefront of not only continuous scholarship but policy discussion and, more importantly, civic action.

Five speakers representing legal approaches to nuclear disarmament analyzed the global status quo and portrayed a very realistic picture of urgency. They also evaluated the role of the United Nations and, in particular, the role of the UN Security Council.

Virginia Gamba, Director of the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, reiterated the importance of the five multilateral norms that the international community identified as a standard for a feasible disarmament agreement, which can be found in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Those principles are verification, transparency, irreversibility, bindingness, and universality, standards that are mutually reinforcing and essential for trust building among states, particularly keeping in mind the ongoing issue of verification in relation to nuclear haves and have-nots alike. “Disarmament commitments must be bound to the law,” Gamba summarized.

Professor Roger Clark from Rutgers School of Law in Camden referred in his remarks to the significance of the 1997 draft model Nuclear Weapons Convention (NWC), resulting from the unanimous ICJ declaration from July 1996. “There exists a legal obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its respects,” he said. The draft convention underwent a review and update in 2007 and would, in its current state, supplement existing treaties such as the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies describes the model NWC as follows:

Under the 2007 model NWC, all States would be prohibited from pursuing or participating in the “development, testing, production, stockpiling, transfer, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons.” Those States that possess nuclear weapons would be obligated to destroy their nuclear arsenals in a series of phases. These five phases would progress as follows: taking nuclear weapons off alert, removing weapons from deployment, removing nuclear warheads from their delivery vehicles, disabling the warheads, removing and disfiguring the “pits” and placing the fissile material under international control. Under the model convention, delivery vehicles would also have to be destroyed or converted to a non-nuclear capability. In addition, the NWC would prohibit the production of weapons-usable fissile material. The States Parties would also establish an Agency for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons that would be tasked with verification, ensuring compliance, decision-making, and providing a forum for consultation and cooperation among all State Parties. The Agency would be comprised of a Conference of State Parties, an Executive Council and a Technical Secretariat. Declarations would be required from all States Parties regarding all nuclear weapons, material, facilities, and delivery vehicles in their possession or control along with their locations.

Applying the model NWC to a current political situation, Clark wondered, “Imagine what a powerful, international inspection regime would have brought about for the situation in Syria?”

Ambassador Hans Corell, former Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs and the Legal Counsel of the United Nations from 1994 to 2004, focused in his address on nuclear disarmament and Security Council reform and did not shy away from pointing out clear obstacles and how they can be transferred to the ongoing crisis with Russia.

Corell sees the need for a “cooperative, rules-based international order” enforced through multilateral institutions, headed by the UN Security Council as the “ultimate global authority,” in order to pursue disarmament and nonproliferation effectively.

Corell refers to the problems the UN Security Council would have executing this position adequately by stating the fact that the UNSC is in need of “radical reform,” a topic that is widely discussed among international scholars. Based on former Mexican President’s Ernesto Zedillo’s comments, Corell agrees with the skepticism toward the addition of more members to the UNSC, a viewpoint shared by many involved with various Council reform proposals.

Describing Russia as a current aggressor by violating Ukraine’s sovereignty and annexing Crimea, Corell points out that the veto option of the permanent five members to the UNSC can significantly slow down if not hinder political decision making in times of crises. “Personally, I am seriously concerned at the negative effects that the Russian annexation of the Crimea peninsula will have on the political climate in the future. And we certainly do not know what President Putin may be up to next.”

Honoree Peter Weiss shared some good news before releasing the audience, saying, “During the follow-up conference to Oslo held in Nayarit, Mexico, Feb. 13 and 14, Sebastian Kurz, the foreign minister of Austria, announced that he would convene a conference in Vienna later this year because the international nuclear disarmament efforts require an urgent paradigm shift.'”

In May 2008 Dr. Hans Blix gave me an interview in which he explained:

Al Gore woke up the world with the reality of one inconvenient truth, but I think that the second inconvenient truth exists, namely the remaining nuclear weapons of mass destruction. There is something like 37,000 of them still around. And with the increasing tension in the world it is time to discover that we need to move swiftly back to the disarmament table.

Because of the subjects’ ongoing relevance, communicating this urgency to the next generation of not only policy makers but youth with political aspirations or interests should be a big part of disarmament/nonproliferation events going forward.

Lia Petridis Maiello, Journalist