October 21, 2017
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Podcast: UN talks to prohibit nuclear weapons



Despite the unparallelled danger that nuclear weapons pose to all humanity, they remain the only weapons of mass destruction not yet prohibited under international law. But that might soon change. In February, talks began at the United Nations in Geneva on developing a new legal instrument to advance a nuclear-weapon-free world. This groundbreaking diplomatic process will continue in May and August.

In this podcast, we report on the progress made so far. Which nations have been championing a ban? Which have been standing in the way? And would this new instrument bring about change even if nuclear-armed nations refuse to sign on? But before heading to the Palais des Nations, where the talks took place, we look briefly at how they came about. I’m Tim Wright from the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

Part I – A UN mandate

Ray Acheson (R): I’m director of Reaching Critical Will, which is a programme of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

Ray Acheson (R): I’m director of Reaching Critical Will, which is a programme of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

This is Ray Acheson, a peace activist and disarmament expert, who spoke to me from New York. Her organization celebrated its centenary last year. It assiduously monitors the work of disarmament forums such as the First Committee of the UN General Assembly.

R: First Committee deals with issues related to disarmament and international security, so it’s a really comprehensive body that allows all UN member states to engage in discussions and to submit resolutions on particular topics related to disarmament and arms control issues.

Last October, Mexico submitted a UN resolution to this forum that would establish an open-ended working group – the UN body that began its deliberations in Geneva in February. 

R: The idea behind establishing an open-ended working group is that it would be a place for states to put on the table specific proposals to move forward with negotiating effective legal measures for disarmament. 

Tim Wright (T) : And so Mexico wanted a working group that would be able to negotiate a new treaty or new legal instruments. Is that right?

R: In the original formulation of the resolution, they were looking for it to have a negotiating mandate, yes.

T: And what happened?

R: Over the course of consultations with other states, the resolution was changed to discussing effective measures instead of negotiating.

Here, a member of the UN secretariat describes the purpose of the resolution:

UN: To convene an open-ended working group to substantively address concrete effective legal measures, legal provisions and norms that will need to be concluded to attain and maintain a world without nuclear weapons.

Some nations attempted to weaken the resolution further by imposing unanimity as a condition of decision-making – in effect, a veto power for any of the participating nations. But, fortunately,

R: This very narrow concept of consensus stayed out of the final resolution that was adopted.

T: Which were the countries that were trying to impose this requirement of consensus?

R: The nuclear-armed states and also some of their allies that rely on nuclear weapons in their security policies and doctrines. Also some states such as Iran. And Iran actually ran a counter-resolution trying to establish a different open-ended working group which would operate on the basis of consensus. 

T: What was its motivation for doing that? 

R: Iran and some others in the Non-Aligned Movement really uphold this idea of consensus, meaning the ability to have a veto over anything. To some extent, they see this as a measure that will protect their own interests, but in reality it just holds back any progress from occurring.

T: This Iranian proposal was essentially in competition with the Mexican proposal. What ended up happening to the Iranian resolution?

R: The Iranian resolution ended up being withdrawn.

Iran: My delegation, after informing the co-sponsors of the resolution, has decided to withdraw its proposal as contained in L.28/Rev.1 from the agenda of the committee.

R: When they withdrew it, they said the reason for that was that they couldn’t get the support of all the nuclear-armed states for this resolution. Israel had delivered an intervention shortly before stating that they weren’t supporting the resolution.

Iran, of course, has been highly critical of Israel’s nuclear weapon programme, as have many others in the Middle East – Israel being the only nation in the region to possess a nuclear arsenal.

R: It isn’t clear if Iran had support of all of the other nuclear-armed states, though they were not vocally opposing Iran’s resolution, while they were vocally opposing Mexico’s resolution.

Endorsing the Iranian proposal would no doubt have been difficult, in particular, for the United States, where intense right-wing opposition to the Iran nuclear deal struck earlier in 2015 lingered.

T: I want to return to this issue of the negotiating mandate in the Mexican resolution. You said that it was the nuclear-armed states and some of their allies that were trying to impose the consensus requirement. Was it this same group of countries that were trying to take out the negotiating mandate?

R: Yes, they didn’t want to establish a group that would negotiate treaties at this point.

This, despite being parties to the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, which requires that they pursue negotiations for nuclear disarmament. Many assert that the Conference on Disarmament, or CD, in Geneva – a moribund, unrepresentative body – is the only appropriate forum for negotiations.

R: That was another reason they opposed a negotiating mandate for the open-ended working group – in the interest of preserving the CD, which is supposed to be the body where nuclear-weapons-related treaties are negotiated. But the last treaty that was negotiated there was 1996. No progress has been able to be made there because of this consensus rule.

T: There was a tweet from the US ambassador at the time saying that the Mexican proposal was an attempt to subvert the established disarmament machinery.

R: You can’t subvert something that isn’t working. If you haven’t produced anything in 20 years, I think it’s fair enough for the majority of states that have an interest in doing so to try to set up another way to make progress on these issues.

This was Russia’s reaction to the Mexican proposal: 

Russia: We mustn’t delude ourselves. An open-ended working group can in no way replace the high degree of professionalism and the work of experts carried out by the Conference on Disarmament, or CD. It’s very dangerous, very risky.

Nuclear-armed India – another beneficiary of the dysfunction of the CD – registered its objection, too:

India: There are inherent dangers in proposals that further fragment the disarmament agenda or splinter the established disarmament machinery.

The Conference on Disarmament has just 65 member nations; the rest of the international community and civil society are excluded from participating. By contrast, the new UN working group would be open to all states, as well as non-governmental organizations.

T: Were there any attempts to try to limit the role of civil society in the working group?

R: Yes, there was apparently pushback to civil society involvement, particularly in closed-door meetings among states, who are not very keen to have our voices in the room, but also for their voices to be heard outside of the room. That sort of pressure against transparency and public engagement, I think, is very damaging for the United Nations and also any issues related to disarmament or arms control. 

T: Were these undemocratic states?

R: No, from our understanding of who was speaking up against it, it was many western European countries, for example, that were pushing back against the role of civil society in the open-ended working group.

T: How do you interpret this kind of pushback – not just the attempt to limit civil society participation, but also the concern around consensus and the idea of a negotiating mandate? Is this a good sign, in a sense? Does it mean that they’re taking it seriously?

R: I think very much so, yes. These states that have, until now, controlled the narrative around nuclear weapons, as well as of course their possession and the ability to threaten their use, they have controlled the entire situation and regulatory regime around nuclear weapons. And I think they’re feeling very pressured. And they’re pushing back against civil society’s engagement because we are having an effective role in terms of advocacy and information and raising awareness, and they’re pushing back against states that are trying to establish new ways of operating that can find effective ways forward because they want to retain the status quo. They want their nuclear weapons.

The First Committee meets annually, and Ray has participated in each of its sessions for the past decade.

T: How does last year’s session compare with previous sessions in terms of the atmosphere and the sense that something is happening?

R: It was a completely different vibe at First Committee. Countries had to start talking about concrete things. They had to talk about how they wanted to proceed with nuclear disarmament. And they had to talk about the concept of a nuclear weapon ban treaty, which is an idea whose time has definitely come and is very challenging for many states – not just the nuclear-armed, but also of course many of their allies that have nuclear weapons in their security doctrines. And it became all about the ban. Everything became about the ban.

Five of the nine nuclear-armed nations offered this criticism of the Mexican resolution to establish the working group:

P5: An instrument such as a ban, without the support and participation of the nuclear-weapon states, would not eliminate nuclear weapons. This resolution attempts to promote nuclear disarmament whilst ignoring security considerations. We do not believe that such an approach can effectively lead to concrete progress. 

That was France, speaking also on behalf of the United States, Russia, Britain and China – all of whom are eager to preserve their control over the debate.

P5: Productive results can only be ensured through a consensus-based approach.

Some US allies also objected. This is Australia on behalf of 27 nations – mostly members of NATO, including five that host US nuclear weapons on their soil. They complained that the Mexican resolution was

Australia: … contributing to increasing international divisions with regard to nuclear disarmament, including by seeking to marginalize and delegitimize certain policy perspectives and positions.

Their strident opposition has, in a sense, helped focus the debate on the idea of a treaty banning nuclear weapons.

T: Would you say that the ban is inevitable?

R: Absolutely. I think it’s something that states that are committed to nuclear disarmament and preventing the use of nuclear weapons will pursue. I think it’s the only option available to non-nuclear-armed states at this point in time. 

Ray doubts that nations armed with nuclear weapons will show effective leadership, in the foreseeable future, towards a nuclear-weapon-free world.

R: They have not complied with their disarmament obligations under the NPT, and they are pouring billions of dollars into modernizing their nuclear arsenals. So nuclear disarmament, in terms of the elimination of nuclear weapons, is not going to come from those states right now. The best chance that we have to impact the landscape on nuclear weapons – politically, economically, legally, socially – is going to be through a prohibition of these weapons, and that’s something that is possible. It’s feasible. It will be effective. And it’s what states can do right now. And I think that the recognition of that is growing.

That was Ray Acheson from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, explaining the genesis of the talks that began in Geneva this February.

On 7 December last year, Mexico’s resolution – which the United States had dismissed as a non-starter, boldly declaring, “It will not succeed” – was adopted with overwhelming international support.

UN: The General Assembly is now voting on draft resolution VI, entitled “Taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations”. Will all delegations kindly confirm that their votes are accurately reflected on the screen. The voting has been completed. Please lock the machine.

While the nuclear-armed nations voted against the resolution, and many of their allies abstained, the rest of the world voted yes – yes to new legal measures to achieve and maintain a nuclear-weapon-free world.

UN: The result of the vote is as follows: in favour, 138; against, 12; abstention, 34. The draft resolution is adopted.

Part II – The talks begin

The picturesque Swiss city of Geneva is, arguably, the disarmament capital of the world, though many years have passed since progress was last made there towards multilateral nuclear disarmament. And so, when the new UN working group convened for the first time on 22 February, many diplomats hoped that the long period of inertia had come to an end.

The picturesque Swiss city of Geneva is, arguably, the disarmament capital of the world, though many years have passed since progress was last made there towards multilateral nuclear disarmament. And so, when the new UN working group convened for the first time on 22 February, many diplomats hoped that the long period of inertia had come to an end.

UN: It is an honour and privilege to declare open this first session of the open-ended working group.

Mary Soliman, acting director of the UN disarmament bureau in Geneva, reminded delegates that the NPT and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, or CTBT, had been negotiated in the very building in which they were gathered.

UN: Several multilateral conventions and treaties associated with the elimination, control and non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, such as the chemical and biological weapons conventions, the NPT and the CTBT, have been negotiated at the Palais des Nations.

Thai ambassador Thani Thongphakdi was appointed chair of the working group.

Chair: Despite the reductions that have taken place since the end of the cold war, some 16,000 nuclear warheads and fissile material for the production of tens of thousands of additional nuclear weapons are still an unfortunate reality of our world.

One speaker on the opening panel was well known to all.

Radio: Speaking at the UN in Geneva at a meeting that’s tasked with kick-starting nuclear disarmament negotiations, former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan said that the current status quo is not good.

Annan: In the decades since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we have to come to comprehend the devastating, planet-destroying consequences that any use of nuclear weapons would unleash. The international regime governing nuclear weapons, with the Non-Proliferation Treaty at its core, was meant to put a permanent end to these dangers by facilitating the total elimination of nuclear arsenals. Yet, it has been more than 45 years since the nuclear-weapon states entered into a legally binding contract with the non-nuclear weapon states to negotiate in good faith on nuclear disarmament.

Not only have they failed to disarm.

Annan: In fact, nuclear-armed states are actually modernizing their nuclear arsenals and are developing new types of weapons.

In light of these realities, he said, many nations rightfully question whether the existing legal architecture is sufficient to achieve a nuclear-weapon-free world. Strengthening that architecture should be the focus of this working group.

Annan: I welcome the establishment of this open-ended working group, which should aim to galvanize international public opinion and, I sincerely hope, break through the paralysis which has characterized and stymied the debate on nuclear disarmament in recent decades.

This is Ireland, one of around 90 nations participating in the working group. 

Ireland: In any other area of life, work or governance, if something wasn’t working for over 20 years, or indeed over 70 years, we would try to fix it. We would look to see what was missing, and what was preventing progress and we would try to fill that gap. In the past, we have been excellent at drawing up lists. But as we all know, just drawing up the list doesn’t get the thing done. A long list of actions that is not time-bound and has no mechanism for tracking progress is little more than a wish-list. We are not going to wish nuclear disarmament into existence. Our ambition needs to be matched by our actions, not our action plans. And our actions need to keep pace with the mounting risks we all face. The risk of a nuclear detonation, either by accident or on purpose, is probably higher now than it ever was. Indefinite retention means inevitable catastrophe.

The working group, according to Ireland, provides much hope for change.

Ireland: We have an opportunity here for real and genuine debate, open to all and blockable by none. I hope that the spirit which inspired the foundation of the United Nations, the same spirit that gave us the sustainable development goals, the climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal, will inform our work here this week and future sessions.

Fujimori Toshiki, a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, implored the assembled delegates to fulfil their mandate.

Fujimori: I sincerely hope that the group will fully live up to its task, which will in turn drive forward the progress in multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations. We surviving atomic bomb victims, as part of civil society, will dedicate our lives to this noble cause.

Many of the nations that had abstained from voting on the Mexican resolution last year were present – hoping, no doubt, to steer discussions away from the ban. Notably absent, however, were the nine nuclear-armed nations: the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea.

Netherlands: We think this open-ended working group would have profited from the participation of those states possessing nuclear weapons.

That was the Netherlands, a nation that hosts US nuclear weapons on its territory. Its comment was more a criticism of the working group than of the nuclear-armed nations. The chair set the record straight, noting that the working group is

Chair: … an inclusive forum mandated by the General Assembly and therefore open to all those who chose to participate at any time.

Indeed, “open-ended” in UN parlance specifically means open to all nations. It is hard to imagine, therefore, a more inclusive forum than this. Yet the criticisms continued from nations that claim nuclear weapons enhance their security.

Australia: The nuclear-weapon states and the nuclear possessor states have decided not to participate.

This is Australia, using terms that differentiate between nuclear-armed nations within the Non-Proliferation Treaty and those outside.

Australia: The reasons for this are complex. But in short, a key explanation would seem to be a sense of mistrust that has developed in recent years. We don’t think it helpful to cast the blame for why this mistrust has developed. Perhaps even we should all share responsibility for this. Instead we urge delegations to look to rebuild that trust.

But casting blame is precisely was Australia had intended to do. In its view, recent efforts to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons have been divisive and undermining of trust. Austria – just a syllable apart in name, but worlds apart in disarmament policy – responded:

Austria: I would contend that the mistrust is, in many ways, not unfounded, given the implementation record that we see on nuclear disarmament.

And what is that record?

Austria: In all nuclear-armed states significant investment and moderization programmes are ongoing, which clearly indicate an intention to rely on nuclear weapons well into the second half of this century. I think the onus, if I can put it that way, would be on countries that have nuclear weapons and rely on nuclear weapons to diminish the mistrust that has been built up over many decades now.

Mexico’s response was more blunt:

Mexico: I have to say that a group of countries boycotting this open-ended working group doesn’t help to build confidence and trust.

Many nations challenged the logic that progress towards nuclear disarmament would be impossible without nuclear-armed nations at the table. To accept that logic would be to give those states a veto power. This, according to Mexico,

Mexico: … has been the modus operandi for many decades. It is not acceptable any more to many of us, to extend this veto power and that nuclear disarmament can only take place when nuclear-possessor states or nuclear-armed states are in agreement, is not acceptable.

Indeed, under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, all 190 parties are equally bound to pursue negotiations for nuclear disarmament – an obligation that applies unconditionally. Of course, the absence of nuclear-armed nations limits the options for progress. But it does not eliminate them. 

Mexico: It might be useful for this group to engage in the exercise to identify which of the options can advance without the participation of nuclear-armed states.

And that is precisely what the working group would do.

Part III – Filling the legal gap

Ever since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki seven decades ago, it has been well understood that nuclear weapons cause catastrophic harm to people. But, for many years, humanitarian concerns had been largely absent from the arcane, abstract debates in international disarmament forums. Since 2010, that has slowly changed, as Malaysia explained:

Malaysia: The rise of the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons initiative has been positive in shifting discourse on nuclear disarmament from looking at nuclear weapons from a strategic, security and military perspective to that of a humanitarian and moral and ethical considerations.

The humanitarian initiative has consisted of three major intergovernmental conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, together with numerous widely supported joint statements and UN resolutions. The initiative, Mexico said, has succeeded in engaging new actors:

Mexico: What the humanitarian initiative did as well was to give the voice back to dozens and dozens on non-nuclear-possessor states, who had remained quiet for many years, patiently waiting for something to happen. And all of a sudden the humanitarian initiative provided them with a platform. We see it this morning, with the presence of many countries that have become active on this issue that were not active for decades.

In March 2013, 128 governments gathered in Norway for the first-ever conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. Follow-up conferences – with even higher levels of participation – took place in Mexico and Austria the following year.

Ireland: Great credit is due to Norway, Mexico and Austria for hosting the three international conferences on the subject of humanitarian consequences. Without them, it would have been difficult to reach as wide an audience or to have gained the momentum which we now have.

This is Ireland. At all three conferences, those who have suffered from the horrific effects of nuclear weapons provided compelling first-hand accounts.

Ireland: The testimony of the survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the visible and multi-generational effects on innocent civilians of nuclear explosions provide adequate reasons why nuclear weapons should never be used again.

Egypt described the conferences as a wake-up call:

Egypt: The outcome of the three conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons undoubtedly manifested clearly the limited ability of the international community to stand up to the ramifications of detonation of a single nuclear weapon. This should be a wake-up call for the international community to launch immediate negotiations on effective measures relating to nuclear disarmament in fulfilment of previously agreed obligations.

The Mexican conference in February 2014 concluded it’s time for a diplomatic process to prohibit nuclear weapons. Then, in December that year, the Austrian conference produced the Humanitarian Pledge – an undertaking by nations to fill the unacceptable gap in existing law.

Austria: The Humanitarian Pledge calls on states to identify and pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.

To date, more than 120 nations have formally endorsed this landmark pledge. And so, as Austria explains,

Austria: A large number of countries have, in a way, endorsed the notion that such a legal gap exists.

The Netherlands is one of a small number of nations that have contested the very existence of such a gap:

Netherlands: We can progress without being bogged down in discussions on a hypothetical “legal gap”.

Other countries that claim protection from nuclear weapons, such as Australia, have been more accepting of the notion that a gap does exist.

Australia: On the issue of a legal gap: we have no problem discussing the existence of a legal gap.

Although any use of nuclear weapons would almost certainly violate the rules of international humanitarian law – that is, the law of war – no comprehensive and universal treaty-based prohibition exists. Moreover, the law of war relates only to the use of weapons, not to stockpiling, transit or production. As South Africa explains:

South Africa: The gap is clearly evident in the international legal architecture related to nuclear weapons, which remain the only weapons of mass destruction yet to be prohibited on a global scale.

Switzerland also called on nations to fill the legal gap:

Switzerland: There is a need to work on effective legal measures to fill this legal gap. In other words, it is timely to discuss the instruments that would lead to a nuclear-weapon-free world.

And what exactly are those instruments? The working group canvassed a number of options. One was a comprehensive nuclear weapons convention – a treaty with a detailed, time-bound programme for the verifiable elimination of nuclear weapons. A nice idea, certainly, but one major problem:

Brazil: For such an approach to be feasible would require engagement in good faith from all stakeholders, including the states which possess nuclear weapons.

That was Brazil, which, like many other governments, has gravitated towards a simpler treaty that focuses on prohibition, with provisions relating to the destruction of nuclear stockpiles to be negotiated at a subsequent date. This ban treaty, as it is known, could be negotiated now among willing states.

Brazil: A ban treaty, on the other hand – since it does not need to be universal at its inception – could be a more practical way to take forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations.

Germany, which, like the Netherlands, hosts nuclear weapons on its soil, does not support such a treaty, but concedes that it’s a viable option.

Germany: In the present political context, a short stand-alone instrument could probably be negotiated quickly.

Is this the approach that endorsers of the Humanitarian Pledge most favour? John Borrie of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research noted:

Borrie: The meaning of the language in the Humanitarian Pledge has given rise to differing interpretations.

However, many of its supporters – as well as detractors – view it as

Borrie: … a call for a process towards an international nuclear weapons prohibition.

The idea of a treaty banning only the use of nuclear weapons – and not, for example, their production and stockpiling – received little or no support at the working group. It is something that India has long championed, though perhaps rather disingenuously. This is the International Committee of the Red Cross:

ICRC: The ICRC would certainly have extreme discomfort with an agreement that would be limited to a prohibition on use with nothing more.

Treaties relating to other inhumane and indiscriminate weapons tend to include a broader set of prohibitions:

ICRC: Both the 1997 anti-personnel mine ban convention and the 2008 convention on cluster munitions prohibit a wide range of activities that includes use, development, production, acquisition, retention, stockpiling and transfer of these weapons, as well as assisting, encouraging or inducing any of these actions.

Most nations agreed that, whatever legal instrument is to be negotiated, it should prohibit nuclear weapons categorically. New Zealand, which has assessed the pros and cons of various approaches, concluded:

New Zealand: The essential element for legal measures and norms for attaining and maintaining a world without nuclear weapons is, above all, the requirement for a multilaterally negotiated global prohibition.

Typically, weapons are prohibited before substantial progress is made towards eliminating them. Prohibition stimulates disarmament.

New Zealand: We see no reason why the pathway adopted for the elimination of other weapon systems, including for the elimination of both other types of WMD – that of a legally binding prohibition – should not equally be applicable as a pathway for the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Provisions could be drawn from other disarmament treaties, New Zealand said:

New Zealand: The specific types of activities to be prohibited are unlikely to differ substantially from those covered in other disarmament instruments. At a minimum, the following acts would be proscribed: the testing, development, possession and transfer of nuclear weapons, as well as the use or stationing of them, plus related offences of facilitation or assistance.

Italy – another of those NATO members with US nuclear weapons stationed on their territory – questioned the effectiveness of a ban:

Italy: Banning nuclear weapons by itself will not guarantee their elimination.

But no nation has claimed otherwise. As South Africa explained, the ban treaty would not be a panacea, but rather a step towards the goal of elimination.

South Africa: A ban, as envisaged by its proponents, would probably not contain elaborate or technical provisions but would simply prohibit the production, use, stockpiling, transfer of nuclear weapons in a non-discriminatory manner. As such, it would constitute an interim, partial measure geared towards attainment of a world without nuclear weapons.

Its potential effect can be gleaned from comparable treaties:

South Africa: Judging by the experience with other multilateral instruments, it can be argued that an instrument that will stigmatize a particular weapon on the basis of its unacceptable humanitarian impacts and consequences may indeed serve as an effective measure towards attaining the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.

And, given the weight of evidence on the catastrophic humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, the international community cannot delay indefinitely their prohibition. Governments have a clear imperative to act.

Thailand emphasized the power of norms.

Thailand: For my delegation, establishing effective legal measures to lead us to a world free of nuclear weapons is about setting norms. In the United Nations, we are in the business of setting norms.

Strong norms have been established with respect to other weapons.

Thailand: If we look at the mine ban convention, we can see that there are states with stockpiles of anti-personnel landmines that have not yet become states parties to the convention. But it has become well accepted in the international community that to use, stockpile or develop such kind of weapons is against the international humanitarian norms.

In an ideal world, of course, all nine nuclear-armed nations would be involved in the negotiating process, then join the treaty when it opened for signature, then comply fully with its provisions. But this world of ours – bristling as it is with some 15,000 nuclear weapons – is far from ideal.

Brazil: In a moment of paralysis within nuclear disarmament forums, the idea of a stand-alone treaty banning nuclear weapons would have the merit of being open to all and blockable by none.

Brazil put forth a clear proposal:

Brazil: In our view, this group should recommend to the General Assembly the negotiation of a treaty that would, at the outset, set the core prohibitions on use, possession, stockpiling, transfer and production of nuclear weapons, as well as fissile materials for nuclear weapons, which could of course be later amended – and I hope so – by protocols regarding elimination and verification. Although discussion would not immediately address concerns regarding the existing nuclear arsenals, it would constitute progress towards their elimination.

Many other nations voiced their support for this approach, including Malaysia.

Malaysia: We are of the view that whatever process appropriate can be pursued by those countries willing to do so, with nuclear-armed and other states having the opportunity to join on board. In this respect, the view expressed by Brazil on an option of negotiating a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons, with a solid foundation and basis – with a protocol which can be negotiated at a later stage – is a proposal that merits further exchange and consideration.

Indonesia – a major player in the movement of non-aligned nations – also lent its support to a ban treaty: 

Indonesia: Indonesia is of the view that these two elements can be negotiated separately. We may consider to start the negotiation on the prohibition element to be preceded by negotiation on the elimination element.

By the third day of the working group, the proposal for a nuclear weapon ban treaty had emerged as the most favored pathway forward. Thailand recommended that it become the focus of future discussions:

Thailand: My delegation is of the view that we could narrow down the options to a prohibition nuclear ban treaty. 

Part IV – Blocks and blockages

Zambia: We see that there are in place in certain non-nuclear-weapon states policies that run counter to the goal of achieving and maintaining a nuclear-weapon-free world.

Zambia: We see that there are in place in certain non-nuclear-weapon states policies that run counter to the goal of achieving and maintaining a nuclear-weapon-free world.

This is Zambia, illuminating a problem that has often gone unnoticed – and unchallenged – in meetings of the Non-Proliferation Treaty or the Conference on Disarmament. A problem that is, indeed, central to understanding both the rationale behind and resistance to a nuclear weapon ban treaty.

Zambia: These policies and practices demonstrate the gaping holes in the current legal regime governing nuclear weapons.

So what exactly are the policies and practices to which Zambia refers? My colleague Beatrice Fihn provided the working group with a list:

ICAN: For example, there are non-nuclear-weapon states that are hosting nuclear weapons on their territory, or states that are participating in nuclear war planning. There are non-nuclear-weapon states that are training nationals to deliver nuclear weapons or facilitating intelligence gathering for nuclear targeting. There are non-nuclear-weapon states that are claiming protection from an ally’s nuclear weapons, or are discouraging an ally from pursuing disarmament or reduction of the role of nuclear weapons in security doctrines. There are non-nuclear-weapon states allowing nuclear-armed ships to enter waters, nuclear-armed aircraft to enter their airspace, and nuclear weapons to transit through their territory. There are also non-nuclear-weapon states that are contributing to nuclear weapon modernization programmes, financing nuclear-weapon-producing companies.

And the list went on. A ban treaty, she said, should prohibit all such activities, for they heighten the risk of nuclear weapon use and hamper disarmament. And it is because of these activities that certain nations not possessing nuclear weapons argued against a ban.

Belgium: Mr President, to state it clearly: we do not think that this forum should be a predetermined vector to bring about the negotiation of a ban on nuclear weapons.

That was Belgium – a nation guilty of several of the aforementioned offences, including hosting nuclear weapons on its territory. But seldom are the true reasons for a nation’s objection to a ban clearly articulated. Instead, we hear vague concerns: a ban would undermine security; a ban would be ineffective. But Belgium and other nations that believe passionately in the need for nuclear weapons do have an alternative plan for eliminating them, it seems.

Australia: I have the honour to introduce a paper on behalf of 18 states. It outlines a “progressive approach” to advancing a world free of nuclear weapons.

This is Australia, and by progressive, one can assume that it means happening gradually or in stages. Belgium is one of the 18 co-sponsoring states.

Australia: The paper is a clarion call for action in relation to both effective practical as well as legal measures.

A clarion call, not so much. Its introductory paragraph states that there are no “quick fixes”, that security concerns cannot be “brushed aside”. The tone, overall, is negative, and the ideas rehashed from a paper submitted three years earlier. Japan, another of the co-sponsors, said that this approach would provide a short cut to elimination, without being, presumably, a quick fix:

Japan: This approach seems to be a detour, but it is actually we believe this is a short cut to achieve the final goal.

Others, such as Egypt, were less excited about the paper.

Egypt: We believe most of the effective measures mentioned in this paper are non-proliferation tools.

That is, measures to stop the spread of nuclear weapons to other nations or the build-up of existing arsenals.

Egypt: I would be interested to know how exactly these measures contribute to nuclear disarmament.

The paper describes what is known as the “building blocks” approach, formerly called the step-by-step approach – and sometimes also the full-spectrum approach. And now, it seems, also the progressive approach.

Australia: Most former advocates of the step-by-step process have abandoned that terminology because of its fixation with linear progression. This has been subsumed by most if not all of its past advocates into the concept of building blocks. Nevertheless, to deny a link between the two ideas would be disingenuous on my part.

Australia objected to Austria’s apparent suggestion in another paper that those nations advocating the building blocks or step-by-step approach are, in fact, intent on maintaining a nuclear-weapon-based security system.

Australia: We would indeed contend that that is not the principle and the basis behind the building blocks approach.

Several delegations wondered aloud whether a treaty banning nuclear weapons could be considered as part of the building blocks approach. 

Costa Rica: We believe that, from the strategic and practical point of view, a prohibition treaty can be one of the building blocks.

That was Costa Rica. South Africa, too, saw the ban as compatible with the building blocks approach:

South Africa: A ban treaty could serve as an effective interim measure, building block or as one of the steps towards the achievement of a world free of nuclear weapons.

Their logic was unassailable, even for several NATO members – though, they said, a ban should be considered only in the final stages, when elimination is imminent.

Belgium: For us engaging in negotiations on a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons can only come as a final building block in order to guarantee a nuclear-weapons-free world.

That was Belgium, and this is the Netherlands.

Netherlands: The Netherlands is not against a ban. We see it as a final element towards a world without nuclear weapons, when nuclear weapons do no longer fulfil a function in the security of states.

Australia’s position appeared to be the most extreme of all. It could only entertain the possibility of a prohibition on nuclear weapons after nuclear weapons had been eliminated. This extraordinary stance dumbfounded its neighbour New Zealand:

New Zealand: I have heard some recent suggestion that while a legally binding prohibition may be necessary for maintaining a nuclear-weapon-free world, it is not in fact necessary in order to attain one. However, no clear explanation for why, as a matter of international law, this might be the case has yet been put forward.

When a panellist from the British policy institute Chatham House mistakenly described New Zealand as an endorser of the step-by-step approach, the proudly nuclear-free nation issued a correction:

New Zealand: Pretty explicitly I was questioning the value of step-by-step for getting anywhere substantive on nuclear disarmament. Please don’t take me as an endorser of the step-by-step.

One of Australia’s chief concerns about a ban on nuclear weapons is that it would somehow erode the Non-Proliferation Treaty – although that treaty specifically requires nations to pursue effective measures for nuclear disarmament. And its fragility stems largely from a failure to do so. When prompted to explain its concern, Australia offered a tortuous answer:

Australia: I note that there are indeed some inconsistencies in saying, in the same breath, that a ban treaty, in one sense, is ineffectual and then, secondly, at the same time, saying it could be dangerous. I think the point that may have been overlooked, and perhaps I should rephrase it, is that whilst there is clearly already an obligation on non-nuclear-weapon states not to have nuclear weapons there is still the importance that we have an approach where there is an understanding that you have, for instance, let me phrase it this way: my contention would be that you have the NPT itself potentially put at some element of risk in the context that some states would see the priority going to a ban treaty rather than prioritizing NPT obligations. So I think the question we need to address is really if a ban treaty itself may not necessarily progress us substantially, the reverberations on existing disarmament architecture is the question, the point that we’re trying to make. 

New Zealand rejected this claim unreservedly – and concisely: 

New Zealand: A new legal instrument putting in place a prohibition on nuclear weapons would in no way undermine or displace the ongoing legal obligations arising from the NPT but would indeed strengthen them.

But Germany seemed doubtful. How would a ban go beyond the existing “nuclear taboo” established by the Non-Proliferation Treaty, it asked. 

Germany: If it’s joined only by non-nuclear weapon states, it’s hard to see how it provides benefits beyond the prohibitions already enshrined in the NPT or in the various nuclear-weapons-free zones.

One specific example is that it would compel Germany to remove the nuclear weapons from its Büchel air base. And, depending on the scope, it might also forbid Germany from exporting any more of its nuclear-capable submarines to Israel. No doubt, the taboo against nuclear weapons could be strengthened. 

Ireland, perhaps, provided the most eloquent case for moving beyond the gradualist approach that Germany, Australia and co espouse:

Ireland: The problem is, we all know what the steps are, but no one is taking any. We all know what the building blocks are, but nothing is being built. Clearly, a fresh approach is required.

Part V – Whose security?


This question goes to the heart of the disagreement among nations at the open-ended working group. As Thailand put it:

Thailand: Who, exactly, does the nuclear deterrence benefit? Does it mean security for all, or security just for some? How does nuclear deterrence lead us to a world free of nuclear weapons?

The overwhelming majority of nations neither possess nuclear weapons nor claim protection from an ally’s nuclear weapons. They are parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty in good standing. South Africa is a nation that ought to know a thing or two on this subject:

South Africa: As the only country to have first developed and then voluntarily dismantled and destroyed its nuclear weapons capability, our experience illustrates that nuclear weapons do not guarantee security but rather undermine it.

Some nations in nuclear alliances boldly asserted that the humanitarian initiative and the associated push for a ban treaty ignore security concerns. Austria promptly refuted that.

Austria: The argument that the humanitarian initiative doesn’t take the security dimension into consideration is misleading. To the contrary, it puts the security at the centre of the debate.

And, not only the security of nuclear-free nations.

Austria: There is not a lower degree of danger for people living in nuclear-armed states or of people living in states that are in nuclear alliances. To the contrary, they live under a heightened danger of a possible use of nuclear weapons against their country.

Mexico, too, rejected the suggestion that this initiative disregards security concerns.

Mexico: The humanitarian initiative has shown that we do care a lot about security – everybody’s security, not some countries’ security.

The heightened tensions in the world today are no excuse for inaction. Indeed, they make progress on nuclear disarmament all the more urgent:

Mexico: Precisely because of the prevailing international environment, precisely for the test in the Korean peninsula, precisely for the expansion of NATO, precisely for all these tensions is the sense of urgency to make progress on nuclear disarmament.

Japan, alas, disagreed. Despite having suffered the horrendous impact of nuclear attacks, it believes its security depends on the so-called nuclear umbrella of the United States. And, accordingly, it has resisted moves towards a ban:

Japan: Some have proposed the immediate start of negotiations for a legal prohibition of nuclear weapons. But looking over the present security situation, we are inclined to say that we are not yet in the stage where we are ready to take united actions.

Many nations challenged adherence to nuclear deterrence theory, which not only undermines disarmament efforts, but also, they said, incites proliferation:

Egypt: People are still ascribing an obsolete security dimension to nuclear weapons.

This is Egypt.

Egypt: If these weapons have a security validity that drives states to try to acquire them, whether directly by development or indirectly like through nuclear sharing, then why that right is denied to the rest of the international community? If these weapons are really the weapons of peace, then all states should have the right to have them. Needless to say, this assumption represents a coup de grâce to the entire non-proliferation regime.

Brazil echoed those concerns:

Brazil: In our view, the existence of nuclear weapons and the fact that many states rely on nuclear umbrellas provided by their allied nuclear-armed states are key factors of instability and insecurity in the world. Nuclear weapons are not a guarantor of international security. Their existence diminishes the security of all states, including those who possess them. We agree that every state has the duty to provide security for its citizens. However, this security cannot be based on weapons of mass destruction. As long as nuclear weapons are portrayed by some countries as the ultimate tool for their defence, it will obviously seem logical for other countries to develop them.

One cannot be both for the elimination of nuclear weapons and for indefinite reliance on nuclear weapons in security doctrines, Mexico stated:

Mexico: It is absolutely incompatible. And that has become evident precisely as a result of the humanitarian initiative. In our view, you are either for eliminating nuclear weapons or not. You are either for collective security or for the security of a few. There is no middle ground any more.

Canada seemed dismayed that some nations had been so brash as to question its support for nuclear weapons.

Canada: We do not see this as a fundamental inconsistency in our behaviour, although we have heard it argued otherwise this week. We came to participate in the OEWG knowing that our belief in the need to balance the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and their security dimension would be a source of criticism, and so it was.

Australia, predictably, chimed in, too.

Australia: It isn’t a zero-sum game. And we do see there a compatibility between working to eliminate and progress nuclear disarmament whilst at the same time recognizing we have to deal with the situation where there are nuclear weapons and there are security hot spots that certain countries are dealing with.

Although it confessed that Oceania is not one such hot spot. All of these security-based arguments for retaining nuclear weapons raised quite fundamental questions. Just how committed are these nations to fulfilling their obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty? Do they regard the elimination of nuclear weapons as a project for some other century? What price might we all pay if they continue to defer action? 

Ireland: We often hear the phrase, “bearing in mind the wider security situation”. Well, let us bear it in mind.

Ireland alluded to the potential consequences of inaction.

Ireland: The emergence of threats from new non-state actors and more recently the growing threat of cyber-terrorism only makes it even more necessary to rid the world of the last of the unprohibited weapons of mass destruction. Do we really want to wait till someone develops the capacity for a cyber-attack on nuclear launch mechanisms? Do we really believe that the deterrence argument will work against today’s greatest threats?

Part VI – Risk and opacity

The final two days of the February session focused on improving transparency with respect to nuclear weapons, and reducing the risks of detonations, whether by accident or design. Those risks, according to Ireland, are far greater than many had previously imagined.

Ireland: We would be naïve, idealistic and I would argue, arrogant, to assume that humanity, with all our flaws, failings and weaknesses, can retain nuclear weapons and yet completely avoid accidents and out-of-control incidents.

Nations that possess nuclear weapons, Ireland said, must be more honest with their citizens – and with the rest of the world – about these risks. 

Ireland: Global climate change may be the greatest long-term risk to the survival of the planet and everyone on it, but the nuclear risk is actually the more immediate one as it could happen tomorrow and, if so, in an instant. And while a single accidental nuclear detonation might not lead to nuclear winter or the end of the world it would kill vast numbers and leave large uninhabitable areas, with consequent impacts on environment, health, food production and movements of people.

The International Committee of the Red Cross warned that the risks of nuclear weapon use are only increasing.

ICRC: Recent studies and testimonies have highlighted the growing risk of accidental, mistaken, authorized or intentional nuclear weapon detonation. The view of many experts is that these risks are increasing. The former US secretary of defence William Perry recently estimated that the risk of a nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the cold war, and is rising.

Participants seemed to agree that the nuclear-armed nations should do more to reduce the risks of nuclear detonations. At last, they had found common ground. 

New Zealand: I note that an overwhelming number of UN members see a reduction in the operational readiness status of nuclear weapons as being exactly the sort of practical, realistic step we should be able to expect the nuclear-weapon states to take.

Reducing operational readiness, as New Zealand explained, means increasing the lead-time for any launch of nuclear weapons, and thus reducing the risk of launch by accident or through miscalculation. This is a move that New Zealand and others have long championed. Regrettably, however,

New Zealand: We have not been able to persuade the states who are key on this issue, the United States and Russia, to lower the risks of a detonation by moving forward with this very practical measure.

In a forum where those and other nuclear-armed nations were absent, it seemed rather futile to discuss in detail actions of this nature. And so, naturally, the discussion turned to their allies in the room. New Zealand wanted to know what studies, if any, these nations had conducted on the impacts of nuclear weapons, 

New Zealand: … given the consequences would be inflicted on humanity on their behalf by the nuclear-weapon states.

But no such studies were forthcoming. Mexico also demanded greater transparency from these nations:

Mexico: States that are part of military alliances that include the nuclear-weapon states should report on steps taken, or future steps planned, to reduce or eliminate the role of nuclear weapons in their collective security doctrines, as well as accurate information on nuclear weapons stationed in their territory.

But the Europeans remained coy about the nuclear weapons stationed on their territories. Technically speaking, they’re a secret. Yet some of these nations have argued strongly that the nuclear powers should become more transparent with respect to their arsenals. It’s do as we say, not as we do.

Australia ventured to answer Mexico’s question about steps that it has taken to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in its security doctrines:

Australia: Australia, for instance, has its own domestic legislation outlawing nuclear weapons. I know that that’s not something that all states are in a position to do, but certainly we would hold that as one way, a modest way, that we have worked at progressing our obligation.

That legislation was enacted in 1986, and is riddled with loopholes. Nuclear-armed warships and aircraft may visit Australia, and the notion of a “nuclear umbrella”, of course, remains intact.

Throughout the week, Australia and other nations in nuclear alliances had been on the back foot, faring rather poorly in many of the debates. With every passing day, their arguments against change became ever flimsier, as nations subscribing to the Humanitarian Pledge meticulously picked them apart.  

Australia: I think we need to be careful we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

An expression not typically heard in diplomatic forums. For Australia and other nations standing on the wrong side of history, the working group had charted uncomfortable territory. And so, it said:

Australia: We shouldn’t be undermining the CD and putting all our energies into the open-ended working group.

But for most nations, this forum – in contrast to the stale Conference on Disarmament – had proven fresh and fruitful.

Part VII – A pathway forward

The February session had come to an end. The proposal for a nuclear weapon ban treaty was now on the table. The duplicitous positions of nuclear alliance nations had been laid bare for all to see, their objections to a ban roundly rebutted. I asked my colleagues for their impressions of the debate. This is Daniel Högsta, our network coordinator:

Daniel Högsta (D): I have to say we’re very pleased with what has happened so far. The ban treaty is really what we’re talking about here. You know, there are other things that pop up, like the idea of a framework convention, and the building blocks approach, which comes from the umbrella states, but actually the main … what’s kind of under the surface, you know, and out there in everyone’s minds is the idea of a ban treaty – it’s where this is going. So that’s really positive.

T: ICAN of course will be at the next sessions of the working group, in May and August. Can you explain what’s in store?

D: ICAN will be having a civil society campaigners meeting on April 30th and May 1st, which is the weekend before the second session gets started. And it’s going to be a kind of opportunity for ICAN campaigners from across the world to get together and to plot the way forward, to strategize what’s to come. 

T: And ultimately what do you hope that the working group will achieve?

D: We’d certainly hope for a negotiating process to kick off quite soon after the open-ended working group completes its work in August.

Beatrice Fihn, our executive director, was similarly upbeat:

Fihn: I think we’ve had a really great week, with lots of in-depth discussions about a ban treaty. And for the first time ever, governments have really talked about the details of the treaty, about what kind of elements they would like to see in a future treaty, and what exactly should be prohibited. And I think this is really setting up well for an excellent session in May, where we hope that governments will agree to start negotiations. And in May we’re going to bring campaigners from all over the world, and really push governments into banning nuclear weapons.

I spoke also to Richard Lennane, the chief inflammatory officer of Wildfire, a Geneva-based organization that works to expose hypocrisy and doublethink in disarmament diplomacy. A former Australian diplomat and UN disarmament official, he is perhaps an unlikely agitator.

Tim Wright (T): Do you sense, having listened to the debates this week, that there is an appetite for something new?

Richard Lennane (R): I think that the debate this week has shown that there very definitely is an appetite for something new, and that this appetite is spreading to more and more countries. And the encouraging thing about the discussion has been a number of the delegations are now ready to talk in a bit more detail about what something new might be. And also the idea that you can’t just stand still or keep doing the same old thing; you’re going to have to try something that will probably have to be without the involvement of the states with nuclear weapons. So that realization, which I think is crucial, is also spreading – and that was in evidence this week as well. 

I asked him about the main points of disagreement in the debate, and the basis of the disagreement. 

R: Because none of the states with nuclear weapons are there, it has brought some of the other differences to the fore, and also some of the other motivations that are sometimes not very clear when the nuclear-armed states are around. And the most interesting feature, I think, is what I call the nuclear-weasel states – that is, non-nuclear-weapon states that are members of the NPT, so possession for them of nuclear weapons is already illegal, but they are members of alliances with, for example, the United States or another nuclear weapons power. And so they depend on nuclear weapons for their security, quite explicitly. And because the nuclear-armed states were not present during the open-ended working group this week, it’s really these weasel states, these alliance states, who are having to do the work of defending the status quo, or defending the legitimacy of nuclear weapons. And that, I think, makes them very uncomfortable because, on the one hand, as non-nuclear-weapon states parties to the NPT, they’re supposed to be already free of nuclear weapons and already really pushing for a nuclear-weapon-free world; on the other hand, they’re defending the interests of their alliance partners who are not present to defend them themselves. 

T: There are two more sessions of the working group later this year. What are your overall hopes?

R: Well, my overall hope is that, um, by the end of the working group, there’ll be a broad coalition of states who, either in the report of the working group or through some independent mechanism, will just declare that they have decided that the way forward is to negotiate a treaty banning nuclear weapons and they’re ready to do that right now, whether that’s through the United Nations or through some outside process.

That was Richard Lennane, chief inflammatory officer of Wildfire, speaking to me at the conclusion of the February session. No doubt, significant progress had been made, but much work remains to be done – as, indeed, Australia noted:

Australia: There is still a very clear lack of clarity as to what a ban treaty would consist of. We need to hear from its advocates what they mean by a ban treaty. 

And that, dear listener, sounds like a challenge.