A pretty good chat

By Kjølv Egeland

Nuclear disarmament talks proceed in Geneva.

On 2–13 May, the second and meatiest of three segments of a United Nations Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) ‘taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations’ took place at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. Two impressions, elaborated below, stand out: First, the quality of the deliberations was generally high. Second, for the first time, it seems clear that a great number of states, probably a majority of the UN’s members, are prepared to negotiate a treaty banning nuclear weapons – separating the act of prohibition from the process of physical disarmament – even if the nuclear-armed states refuse to play ball.

Established in response to the stultifying deadlock of the 65-member Conference on Disarmament, the OEWG instantiated the first substantive multilateral deliberations of new legal measures for nuclear disarmament since the mid-1990s. Nevertheless, the convening of the OEWG has failed to attract much public attention. By contrast, mainstream media and the international nuclear punditry made much of the anticipated newsflash, which reached Geneva around mid-day on the Tuesday of the second week, that US President Barack Obama will travel to Hiroshima and make another speech about his vision of a world without nuclear weapons. But the nuclear-armed states were conspicuous by their absence at the historic OEWG, leaving the unthankful job of defending the ‘security dimension’ of nuclear disarmament to their allies. Reluctant to engage in disarmament discussions in which they do not enjoy the power of veto, the nuclear-armed states all stayed away.

The absence of the nuclear-armed states was, of course, noticeable, and, as many speakers pointed out, regrettable. But – and this is becoming a recurring theme – if the nuclear-armed states’ boycott was meant to stifle the growing momentum towards a treaty banning nuclear weapons, it did not work. For many delegations, the nuclear-armed states’ unwillingness to engage simply proved a point made with increasing frequency: if the nuclear-free states want to see results in the form of new legal instruments, they quite simply have to proceed without the nuclear-armed states. Certain delegations, such as that of Germany, expressed concern that such a course of action would be ‘premature’. Yet, as other delegations were quick to reply, nuclear-free states have tried – mostly unsuccessfully – to engage the nuclear-armed states for decades. While the bilateral and unilateral stockpile reductions undertaken by some nuclear-armed states should be acknowledged, it remains a fact that the very first step in the so-called step-by-step process of multilateral nuclear disarmament – the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty – has yet to be completed.

As suggested above, the OEWG left two impressions in particular. First, compared to the near ritual proceedings of most multilateral meetings concerned with nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, the quality of the debate was impressive. In contrast to the unidirectional press-conference-style reading of statements familiar from the NPT review cycle and UNGA First Committee, there was a high degree of interaction between delegations (including civil society organisations) and between delegations and experts invited by the Chairperson. The expert presentations – made by Dr Patricia Lewis (Chatham House), Dutch Ambassador Piet de Klerk, Dr Ira Helfand (IPPNW), Sara Sekkenes (UNDP), Dr Stuart Casey-Maslen (University of Pretoria), Dr Nick Ritchie (University of York), retired US General James Cartwright, and Paul Ingram (BASIC) – were, by and large, well received, although some delegations expressed mild annoyance with the fact that some of the panelists, in their view, supported ‘the other side’.

OEWG, May 2016.jpg

The participants also engaged substantively with the large number of working papers submitted to the OEWG, and not just with the ones they had submitted themselves (which is too often the case). Most discussed were probably two working papers recommending the initiation of multilateral negotiations on a treaty banning nuclear weapons – one submitted by nine like-minded states parties to nuclear-weapon-free zones (no. 34) and one by the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (no. 15) ­– as well as 126 states’ working paper on the existence of a ‘legal gap’ in the non-proliferation and disarmament regime (no. 36) and Canada’s working paper on the non-existence of such a gap (no. 20). Austria’s introduction of working paper 36 drew loud applause both from civil society and several national delegations. An eloquent Irish statement delivered a few minutes later also drew energetic applause – a somewhat rare occurrence at usually restrained nuclear disarmament meetings.

The exchange was mostly well informed and often on topic. Although a number of developing states never came to take their seats, a large number of states – well over 100 – were in attendance. The understanding of the topics up for discussion, including ways forward, had clearly improved since the UN General Assembly session late last year. Recycling of old talking points and longish meditations on topics not strictly on the agenda did of course occur, but were effectively – at least when perpetrated by US allies seen by some to be defending the status quo – called out by some of the more impatient delegations. Disingenuous engagement was ‘quite frankly insulting’, the Mexican Ambassador exclaimed at one point.

The second impression left by the OEWG was that it now seems clear that a great number of states, cheered on by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, are prepared to initiate negotiations on a new legal instrument prohibiting nuclear weapons even if the nuclear-armed states are not prepared to participate. A major development of the two segments of the OEWG is that influential states like Brazil, Egypt, and Indonesia have come out in support of the negotiation of a ban on nuclear weapons for the first time. As Brazil pointed out in February, and reiterated in May, one does not necessarily have to choose between a straightforward ban treaty and a comprehensive convention stipulating provisions for stockpile destruction and verification. Inculcating a normative shift (the ban) could be seen as a first step towards a comprehensive abolition regime, the long-standing policy of the Non-Aligned Movement (which did not seem to play a significant part at the OEWG). Several US allies spoke out against the idea of banning nuclear weapons before the process of elimination is complete. Germany, for example, argued that a ban not subscribed to by the nuclear-armed states would have no effect on disarmament. Poland argued that a ban would probably make the nuclear-armed states less willing to implement their obligations under Article VI of the NPT (which obliges them to negotiate effective measures for nuclear disarmament) and maybe even lead to global instability. The Japanese delegation, one of the most active at the OEWG, lamented the ‘divisiveness’ of the ban-treaty approach. The international community would do better by building on areas of agreement, it repeatedly stressed. The Irish and New Zealand teams were among a number of delegations that explicitly distanced themselves from this view, the former claiming that, if the international community is to see real progress in negotiations, ‘a level of discomfort is inevitable’.

The 2016 OEWG will meet again to wrap up its work in August. It is mandated to produce a report containing recommendations on taking forward ‘effective legal measures, legal provisions and norms that will need to be concluded to attain and maintain a world without nuclear weapons’ to the 71st session of the UNGA in the fall.

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