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UN Group Explores Ways Out of Nuclear Stalemate

 Analysis by Jamshed Baruah

GENEVA (IDN) – The United Nations General Assembly has tasked an Open Ended Working Group (OEWG) to create a blueprint for constructing a world free of nuclear weapons. The Group’s two sessions – February 22-26 and May 2-13 – failed to agree on a draft plan. But the final three-day session in August was slated to negotiate a final report with recommendations for the United Nations General Assembly.

The report would be justified in stating – as Beatrice Fihn, Executive Director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) told the OEWG on May 13 – that “a majority of the world’s governments are ready and want to start negotiations of a new legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons”. And this even without the participation of the nuclear weapon states. [P06] ARABIC | BAHASA | ITALIAN | JAPANESE TEXT VERSION PDF | MALAY | NORWEGIAN | SPANISH | THAI

Some 100 governments joined over the course of two weeks in May and many more contributed their support through a joint working paper from the Humanitarian Pledge group comprising 127 States.

Participating governments were undeterred by the continued boycott of the working group by the nine nuclear-armed states: USA, Russia, China, France, and Britain as well as Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea.

ICAN played a decisive role galvanising the support of the civil society, including faith-based organizations. An interfaith joint statement issued on May 2 highlighted the moral and ethical imperatives for the abolition of nuclear weapons. The statement, endorsed by nearly 35 faith groups and individuals, was presented to OEWG Chair, Ambassador Thani Thongphakdi of Thailand on May 3.

Underlining the civil society’s key role, UNFOLD ZERO stated: “There is now strong momentum for the start in 2017 of multilateral negotiations for nuclear disarmament – something which has been blocked for nearly 20 years.”

UNFOLD ZERO partner organisations include Mayors for Peace, Peace Depot, Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (PNND), Basel Peace Office, International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms (IALANA) and Middle Powers Initiative mobilised critical support.

The proposal was spelt out in the OEWG working paper 34 – Perspectives from nuclear weapon free zones by a group of countries that have already prohibited nuclear weapons in their regions through nuclear-weapon-free zones (NWFZs). 115 countries are part of NWFZs covering Latin America, the South Pacific, Antarctica, South East Asia, Africa and Central Asia.

Nine of these countries (Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico and Zambia) submitted a proposal to the OEWG to “Convene a Conference in 2017, open to all States, international organizations and civil society, to negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons” and “to report to the United Nations high-level international conference on nuclear disarmament to be convened no later than 2018…on the progress made on the negotiation of such an instrument”.

The plan was supported by a number of other non-nuclear States and civil society organizations during the OEWG sessions. However, none of the nuclear umbrella countries – non-nuclear NATO states, Japan, South Korea and Australia – agreed with the proposal. The nuclear-armed States, which did not participate in the OEWG, are also opposed to the proposal.

Many of the non-nuclear States participating in the OEWG argued that agreement from the nuclear-reliant states was not necessary to negotiate such a treaty. However, others argued that if such a treaty did not include at least some of the nuclear reliant states, it would have little or no impact on nuclear weapons policies and practices. Some also maintained that it could be counter-productive, taking pressure off the nuclear reliant states to adopt interim steps toward nuclear abolition.

Other options for nuclear disarmament negotiations were proposed that would be more likely to attract support from nuclear reliant states and thus impact directly on their policies.

These included a ‘building blocks approach’ and a framework agreement for nuclear disarmament, similar to the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It has been developed by the Middle Powers Initiative working paper to the OEW: Options for a Framework Agreement.

Supporters of the framework agreement suggested that it “could include stronger prohibition measures early in the process, while still engaging those states not able to adopt such measures at the outset”.

However, many non-nuclear States criticized the ‘building blocks’ approach and framework agreement proposals as not promoting sufficiently strong measures in the near-term. They argued that a clear prohibition treaty would be better even if it did not include the nuclear-reliant countries.

One of the main reasons that the nuclear-armed countries did not participate in the OEWG, and why the ‘nuclear umbrella’ countries do not support a nuclear prohibition treaty, is because these countries still rely on nuclear weapons for their security.

An UNFOLD ZERO analysis said: “The OEWG held useful discussions on the role of nuclear weapons in the 21st century and whether it’s possible to eliminate the role of nuclear weapons, including during current times of increased tensions and conflicts between nuclear-reliant countries.”

A number of non-nuclear States and civil society organizations emphasized the possibilities for achieving security, reducing tensions and resolving international conflicts through alternative means.

These include diplomacy, law, mediation, arbitration, adjudication and the use of common security mechanisms in the United Nations, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and other bodies. Some delegates noted that the recent agreement with Iran was an example worth emulating.

A number of countries and NGOs focused on a different issue – the lack of political will and commitment of the nuclear-reliant States to nuclear disarmament. The Middle Powers Initiative, Arms Control Association, Basel Peace Office, Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (PNND) and UNFOLD ZERO proposed a series of Nuclear Disarmament Summits in order to build such political will.

The proposal – in MPI’s working paper to the OEWG titled Nuclear disarmament summits: Building political traction for the adoption and implementation of legal measures and norms, was inspired partially by the success of the Nuclear Security Summits, which built cooperation and commitment to prevent nuclear terrorism.

The Nuclear Disarmament Summits – a series of bilateral (U.S.-Russia) and multilateral meetings at head-of-government level – would enhance media and public attention to the issue and increase the pressure on nuclear-reliant states to adopt key disarmament measures, supporters of the proposal argued.

Diplomatic sources consider it unlikely that consensus will be achieved on either a prohibition treaty (the most popular proposal among the non-nuclear States) or the building blocks (‘progressive’) approach which is the most popular proposal among the nuclear-reliant states.

Such an agreement would, for example: reaffirm the disarmament obligation in Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and customary international law; acknowledge the humanitarian consequences of nuclear explosions and affirm the at least general incompatibility of use of nuclear weapons with international humanitarian law; and state the common objective to extend forever the practice of non-use.

It would also outline non-binding aims for achieving reductions and elimination of nuclear weapons within an “aspirational timeframe”; set out processes for achieving these aims, including further negotiations and reporting mechanisms. Furthermore, it would agree on supporting measures such as further work on verification, confidence-building and establishing security without nuclear weapons.

If framework proposal eludes consensus, sources said, “it’s looking more and more likely that a group of non-nuclear States will move ahead in 2017 to commence negotiations on a prohibition treaty regardless of whether-or-not and nuclear-reliant states participate”. [IDN-InDepthNews – 15 May 2016]

Related articles:

UN Working Group Urged to Assist in Banning Nukes

Campaign for a Nuclear Weapons Free World Intensifies

Despite Hurdles Nuclear-Weapons-Free World Not a Lost Cause

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Photo: A composite of posters of the winners of United Nations Poster for Peace contest | Source: UNFOLD ZERO