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3 May 2013, Vol. 11, No. 10

Editorial: The importance of engaging momentum
Beatrice Fihn | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF


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At 6pm on Thursday, the Chair of the second PrepCom, Ambassador Feruta of Romania, released his factual summary. Despite the fact that it is tabled as the Chair’s own reflections and will not be adopted by the committee, the document seems to aim to avoid any significant controversy.

The summary touches briefly upon the usual concerns about continued reliance on nuclear weapons in security doctrines, high alert levels, lack of transparency and reporting standards, lack of time frames for nuclear disarmament, and continued modernization of nuclear weapons, delivery systems, and related infrastructure. At the same time, it also highlights the common responses from the nuclear weapons possessors, such as “progress” on the P5 process and on their views on issues such as the compatibility of their nuclear weapon policies with international humanitarian law.

While the summary does include some welcome new elements reflecting some key implementation failures and positive developments, it does not fully capture the mounting frustration over the treaty regime’s failure to achieve its key objective: the elimination of nuclear weapons.

One positive element of the factual summary is that it recalls the deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences and notes that many states referred to the “unacceptable harm” that would result from a detonation, including the wider and long-term impact on socio-economic development. It also includes a reference to the Oslo conference, and notes that many states looked forward to the follow-on conference in Mexico.

This reference is stronger than last year, thereby reflecting the growing debate around this issue. However, the joint statement of 78 countries delivered by South Africa also clearly stated that nuclear weapons must never be used under any circumstances. It is almost impossible to discuss the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons without drawing the conclusion that nuclear weapons must never be used again and that the international community must take all efforts to prevent it from happening. The summary fails to recognize this important continuation of the humanitarian aspect that was raised by the majority of states participating in the PrepCom.

Regardless, the joint statement together with countless similar national statements—even from governments that didn’t sign on to the joint statement—did send a clear signal to the international community that this topic is here to stay.

The factual summary also notes the strong disappointment expressed by most states that the conference on a WMD free zone in the Middle East was postponed, and highlights that many states “rejected arguments for postponing the Conference, which a number of States consider a violation of commitments agreed to in the 2010 NPT final document.” However, it does not mention that Egypt decided to boycott the remainder of the PrepCom after the Facilitator had delivered his report.

Perhaps one of the most positive additions to the summary was the significant language on civil society participation. It is clear that nuclear weapons fora are starting to (slowly) catch up with other disarmament conferences and governments are becoming interested in more interaction from experts, academics, and civil society.

It is very encouraging that the summary recognizes “the valuable role played by civil society in the implementation of the objectives of the Treaty,” and welcomes “the increased interaction with the civil society during the specific session at the Committee.” The summary also notes that states appreciated information and monitoring reports by civil society. Reaching Critical Will, for example, produces an annual NPT Action Plan Monitoring report and modernization report, as well as of course daily analysis in the NPT News in Review..

The summary also notes that many states called for “intensifying engagement with non-governmental organizations”. This PrepCom has indeed seen increased dialogue between states parties and civil society organizations. While this is very positive, it is important to note that effective engagement from civil society and academia does not materialize just because states parties allow for it.

One of the conditions for active and engaged civil society organizations is the notion that progress is achievable and that the forum in question is worth an investment of scarce resources. It is extremely difficult to mobilize any interest and constructive engagement in issues that are seen as non-starters, hopeless, or not possible to influence.

This new and positive interaction between civil society and governments in the NPT has not happened by accident. The recent focus on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, through the 2010 NPT outcome document and events outside the NPT, has energized both civil society actors and governments. This energy comes from believing that progress on nuclear weapons now is possible, that we are seeing a momentum growing.

Governments at the NPT might be positive about increased participation by civil society and academics, but they must also remember that such increased participation comes with a responsibility to listen and work hard for progress. Civil society is not participating in the NPT to legitimize and support the current lack of progress but to encourage states parties to step up and embrace the momentum to make real changes to the status quo.

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