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States discuss rules for nuclear ban negotiations

Nuclear ban organisational meeting
16 February 2017


by Allison Pytlak and Ray Acheson

On 16 February, over 100 states attended the organisational meeting for the “United Nations conference to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination”. It was an historic day, the first meeting to begin the negotiations of a treaty banning nuclear weapons. Ireland welcomed the “broad and brave participation” of states in the room. “Change only comes about when the status quo becomes less comfortable, when the discomfort of doing something new becomes less than keeping things the same,” noted Ireland, appealing to those not in the room to join the upcoming negotiations in the interest “of all of our humanity, all of our hopes, all of our security.”

The meeting was convened to discuss and where possible take decisions on key procedural issues for the conference. Most of the debate was taken up with discussion around non-governmental organisation (NGO) participation, as distinct from the rest of the rules of procedure, which will continue to be discussed. There was not progress on the composition of the bureau during the formal, open session, but other key decisions were made.

Ambassador Elayne Whyte of Costa Rica was confirmed as the president of the conference. In a brief statement she reflected that peace and security, through disarmament, was a founding principle of the UN and continues to be relevant today. Following the adoption of the agenda for the organisational meeting, Ambassador Whyte introduced two documents for comment and adoption: the draft provisional agenda and draft indicative timetable for the March conference.

Agenda and timetable for the March conference

Iran made comments relating to items such as including a presentation from the UN Secretary General or President of the General Assembly, and how the high-level segment will be organised. Iran also noted that the draft provisional agenda lacked reference to consideration and adoption of the outcomes of the negotiations—in other words, the treaty.

Ambassador Whyte explained that several of these items have been accounted for already and do not require explicit reference in the draft provisional agenda.

Item #10 of the draft provisional agenda, which currently reads “Adoption of the report of the conference,” could however be a space to indicate the adoption of the treaty.  At this the Netherlands put forward a “caveat” on changing the wording of the draft provisional agenda without having instructions on new language.

Following further discussion, the draft provisional agenda was modified so that Item #2 (Adoption of the Rules of Procedure) and Item #3 (Adoption of the Agenda) have been reversed in order. Item #10, which references the adoption of the final report of the proceedings, remains the same but there is an understanding that this may be modified in future. The document was adopted.

The only concern about the draft indicative timetable for the March conference was the proposal that NGOs be given 15 minutes per topic each day to deliver interventions. Iran asked for clarification as to whether or not this would be at the end of each meeting, or each topic. The president clarified that it would be at the end of each day, to include all topics covered that day. The document was adopted.

Rules of procedure

States then discussed the draft rules of procedure for the conference. Here, the president invited comments on the draft but also wanted to reach a decision on paragraph 61 related to the participation of NGOs, in order to facilitate the registration and accreditation process. For this reason, most of the interventions delivered during the formal meeting focused only on this issue, although some states provided general comments to the rules overall.

India explained that its concerns about a “non-comprehensive approach” to nuclear disarmament and the absence of international verification measures are why it abstained on the resolution establishing these negotiations in the UN General Assembly.  India indicated it also has further questions about the process, notably about if the principle of consensus will be upheld and the primacy of the intergovernmental nature of negotiations. 

Switzerland argued that it is essential to encourage as broad a participation as possible in the process, both during the negotiations and beyond in order for the instrument to have a maximum added value. Switzerland also noted that the rules specify that this is a consensus-oriented process, and noted a contradiction in draft rule 55, which is about the status of meetings as open or closed. The Chair clarified that the meetings will remain open as a general principle, unless the meeting decides otherwise.

Guatemala made a few points relating to the draft rules, including that consensus is ideal but that the option to vote must exist, once other options have been exhausted.  Ecuador supported retaining an option to vote. The discussion on this issue continued in an informal session, which civil society was not allowed to attend.

Civil society participation

The president requested that states adopt a decision related to civil society participation so that the accreditation and registration process can begin. Discussion ensued as to the nature of this participation.

Liechtenstein noted that civil society has been a driver of this process and their voices must be heard. Ireland likewise noted, “We would not have reached this point without the support and advocacy of our civil society partners,” and welcomed “their full and active engagement with us.” Most other delegations also commended civil society’s contributions to nuclear disarmament initiatives. However, Iran and Syria raised issues around the language of how NGOs would be approved to attend the conference, and whether they would be able to “participate” or “attend”.

Iran requested the proposed paragraph about modalities for NGO accreditation be made available in writing. The Secretary-General of the conference explained that the provisions on civil society participation were taken from the rules of procedure used at nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) meetings. Iran said it can go along with this, but proposed two changes: changing the word “participation” to “attendance”, and to add that attendance be on a “non-objection” basis.  What this would mean in practice is that any state could object to and thereby block the participation of an NGO.  Syria agreed with Iran’s proposals.

Ireland recalled that the UN General Assembly resolution establishing this conference refers to the participation of NGOs, not attendance, and insisted that this should not be changed. Austria, Mexico, New Zealand, Brazil, Chile, Liechtenstein, Peru, Argentina, Egypt, Malaysia, Antigua and Barbuda (on behalf of CARICOM), Colombia, South Africa, Thailand, and Nigeria all expressed support for keeping paragraph 61 as drafted. In the end, the phrase “participating” was maintained.

Ireland also stated that it could not accept a rule that allows one state to effectively veto the participation of civil society. Ireland and Iran consulted with one another in the lunch break. They circulated a new paragraph that had the addition of a sentence providing for states to object to the participation of an NGO, and said that “on a voluntary basis” the objecting member state will make the reasons known to the Secretary-General.

Argentina, Venezuela, Algeria, and Egypt expressed support for this change.

Mexico could not support this, because the phrase “voluntary basis” is counter to transparency. Austria also said it was disappointed with this proposal. Guatemala supported Mexico.

Ireland explained in response that the word “will” in front of “voluntary basis” gives it some ambiguity and that this is the product of compromise. Ireland also noted the language was taken from the high-level meeting on migration and refugees in September 2016.

Nicaragua suggested moving the new sentence to a footnote. Mexico responded by saying that it continues to object to the phrase “voluntary basis” because of reasons of transparency, but presented a few suggestions for other formulations that would be acceptable to it. Austria asked clarifying questions about the process and suggested amendments so that all, and not “any” member states would see the objections raised about an NGO. Syria took the floor twice to express concern about what participation of civil society would involve, in terms of activities and rights, and what precedent this decision will set.

Following additional discussions largely between Iran, Mexico, and Austria, and an intervention from Bangladesh, it was agreed that the new sentence would be amended per Austria’s suggestions and be included as a footnote, even if not ideal to all. The paragraph was adopted.

Participation of states

Civil society’s participation was not the only one in question. Some delegations suggested that the rules of procedure should allow for the participation of the observer states Holy See and Palestine.

Palestine gave a brief intervention requesting that the draft rules refer to “states” and not “member states”, which was supported by Morocco. Iran, Liechtenstein, and others also supported this approach.

Discussion on this issue continued in the afternoon during the informal session, which civil society was not allowed to attend.

Other issues

The Secretariat noted that the conference website will go live on 17 February. Credentials to participate are being accepted, and efforts are being made to raise funds for webcasting of the conferences.

Guatemala asked if there will be financing available to developing countries in order to bring experts from capitals to negotiations.

The president will continue informal consultations on the remaining issues ahead of 27 March. The conference will meet again 27–31 March and 15 June–7 July 2017 in New York.