From Vienna to New York: The bumpy road to nuclear disarmament

There are new options to overcome the impasse. By Paul Meyer.
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January 29, 2015

Under the gaze of playful cherubs and florid murals, the Festival Hall of the Imperial Hofburg Palace in Vienna seems an incongruous venue for debating the existential threat posed by nuclear weapons.

This was however the locale of the Third Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons (Dec. 8-9, 2014). The event brought together hundreds of delegates representing 158 states and as many international organizations and NGOs. The Vienna Conference followed two earlier international conferences on the same theme held in Oslo, Norway in March 2013 and Nayarit, Mexico in February 2014. All these gatherings constituted a sort of diplomatic riff on a one-sentence theme that was first expressed in the outcome document of the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference.

That outcome, agreed to by all 189 states parties to the NPT, expressed the Review Conference’s “…deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and reaffirms the need for all states at all times to comply with applicable international law, including international humanitarian law.”

To the uninitiated, this would seem a banal assertion of the obvious, but within the dry discourse of NPT meetings it represented a refreshing breeze with its invocation of humanitarian principles and the moral hazards associated with the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons. Many states party to the NPT welcomed this new focus on the humanitarian imperative for nuclear disarmament. This stance was manifested in a major statement delivered by New Zealand on behalf of 155 states to this fall’s session of the First (Disarmament) Committee of the UN General Assembly. The International Red Cross/Red Crescent movement and a vast array of civil society groups have also been vocal supporters of the humanitarian impetus for nuclear disarmament.

Despite their having been party to the 2010 NPT Review Conference outcome affirming the humanitarian theme, the five nuclear weapon states (U.S., UK, France, Russia and China) have been less than enthusiastic about the humanitarian initiative. They had collectively boycotted the previous Oslo and Nayarit conferences and for some months it appeared that they would do the same for Vienna. However, the forthcoming NPT Review Conference (April/May 2015 in New York) and perhaps the recognition that continued stonewalling on engagement with the humanitarian caucus might not endear them with states which with they would need to cooperate to ensure a successful outcome at that Review Conference appeared to have led to a change of position on the part of at least two of the nuclear weapon states.

A few weeks prior to the convening of the Vienna conference the United States announced it would attend the meeting and a short time later the United Kingdom also decided to participate with an official delegation.

During the initial part of the Vienna conference participants heard from several panels of experts describing the impact of nuclear weapon explosions and testing, the “risk drivers” for deliberate or inadvertent nuclear weapons use, scenarios of nuclear conflict and international legal norms pertaining to the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use. The presentations varied from the powerful testimony of Hiroshima bombing survivor Setsuko Thurlow who described how her beloved city was transformed into a “hell on earth” in a matter of seconds to the findings of scientific research demonstrating how even a limited nuclear war could produce devastating climatic changes and precipitate a “nuclear famine” stemming from global crop failures. The dangers of “lowering the nuclear threshold” through maintaining high-alert postures and the dispersal of nuclear weapons were also flagged. An entire panel was devoted to how existing international law (humanitarian, environmental, health) applied to nuclear weapon use. This legal discussion inevitably raised the central question as to why nuclear weapons have never been outlawed in the manner that other weapons of mass destruction have been prohibited through comprehensive treaties of elimination (e.g. 1972 Biological Weapons Convention and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention).

While the goal of a world without nuclear weapons is universally endorsed by states, actual progress towards this situation has been spotty at best and the international community has not embraced a practical process for achieving this end.

Options to move forward

Indeed the issue of what specific approach to take to move purposefully towards the nuclear disarmament goal dominated the second part of the Vienna conference during which the delegations (governments and civil society) delivered statements.

In broad terms, three options were advanced to overcome the nuclear disarmament impasse: a ban on nuclear weapons possession, a nuclear weapons convention providing for their elimination and continuation of a “step by step” approach to realize existing objectives.

The ban proposal is the newest option and one that has garnered support amongst younger activists; notably it is championed by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). The ban would constitute a legally-binding prohibition of the possession of nuclear weapons that could be negotiated amongst non-nuclear weapon states. For proponents of the ban it has the advantage of being able to be rapidly negotiated amongst like-minded states and would not depend on the support of nuclear weapon states. It would draw its authority from the number of states adhering to the ban and would use the power of stigmatization to persuade nuclear-armed states to divest themselves of these weapons. The ban treaty would not be incompatible with and could be a precursor to a comprehensive agreement to eliminate nuclear weapons.

This agreement, frequently referred to as a Nuclear Weapon Convention, has been a preferred option of many states and civil society groups for some time. Such a convention would necessarily take time to negotiate, as it would have to provide for all the detailed steps that the elimination of nuclear weapons would entail, including crucial verification provisions. This convention would require the participation of the nuclear-armed states, although some suggest that only a sub-set of these would be necessary to engage in its development from the start.

The third option is what is commonly referred to as “the step-by-step” approach. This approach is championed by the nuclear weapon states and by some non-nuclear weapon states, such as Canada, involved in nuclear alliances with the former group. Proponents of this approach claim that it represents a practical path for making progress through the realization of relevant agreements already identified as objectives (e.g. entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, negotiation of a fissile material cut-off treaty (FMCT) and continued reductions in the numbers of deployed nuclear forces). Advocates of this approach argue that there are no ‘shortcuts’ to nuclear disarmament and that it represents a long-term endeavour.

These three approaches are likely to dominate the debate over nuclear disarmament in the months leading up to the NPT Review Conference. If this conference is unable to move beyond the status quo and fashion a substantive consensus on the way ahead it will be difficult to preserve the broad unity that the non-nuclear weapon states have displayed up until now.

In parallel to the three options for advancing nuclear disarmament there are also differing views as to which forums should be employed to carry out this work. Ban proponents tend to support the holding of an ad hoc diplomatic conference to agree on a ban. They cite the precedents of the Ottawa and Oslo processes that yielded the Mine Ban Convention and Cluster Munitions Conventions respectively. They see ad hoc conferences outside the mainstream of the UN disarmament machinery as in keeping with the humanitarian disarmament character of the ban and more conducive to civil society participation. Advocates of a Nuclear Weapon Convention support a multilateral negotiation under UN auspices although views differ as to whether this means utilizing the 65-nation Conference on Disarmament (CD) or relying on an open-ended process (meaning any UN member state could participate) that would be established by a General Assembly resolution.

This question of forum is much more than a mere matter of preference as the CD operates under a strict consensus rule that has largely contributed to its 17 years of dysfunction, whereas the UN General Assembly makes its decisions on the basis of majority vote. The Non-Aligned Movement that represents a majority of UN member states has long adhered to a position of insisting on the CD as the sole venue for work on nuclear disarmament agreements. It was especially noteworthy therefore when the Cuban delegation at the Vienna conference announced that it would initiate a negotiation of a Nuclear Weapon Convention via an UNGA resolution. The Cuban representative said his country would introduce a resolution at the fall 2015 session of the General Assembly that would establish an open-ended working group to negotiate the convention with a nominal deadline of completing its work by 2018 (which a previous NAM-led resolution had already established as a date for convening an international conference on nuclear disarmament). The Cuban initiative clearly caught many NAM states by surprise although after almost two decades of sacrificing substance to forum a change of stance in favor of a more functional body to begin work on a nuclear disarmament agreement is overdue. A move away from the CD would also challenge the nuclear-armed states that have privileged the CD as its consensus procedures enable them to exercise control over any decision of that body, a situation that has contributed significantly to the CD’s protracted deadlock.

Frustration over the impasse in multilateral disarmament efforts was palpable in many of the delegates’ interventions in Vienna. The South African representative decried “circular processes” that fail to make any real progress. The Indonesian representative spoke of the need “to catalyze the existing stagnant political processes on nuclear disarmament.” The Austrian chair issued a national “pledge” stating that his country will press all NPT states “to identify and pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.” There were however other contending voices, such as the UK representative (who along with the U.S. were the only two NPT nuclear powers to participate in Vienna) who argued against a ban or setting a timetable for nuclear weapon elimination as this “jeopardises, the stability and security which nuclear weapons can help to ensure.” So while these nuclear armed states also claim support for the goal of a world without nuclear weapons they are ready to act as apologists for these arms and their supposed security benefits.

The Canadian response

This situation poses particular challenges for non-nuclear, but allied states such as Canada, which was represented in Vienna by a delegation of officials headed by the responsible DFATD Director-General. Canada’s official statement, while supportive of the humanitarian impact perspective in addressing nuclear weapons, squarely situated the country in the “step-by-step” camp. It also challenged the utility of a ban on nuclear weapons, arguing that such a treaty “without the endorsement of the main stakeholders, that is the countries who actually possess these weapons, seriously risks undermining the NPT and the delicate balance between its three pillars.” Questioning the practicality of a ban without participation of nuclear armed states is a legitimate if not a conclusive objection (several nuclear weapon states, such as China and France, did not adhere to the NPT itself until years after its negotiation). The objection made in the last part of this sentence is unfortunate however in suggesting threats to the NPT and its internal equilibrium. The NPT does require nuclear disarmament; it does not specify how this commitment is to be fulfilled. If a ban or Nuclear Weapons Convention helps achieve nuclear disarmament then such agreements are fully compatible with the NPT. Similarly, achieving a major advance on nuclear disarmament would not impair some supposed internal NPT “delicate balance” anymore than making progress on non-proliferation, another pillar of the NPT, through adoption of the IAEA’s Additional Protocol for example, would impede forward movement on disarmament.

The Canadian statement struck a more constructive note in its concluding section which highlighted efforts on behalf of a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty via the UN Group of Governmental Experts that Canada chairs and which is due to report this year. Canada also called for “stopping any further vertical or horizontal proliferation,” an important reference given the disturbing modernization programs underway in the nuclear armed states. These programs are likely to attract much critical attention within the NPT context, as they seem to represent backsliding on implementation of existing nuclear disarmament obligations.

This spring’s NPT Review Conference, coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing in Japan, is generally seen as a crucial event for the global nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime. Either a major new impetus for nuclear disarmament is agreed at the Review Conference or it is likely that some non-nuclear weapon states will initiate work on a ban or Nuclear Weapon Convention or both. Once a multilateral negotiation is established it will be difficult for nuclear-armed states to justify their non-participation in it given their long-standing declaratory policies (and NPT commitments for some) in support of nuclear disarmament.

If these nuclear-armed states stay aloof from authorized multilateral negotiations on nuclear disarmament there is a real danger that the NPT-centered regime will lose its authority and possibly even some of its adherents. The humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons that was the theme of Vienna this December may be felt heaviest in New York in May.

A condensed version of this article also appeared on Embassy News.