The Open Ended Working Group (OEWG) for nuclear disarmament is holding sessions this week at the United Nations Office in Geneva. States are gathering to discuss the steps necessary to create a world free of nuclear weapons. The OEWG will submit a report summarizing the discussions and agreed recommendations to the UN General Assembly for consideration.
The OEWG is unique in a number of ways. First, all states currently participating do not possess nuclear weapons. All states possessing nuclear weapons chose not to attend. Second, civil society groups can make interventions on the floor. Civil society groups do not have to be as tactful as states, and their participation has contributed to a lively debate on the floor.
On Tuesday, Austria announced that 126 states are supporting working paper 36, which calls for filling a ‘legal gap’ by moving forward with nuclear disarmament negotiations. This gap, Austria suggests, should be filled with a legally binding treaty or instrument that bans nuclear weapons. On Monday, Costa Rica stated that a ban treaty that pushes for the total elimination of nuclear weapons is the most viable path forward. Nicaragua said that a ban treaty must prevent the modernization of both nuclear weapons and nuclear weapon testing, implying that the ban must include computer testing. On Tuesday, Mexico claimed that vital elements of this ban treaty should prohibit the possession, acquisition, stockpiling, development, transfer, stationing, deployment, modernizing, and financing of nuclear weapons.
A ban treaty would be a substantial step forward for the nuclear disarmament regime. However, a select few states at the OEWG claim that a ban treaty would be ineffective, or worse, would undermine the existing international disarmament regime entirely. These countries are presenting flawed arguments against a ban and suggesting alternatives that will merely continue the 46 years of stalling on the nuclear disarmament issue.
Canada, Japan, Latvia, Poland and Belgium stated that a ban may undermine the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which they believe is the bedrock for the disarmament regime and has created progress. These countries could not be further from the mark. By speaking out against a ban on nuclear weapons, these states demonstrate their lack of commitment to Article VI of the NPT, which commits all signatories to pursue nuclear disarmament. In the words of Ireland, “The best way to strengthen the NPT is to fulfill the NPT.”
Hungary believes that a ban treaty would stigmatize nuclear weapon states, preventing them from participating in future negotiations. While a ban treaty would stigmatize nuclear weapon states, possession of the world’s most dangerous weapons should be stigmatized. 46 years after the entry into force of the NPT, there are still over 15,000 nuclear weapons. As Jamaica noted on Monday, these weapons threaten “the very survival of humanity.” Stigmatizing nuclear weapon states could be the push necessary for serious disarmament negotiations among states possessing nuclear weapons.
Canada argued on Tuesday that now is not the right time for a ban on nuclear weapons because there is a lack of political will from nuclear weapon possessing states. In its working paper, Canada argues that the disarmament community should “focus not on differences but on common ground by identifying concrete and practical ‘building blocks’” to reach a world without nuclear weapons. Only when global zero becomes “within reach” would “additional legal measures for achieving and maintaining a world without nuclear weapons” be viable. In their words, “significant work remains ahead of us before we attain this point.”
Canada’s strategy, called the “progressive approach,” would maintain the status quo. This strategy will not eliminate nuclear weapons. The idea that the international community should wait for states possessing nuclear weapons to garner political will to get rid of their own weapons is absurd. This strategy has not worked for 46 years and it is not likely to work now. The OEWG presents an opportunity to create real progress on disarmament by starting the process of banning nuclear weapons. The so-called “progressive approach,” which argues that a ban on nuclear weapons would be detrimental, is actually regressive.
All of these states arguing against a ban are diverting attention from a substantive and productive working group. They are discussing stopping nuclear terrorism, the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the creation of a fissile materials treaty. But as the Los Alamos Study Group noted, these measures are not international disarmament measures – they are nonproliferation measures. Since they are not disarmament measures, the OEWG is not the appropriate forum for these issues.
The creation of a treaty banning nuclear weapons is a vital next step to achieving a world without nuclear weapons. This treaty would not only strengthen the existing disarmament regime and codify important norms against nuclear weapons, but it would also broaden the regime. As a clear majority of countries agree, a ban can and should be recommended by the OEWG.
Joseph Rodgers is currently in Geneva, Switzerland attending the OEWG. He has worked on nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation and waste issues for the Arms Control Association, Tri-Valley CAREs, The Committee to Bridge the Gap, and the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability. Joseph is pursuing a masters degree in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey.