Tag Archives: nuclear

Highlight Reel: The DC’s Work in Progress

11 Apr

As the Disarmament Commission settles into its two Working Groups for the next couple of weeks, the rest of the world hopes that a spirit of deliberation will prevail over some of the policy impediments that have hindered progress in years’ past.

We have written previously about some of these impediments, but they are worth repeating in summary fashion:

  • Confusion about the nature of the deliberative process
  • Concerns of states about setting policy precedents
  • The recent history of inertia from disarmament machinery
  • A lack of confidence regarding compliance with existing commitments
  • The expectation of resolving issues rather than contributing to their resolution
  • Unaddressed power imbalances in the UN’s security system

These impediments were exacerbated by conflicts in Ukraine, Central African Republic, Syria and elsewhere, and might well lead to assumptions about the quality and creativity of Disarmament Commission statements made by member states.

But, in fact, there were some very good reflections from delegations, reflections that were sometimes modest in their implications but were also hopeful from the standpoint of reassuring the world that the UN is, in fact, up to the challenges of reducing threats from new and existing weapons systems.

Here is some of what we heard over the first two days that piqued our interest and raised our levels of anticipation for the Working Groups:

  • Ambassador Drobnjak’s admonition to the group that we need to “prove otherwise” that the DC has lost its way.
  • DSG Eliasson’s caution that we must not allow the option of returning  to a “dark age” of mistrust.
  • Switzerland’s call for more efforts focused on DC working methods, including more access by civil society (echoed by Japan, Kazakhstan and others).
  • The African Group’s calls for complete, non-discriminatory security assurances from nuclear weapons states.
  • CELAC’s generous mention of the contributions of both OPANAL and UNLiREC to regional disarmament.
  • The NAM’s proposal for an international day for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.
  • The mention by Australia, Ecuador and others of the urgent need for universal adherence to efforts to eliminate cluster weapons and land mines.
  • South Africa’s assertion that nuclear weapons should be subject to prohibition as chemical and biological weapons now are.
  • Venezuela’s call for both “horizontal and vertical” disarmament processes.
  • China’s concrete commitments to both a ‘five point plan’ to move forward negotiations with Iran and the production of a national PoA report.
  • Algeria’s suggestion that lessons from existing nuclear-free zones be readily available to assist the Middle East zone process.
  • The European Union’s positing of dangerous linkage between illicit/diverted weapons and prospects for the commission of mass atrocities.
  • Egypt’s concern that the issue of ‘overproduction’ of small arms and conventional weapons is not sufficiently addressed by the ATT or other international instruments.

This is just a small sample of hopeful statements offered amidst the finger pointing over the failure (so far) of the ME WMD-free Zone, the DPRK’s deteriorating relationship with the US, and other tensions.  These tensions are real, they beg for resolution, but it is unclear that a Commission dedicated to deliberation is the proper forum to work out full details towards progress and reconciliation.

In the end, as with the C34 Peacekeeping Committee that recently produced a report after having failed to do so a year earlier, it is critical that the DC Working Groups produce real recommendations this year.   As Australia and others noted, the recommendations don’t have to be ‘game changing’ in order to have impact.   At this point, any recommendations – however modest – would be helpful both in advancing disarmament discussions and in sparing the reputation of the Disarmament Commission itself.

It is not necessary to fix things entirely in order to improve them substantially.   As we have done in the past, and as Reaching Critical Will and others have done over many years, we urge the DC to use every bit of its considerable technical and diplomatic expertise to point the way to the next levels of disarmament progress.

Dr. Robert Zuber

Open-ended Working Group on Nuclear Disarmament Convenes in Geneva

20 May

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.


–Katherine Prizeman

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

2013 NPT PrepCom Opens in Geneva

26 Apr

The second session of the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) for the 2015 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference (RevCon) opened in Geneva this past week under the leadership of Chairman Ambassador Cornel Feruta of Romania. This PrepCom represents the approximate mid-way point between the conclusion of the 2010 Review Conference, at which the 64-point NPT Action Plan was adopted, and the next RevCon by which time the 2010 Action Plan is to be fully implemented. There is increasing anxiety with each passing year as states parties hope to build on the consensus 2010 outcome document and take concrete steps towards the full realization of the ‘grand bargain’ of the NPT, commitment from non-nuclear weapon states to not pursue nuclear weapons and the pledge by of the 5 nuclear weapon states to pursue nuclear disarmament.

The most salient issues regarding the NPT regime came to light during the general debate including the lack of progress in implementing the disarmament-related obligations in the Action Plan as well as the failure to convene a conference for the establishment of a weapons of mass destruction free zone (WMDFZ) in the Middle East during the 2012 calendar year as was mandated in the 1995 resolution on the Middle East. The 1995 Middle East resolution was an essential and integral part of the package of decisions affirmed without a vote that led to the indefinite extension of the NPT. Other issues more tangential to the Action Plan were also raised such as the recent provocations of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the recently held March 2013 conference in Oslo on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, and the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria.

The P5 and disarmament obligations

As expected, much of the discussion of the first week focused on the obligations and special responsibilities of the NPT nuclear weapons states (NWS), also known as the ‘P5’, and the progress these states have thus far made (or not made) in anticipation of the 2014 PrepCom and 2015 RevCon during which they will have to report specifically on their disarmament-related progress. Criticism of the NWS and their lack of attention on the disarmament pillar of the NPT are well-known and levels of frustration regarding the lack of movement on multilateral nuclear disarmament are high. The delegation of Ireland noted in its statement during the ‘disarmament’ cluster, that the “persistent underachievement in progressing the global disarmament agenda is no longer acceptable.” This frustration was manifest during last year’s session of the General Assembly’s First Committee with the adoption of resolution A/C.1/67/L.31 entitled “Revitalizing the work of the Conference on Disarmament and taking forward multilateral disarmament negotiations” thus establishing an open-ended working group (OEWG) that will meet in May, June, and August of this year in Geneva for a total of fifteen days. The exact mandate of the OEWG is not yet entirely clear, but Ambassador Manuel Dengo from Costa Rica, chair of the OEWG, has made clear that the discussions will be substantive in nature, rather than focusing on procedural issues. The sessions will most likely feature panels are will not have any negotiating mandate.

The non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS), particularly the NPT states parties of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), have harshly condemned the P5 for disproportionately focusing on proliferation risks and not enough on disarmament. While the ‘P5’ has initiated a parallel process of meetings to address the disarmament-related obligations committed to in the 2010 NPT Action Plan, including the obligations related to reporting, transparency and confidence-building measures, the output from this group has been assessed as mostly underwhelming. The fourth P5 conference was held last week in Geneva under the aegis of the Russian Federation. Subsidiary working groups have been formed, for example a working group led by China on a glossary of terms. Likewise, France has taken the lead on discussions on a common approach to reporting on relevant activities across the three pillars of the Action Plan at the 2014 PrepCom and the 2015 RevCon.

The issues of transparency and reporting are of particular concern to the NPT states parties, especially the NNWS that are keen to receive more detailed information on existing stockpiles and, therefore, reduction of such stockpiles as mandated in Article VI of the NPT. Public declarations highlighting both strategic and non-strategic stockpiles are seen as an essential step in confidence-building and next steps in the disarmament process. The ten-country, cross-regional Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI), which focuses on practical non-proliferation and disarmament steps with a view towards implementing the Action Plan, proposed a standard reporting form during the 2012 PrepCom. There has yet to be a decision among the P5 on the form that reporting will take at next year’s PrepCom and the 2015 RevCon.

Nevertheless, it is still unclear if any P5 activities have contributed to building confidence among the NWS or how they will contribute to increasing levels of confidence among the non-nuclear weapon states. The hope is that these meetings will help to prepare the NWS to more comprehensively report to the upcoming PrepCom and subsequent RevCon in order to facilitate the path to global zero “in good faith,” as required in Article VI of the NPT.

The Middle East

The failure to convene a conference on the establishment of a WMDFZ in the Middle East during the 2012, or even prior to this NPT PrepCom continues to be a major source of concern, particularly for the Arab states. The NAM called upon the co-sponsors of the 1995 resolution (the UK, US, and Russia) to convene the conference as soon as possible in order to avoid “an attack on the credibility of the NPT.” During this week’s discussion, the US and Russia both addressed this issue, although from quite different perspectives. The Russian delegation was clear in its opening statement that it did not perceive the failure to convene the conference as a responsibility of the states of the region and called such an allegation “inappropriate.” Moreover, the delegation stated that Russia never in fact agreed to the postponement, but rather “would have admitted the possibility” for postponement only with explicit agreement of all states of the region and commitment to new, specific dates. The delegation also noted that “No collective decision concerning this matter had been taken by the co-sponsors.” The US delegation, however, continues to reiterate that the postponement was a joint decision that was taken as the conditions in the region are not yet “right” for the conference and it is up to all the states of the region, including Israel, to adopt a common agenda before convening the conference. The UK has not yet made such explicit statements regarding the postponement, but called for the convening of the conference “as soon as possible in 2013.”

The fear, of course, is that the more prolonged the process before beginning discussions on a WMDFZ in the Middle East, the weaker the NPT regime will become. It is a serious and valid concern that the NPT regime could be “held hostage” by those states angered by the postponement, specifically the Arab Group, who believe that such a failure to fulfill a binding commitment represents reason enough not to fulfill other NPT obligations, particularly concerning non-proliferation. Such inflammatory actions would only further increase insecurity and decrease the NPT’s legitimacy.

Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons

Delivered by the South African delegation, 77 states signed onto a statement delivered at the conclusion of the general debate underscoring the grave humanitarian consequences associated with the use of nuclear weapons. This is an initiative that was borne out of the 34-country statement delivered during last year’s session of the UNGA First Committee by the Swiss delegation. This initiative was followed-up with an international conference hosted by Norway in Oslo in March 2013 during which representatives of 127 member states were present as well as UN secretariat officials, civil society, and other humanitarian response technical experts detailing the environmental, health, and developmental impact of nuclear weapon explosions. . The humanitarian dimension of nuclear disarmament has been reinvigorated and has provided for a renewed enthusiasm for pursuing the larger objective of abolition. Several delegations, including Egypt, lamented the lack of participation by the P5 in Oslo and called upon the NWS to participate in the follow-up meeting in Mexico that is expected to take place in early 2014.

The presentations by non-governmental organizations to the delegates of the PrepCom also focused, in part, on the humanitarian consequences of a nuclear detonation. The conclusion drawn by the humanitarian response community, including the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) and the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC), has been quite clear—that there is simply no way for the international community, let alone an individual governments, to adequately respond to such a crisis. Therefore, the only sensible course of action is to prevent the use of such weapons, which can only be guaranteed through their elimination.

Moving Forward

The continued stalemate in the Conference on Disarmament, the failure of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) to enter-into-force, and the inability to negotiate a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT) were once again highlighted by many of the delegations during this week’s discussions. Furthermore, the issues of nuclear security and safety and the role of nuclear weapons in military and security doctrines and policies were also addressed by a broad range of delegations in formal sessions as well as during side events. While all these issues are surely important components of the drive towards global zero, perhaps the most crucial challenge to the NPT regime will be moving away from the still-lingering belief that nuclear “deterrence” represents security and that the nuclear ‘haves’ occupy a privileged position in relation to the ‘have nots.’ Nuclear disarmament diplomacy depends on realizing the ‘grand bargain’ and maintaining the balance that is provided for in the NPT. Ultimately, as noted by the US delegation in its opening statement, disarmament is not an obligation limited to the five NPT NWS. Rather, the existence of nuclear weapons is an issue that must be addressed by all member states as global security depends on their abolition.


–Katherine Prizeman

Opening of the 2013 Substantive Session of the UN Disarmament Commission: Time for Progress

4 Apr

As the UN Disarmament Commission (UNDC) opens its annual substantive session, a body which enjoys universal membership and is often referred to as the UN’s “disarmament think tank,” there is much anxiety around its ability to garner a consensus outcome before the end of its three-week program of work. This is the middle session of the triennial discussion cycle, which will conclude next year in 2014. The 2013 session has adopted two agenda items for its program of work—“Recommendations for achieving nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation” and “Practical confidence-building measures in the field of conventional weapons,” respectively. Although the UNDC has previously reached consensus to adopt guidelines or recommendations on 16 occasions since its re-establishment in 1979, it has not been able to achieve such consensus since 1999 when it adopted Guidelines for Nuclear Weapon Free Zones. Thus, last year’s session marked the 13th consecutive year that the UNDC closed without adoption of any recommendations.

The UNDC, a deliberate body that is tasked to put forth guidelines, standards, and recommendations to be presented to the UN General Assembly First Committee, is the oldest component of the UN disarmament machinery and is intended to play an important role in the early stage of development of new global norms for disarmament. In theory, such deliberative and consensus recommendations have the potential to serve as the basis for future multilateral negotiations, namely negotiations in the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament. The delegation of China noted in its general debate remarks, “…the UNDC has played an important role in setting a priority agenda for multilateral disarmament negotiations.” However, this once-relevant role has been increasingly diminished and undermined with each passing year without adoption of any substantive recommendations.

This year’s session is chaired by Ambassador Christopher Grima of Malta who offered opening remarks to the UNDC underscoring that meaningful progress on the disarmament agenda is urgently needed in a time when the multilateral disarmament machinery continues to yield very little. Serious obstacles remain in the way of the entry-into-force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the 2010 NPT Action Plan is far from fully implemented, nuclear weapon system modernization programs are under way in all the nuclear weapon states, proliferation risks remain high, and the recent postponement of the conference on the establishment of a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East has injected new levels of distrust into the NPT regime. With this backdrop, Ambassador Grima noted, “…with each failed attempt to reach consensus the risk of this body becoming irrelevant draws even closer.”

Several delegations offered remarks during the general exchange of views focused on the first agenda item, nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the Community of Latin American and Caribbean states (CELAC), the Africa Group, the Arab Group, and the European Union all offered regional and cross-regional perspectives on the UNDC’s work going forward and reiterated concerns over the status of the UN disarmament machinery. The delegation of Indonesia, speaking on behalf of NAM, underscored the lack of progress by nuclear weapon states to accomplish total elimination of such weapons and also regretted the recent failure to convene the conference on the Middle East NWFZ. Likewise, the representative of Cuba spoke on behalf of CELAC and underscored the importance of addressing all three pillars of the NPT—disarmament, non-proliferation, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. CELAC as well as the Africa Group called for convening of a high-level conference “to identify ways and means of eliminating nuclear weapons and prohibit their development, production, acquisition, testing, stockpiling, transfer, use or threat of use, and to provide for their destruction.” In addition, the Arab Group and the NAM statements also welcomed the forthcoming High-level meeting of the General Assembly on Nuclear Disarmament scheduled for 26 September 2013. Furthermore, the delegation of Iran called for adoption of a specific principle under agenda item 1 noted as follows: “There is no legal, political or security reason to justify the possession of nuclear weapons by any country and their total elimination is the only absolute guarantee against the threat posed by such weapons.”

In terms of the deadlock that has plagued the UNDC, many delegations called for greater political will to achieve consensus in this forum, including the delegations of India, Malaysia, Moldova, Pakistan, and the Republic of Korea. In contrast, other delegations offered specific proposals related to the UNDC’s working methods, many of which would be welcome contributions to making the UNDC more useful, relevant, and productive. The Swiss delegation offered recommendations for improving the Commission’s working methods including focusing each session on just one agenda item, opening the UNDC’s full deliberations to Secretariat staff members, academia, and civil society, as well as submitting a report to the General Assembly on the Commission’s exchanges regardless of whether or not consensus recommendations are reached. Other recommendations included the Egyptian proposals for developing a portal that contains all former proposals and working papers that were discussed in earlier sessions as well as convening side events to elaborate on fresh ideas and test new conclusions. The delegation of Norway noted that working methods could be examined more carefully through production of a Chair’s Summary at the conclusion of the UNDC’s session.

It is more important than ever to use this session of the UNDC as a point of departure from the “status quo,” avoiding generic statements in support of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation or commitment to existing UN instruments. Now is the time to urgently strive to break the deadlocks that seem almost endemic to most parts of the UN disarmament machinery. Indeed, a lack of political will may be, in part, causing this stalemate, but opening up the working methods to new, innovative, and more interactive exchanges is a key strategy in overcoming stalemate.

It is imperative that the UNDC fulfill its role in providing the UNGA First Committee with recommendations so that the First Committee’s work also becomes more effective. In many ways, the UN disarmament machinery is only as strong as its weakest link, but none need be weak at all. As the UNDC begins its issue-specific deliberations in the working groups, it is essential to bear in mind what High Representative Kane warned at the opening of the session—the UNDC will be judged less by words and more by the quality of its outcomes.


–Katherine Prizeman

International Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons

11 Mar

From 4-5 March, the government of Norway hosted an International Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in Oslo. Representatives of 127 member states were present as well as UN secretariat officials, civil society, and other humanitarian response technical experts detailing the environmental, health, and developmental impact of nuclear weapon explosions. It was noted throughout that member states must continue to seize opportunities to act responsibly to prevent any accidental or intentional use of these weapons, a goal guaranteed only by virtue of their abolition. The Foreign Minister of Norway, Espen Barth Eide, offered a Chair’s Summary at the conclusion of the conference that, although it did not offer any concrete recommendations for future movement, did note clearly that, “It is unlikely that any state or international body could address the immediate humanitarian emergency caused by a nuclear weapon detonation in an adequate manner and provide sufficient assistance to those affected.”

While the ‘official’ Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) chose not to attend the conference as a collective group (although India and Pakistan sent delegations), there was a clear sense that the status quo of nuclear disarmament discourse can be neither tolerated nor sustained any longer. The argument by the NWS (also the Permanent 5 [P5] members of the Security Council) was that the conference served as a “distraction” from current disarmament efforts. As Ambassador Laura Kennedy of the United States noted to the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva, “We [the US] are focusing our efforts and energy on practical steps we and others are taking to reduce nuclear weapon arsenals while strengthening nuclear security and the nonproliferation regime.” Likewise, the government of the UK stated that it was pursuing disarmament through “existing mechanisms” such as the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the CD. In response to this argument, Foreign Minister Eide noted in his opening statement that this conference was not intended to serve as a substitute for any existing process, but also noted that the established fora for nuclear weapons deliberations are all “under serious pressure.” Furthermore, as has been rightly noted by colleagues from Reaching Critical Will, the Nuclear Security Summit process is one example of an “alternative process” that has been enthusiastically embraced by the NWS and thereby clearly illustrates the inherent weakness (if not hypocrisy) of the NWS absence from Oslo. Furthermore, the “step by step” and “practical” approach to nuclear disarmament has clearly not been effective and has remained predicated on an inflexible agenda since the 1960s thereby making it all the more appropriate for governments to supplement existing efforts with new fora and political dynamics.

The technical discussion referenced within the conference programme were indeed rich and involved delegations, representatives of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the UN Development Programme Bureau for Crisis Prevention (UNDP BCPR), the UN World Food Programme, and representatives of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) among others. Both the immediate impacts and longer-term consequences of nuclear detonations were explored by researchers, medical professionals, emergency relief experts, and national officials dealing with nuclear radiation preparedness. Experts stated that global famine, catastrophic climate change, and massive loss of life would be among the long-term ramifications of a nuclear detonation, affecting not just those in the immediate area of the bomb’s “ground zero,” but the whole of the global community. The programme featured several panels of humanitarian response experts detailing how and if governments, international organizations, and other actors could, or rather could not, adequately respond to a nuclear detonation. Dr. Ira Helfand of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear (IPPNW) presented the economic costs of a nuclear detonation, which could be upwards of $ 1 trillion over the long-term, and conjectured that due to climate changes from the explosion potentially one billion people could die of starvation alone. Other experts offered scenarios of nuclear detonation in cities such as Oslo as well as national examples of nuclear radiation emergencies in Romania and Norway. Still other presenters reflected on past examples of dangerous nuclear testing in Kazakhstan, the long-term effects of the Chernobyl accident, and the catastrophic fallout from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Many delegations as well as civil society representatives also cited the examples of landmines and cluster munitions as weapons that have been banned by international law for humanitarian reasons, noting that it was time to do the same for nuclear weapons. Furthermore, ICAN noted in its first intervention that blinding weapons, certain conventional explosive weapons, incendiary weapons, the use of poison, and chemical and biological weapons have all been outlawed, all of which have consequences similar to those from a nuclear detonation.

Quite plainly, the overall conclusion drawn by presenters was that there is no way to adequately prepare for or respond to the impacts of a nuclear detonation. As noted by the Director of UNOCHA Geneva, Mr. Rashid Khalikov, in his presentation on humanitarian preparedness and response, “We should, as the international humanitarian community, continue to consider the extent to which we can respond to a weapon detonation in any meaningful way. Ultimately though, the reality remains that the only sensible course of action is to ensure these weapons are never used.”

While the technical conversation was useful, perhaps more importantly, the tone that has been set for the future of nuclear disarmament efforts has clearly and rightly shifted. The consensus among participants was that the global humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons must be the starting point for discussion of disarmament and a ban on nuclear weapons. Foreign Minister Eide noted in his opening statement that, “For decades political leaders and experts have debated the challenges posed by the continued existence and further proliferation of nuclear weapons. This conference, however, takes a different starting point.” Moreover, as the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) noted in its final intervention, nuclear weapons represent “the greatest humanitarian challenge of our time” and the delegation of Austria called this challenge a “litmus test” for how the international community is able to resolve challenges to humanity’s survival. It is the contribution of a reinvigorated commitment to a humanitarian approach to nuclear disarmament that will have the greatest impact on finally bringing an end to these weapons and the threat to humanity posed by them.

Although the Oslo approach (adopting a humanitarian starting point) has been associated with the drive to end nuclear weapons for quite some time, the renewed energy and commitment by states to this approach is noteworthy. In discussions about proportionality of response, there have been legal and humanitarian elements and international criminal and military law have long acknowledged the principle of proportionality that the response should ‘fit’ the threat and that damage to innocents bears the presumption of impermissibility. Nuclear weapons use can stand up to neither test, in fact not even close.

Particularly in light of the stalemate found across the various parts of the UN disarmament machinery from the CD to the UNDC, this conference offered various stakeholders, including the vast majority of UN member states, the chance to converge around the common goal of nuclear disarmament and abolition with renewed energy and enthusiasm. Moreover, with the announcement of an important follow-up meeting to be hosted by the Government of Mexico, there is genuine commitment that this recalibrated approach to nuclear disarmament will enable more robust steps towards nuclear abolition to be taken and sustained.


–Katherine Prizeman

The Twin Problems of the Middle East WMDFZ and Modernization: The Current Precariousness of the NPT regime

4 Feb

As the new review cycle of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) continues this year and the second Preparatory Committee (Prep Com) for the 2015 Review Conference is scheduled to be held in April 2013 in Geneva, the sustainability and robustness of the NPT regime remain uncertain. This is the result of the inability to convene a NPT-mandated conference for the establishment of a Weapons of Mass Destruction-Free Zone (WMDFZ) in the Middle East as well as the continued pursuit of extensive nuclear modernization programs in all the nuclear possessor states.

Concern around the NPT was inevitably heightened when the NPT-mandated Conference on a Zone Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDFZ) for the Middle East was “postponed” in December 2012. The so-called “co-conveners” of the Conference, the United States, United Kingdom, and Russia could not reach agreement on a postponement decision and issued separate statements with the US noting the lack of agreement among the regional states on “conditions for a conference,” the Russian government called for the Conference to be held under the same conditions no later than April 2013 (before the next NPT Prep Com), and the UK issued a statement that called for continued consultations and urged the conference to be convened in 2013.

The Action Plan adopted at the conclusion of the 2010 NPT Review Conference called for the convening of a WMDFZ conference in 2012 in fulfillment of the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East. The inability to do so undoubtedly has not only damaged the credibility of the NPT regime, but has brought into question future implementation and adherence to cornerstone Treaty provisions among many states parties. In particular, the Arab states, most notably Egypt, have placed much emphasis on this Middle East conference tying it closely to its investment in the NPT writ large. In 1995, Egypt threatened to withhold support for the NPT’s indefinite extension should the United States not support the Resolution on the Middle East, including the paragraph about the need to establish a WMDFZ. It is a serious and valid concern that the NPT regime could be “held hostage” by those states, specifically the Arab Group, who believe that such a failure to fulfill a binding commitment represents reason enough not to fulfill other obligations furthering hindering progress made on the twin pillars of the NPT (in addition to the third pillar regarding ‘peaceful’ uses of nuclear energy)—non-proliferation and disarmament. It is also possible that states parties may interpret these failures as a reason to leave the NPT framework altogether and join those states outside of the regime (India, Pakistan, Israel, and the DPRK) that are not subject to its obligations. These alarming trends would only further increase insecurity and decrease the NPT’s legitimacy.

Moreover, the issue of modernization has not been adequately addressed in the context of the NPT itself. While many delegations called for an end to modernization of nuclear weapons at the 2012 NPT Prep Com, modernization programs continue in China, France,  India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, United Kingdom, and the United States. While it might still be an open question as to whether modernization results in ‘new’ weapons, the continued investment in nuclear weapon arsenals must clearly be understood as incompatible with obligations to non-proliferation and disarmament. By improving and expanding the capabilities of nuclear warheads, even if the number of warheads itself remains the same, the nuclear weapon possessor are engaging in a form of proliferation. Moreover, the disarmament obligations found in Article VI are surely not being met with the appropriate seriousness and resources (both financial and political) where modernization programs are under way. Reaching Critical Will notes in its study “Assuring Destruction Forever” (April 2012) that committing billions of dollars to nuclear arsenal modernization not only drains a large portion of the world’s resources, it sets precedents for pursuing the global nuclear weapon industry indefinitely. As Beatrice Fihn of Reaching Critical Will has rightly stated, “Commitment to nuclear disarmament is not just about quantitative reductions, it must also include a cessation of qualitative improvements, as ‘leaner but meaner’ weapons do little to change the continued reliance by a few states on nuclear weapons to provide security.”

There is much to be done to reinsert confidence and robustness back into the NPT framework. The 2013 NPT Prep Com in Geneva must begin to rebuild the momentum that was first gained with the adoption of the consensus Action Plan from the 2010 Review Conference. The success of this Prep Com will depend, in large part, on whether or not the Conference for a Middle East (WMDFZ) will be convened prior to the start of the Prep Com in April. If not, the stakes of the Prep Com will only be higher and the political difficulties only increased. Patience will wear thin and some states may seek alternate pathways, including pathways outside of the NPT, to achieve security assurances. This would be a dangerous precedent if it were realized.

Likewise, delegations must continue to hammer the point home that modernization of existing nuclear arsenals is incompatible with NPT obligations. The vast majority of states parties to the NPT do not possess nuclear weapons nor are they pursuing such capabilities. It is time for these delegations, representing the overwhelming majority of the global community, to speak strongly against the inherent hypocrisy of committing to disarmament, but engaging in expansive modernization programs. Rather than modernizing the weapons, nuclear weapon possessors should be pursuing the means to safely, verifiably, and transparently reduce the number of warheads in their stockpiles.

Without significant movement on these two threats to the NPT regime, the likelihood of achieving substantial progress towards the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons will be seriously lowered.


—-Katherine Prizeman