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Open-ended working group starts in Geneva

Beatrice Fihn | Reaching Critical Will

Through UNGA Resolution A/RES/67/56, UN member states established the open-ended working group (OEWG) on “taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations for the achievement and maintenance of a world without nuclear weapons”. Its first session convened on Tuesday, 14 May in Geneva, with Ambassador Dengo of Costa Rica as chair.

The working group is meeting between 14-24 May for the first part of its discussion. The working group will take stock of existing commitments and proposals, look at how to take forward nuclear disarmament negotiations, and develop proposals for the next session of the General Assembly in October.

The first week was devoted to taking stock of existing commitments and proposals, and saw four panels on a wide range of topics. Statements and presentations can be found on Reaching Critical Will’s website.

General exchange of views

“Things are not as they should be,” said Ambassador Hoffmann in the German opening statement to the OEWG. He argued that a large number of states and civil society activists have become deeply dissatisfied with the current situation, and believed that the creation of the OEWG is a direct result of this frustration.

It wasn’t just Germany that raised this issue. Almost all speakers acknowledged that nuclear disarmament has not progressed enough, and welcomed the OEWG as a contribution on how to move forward. A clear majority of the speakers also raised concerns about the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and noted the recent conference in Oslo on this topic. However, views on how to address nuclear disarmament in the open-ended working group ranged from exploring methods of implementation of the traditional step-by-step approach to encouraging creative thinking on how to move forward. 

Unusual for a meeting in the UN, the formal statements were kept short and concise. Instead, the chair specifically provided for the majority of the meetings during the first week to be devoted to expert panels and interactive discussions.  

Existing obligations

A panel of three speakers—Beatrice Fihn of Reaching Critical Will, Theresa Hitchens of UNIDIR, and Ward Wilson of BASIC—opened the first session by discussing how the United Nations has traditionally dealt with multilateral nuclear disarmament, what kind of progress the NPT and implementation of its Article VI has had on disarmament, and what kind of arguments in favour of keeping nuclear weapons might still be around.

The informal discussion after the presentations was open and frank, and most participating governments appeared genuinely interested in addressing nuclear disarmament. Most representatives acknowledged that progress on nuclear disarmament negotiations is lacking and wished for more advances. Despite the fact that the speakers were mainly tasked with discussing existing obligations, most government seemed eager to pick up on comments related to solutions – in particular relating to the idea of a treaty banning nuclear weapons. Several questions on how such treaty would work were raised, and how to lower the status or importance of nuclear weapons in the international community. A wide range of views on how to move forward were expressed, ranging from suggestions to negotiate a treaty banning nuclear weapons to exploring options for how to negotiate a fissile material cut-off treaty.

Nuclear weapons free areas

Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova from Center for Non-proliferation Studies and Ms. Gioconda Ubeda, Secretary General of OPANAL, participated in the second panel to discuss nuclear weapon free zones (NWFZs). The presentations touched upon success stories of NWFZs and their common features, as well as their role in devaluing nuclear weapons globally. However, the speakers also asked some difficult questions. For example, Ms. Mukhatzhanova asked if the negative security assurances in different protocols to the NWFZs could be seen as somehow returning the legitimacy to nuclear weapons that the zones were supposed to address in the first place. Ms. Ubeda reminded the participants that NWFZ are not an end in themselves, but rather a means for achieving nuclear disarmament. She noted that all 33 member states of OPANAL supported a universal legally binding instrument aimed at banning nuclear weapons.

The discussion touched upon key questions such as if NWFZ are a disarmament measure or not, if being a NWFZ can protect a state’s population from the impact of a nuclear detonation, and of course how to establish new zones—in particular in the Middle East.

Other initiatives and proposals

In a third panel, Jarmo Sareva from the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs presented the UN Secretary-General’s 5 point action plan, and Thomas Nash from Article 36 discussed a treaty banning nuclear weapons. This panel highlighted two different ways forward: a series of mutually reinforcing steps such as CTBT and FMCT, and a treaty banning nuclear weapons.

In the discussion, several questions about the “road ahead” for the step-by-step approach were raised, in particular about what step would come after an FMCT and if this approach will actually lead to disarmament. Many delegations asked for more details on what a treaty banning nuclear weapons would look like and how it would work. Mr. Nash provided some thoughts around this from the publication “Banning nuclear weapons” by Article 36 while others raised the Model Nuclear Weapons Convention. While some government representatives agreed that new initiatives could be undertaken by non-nuclear weapon states, others asked how it practically could lead to elimination of nuclear weapons or if such normative tool could influence nuclear-armed states. Some delegations preferred a step-by-step approach, while others suggested that a “comprehensive” approach might not be a contradiction to existing initiatives.

Transparency, confidence building, and verification

The last panel of the week consisted of Anders Persbo of VERTIC, Pavel Podvig of UNIDIR, and Jean Pascal Zanders of EUISS.

The panelists discussed existing examples of verification and transparency, such as the IAEA safeguards, the CTBT monitoring system, the INF verification scheme, and the reporting under New START. The panelists also discussed how dismantlement of existing stockpiles could look like, based on experiences from the Chemical Weapons Convention, and how transparency will be beneficial for all states, including the nuclear weapons possessors.

The discussion touched upon many detailed issues around verification and transparency, in particular the CTBTO’s ability to detect the recent nuclear test by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and how to advance transparency amongst all nuclear possessing states. Delegations also raised questions around fissile materials holdings and how non-nuclear weapon states could improve transparency as well. 

Conclusion

Since A/RES/67/56 was adopted, most countries have seemed a little bit confused about what the open-ended working group actually would do. After its first week of meetings, it still might not be 100% clear what can be achieved in this forum. However, it is obvious that there has been a need for a forum where discussions about nuclear disarmament can be held, without becoming boggled down by procedural issues such as a programme of work or without needing to “balance” it with focus on non-proliferation and peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

The informal discussions were open and engaged, and several government representatives appreciated the informative contributions from the panelists. The format of the open-ended working group is new and breaks away from pre-written statements and repetitions of positions. It’s a much-needed change in the usually quite stale and rigid disarmament fora. In addition, the participation of civil society, in the discussions and on the panels, has been a welcomed addition to the exchange.

Whatever the formal outcome from the OEWG in its report to the General Assembly, it is clear that changes in the nuclear disarmament field are happening. Continuing to wait for progress in the Conference on Disarmament seems more and more intolerable for the majority of states. Ignoring civil society on this topic is no longer acceptable. The first week of the OEWG seems to have set a new standard for engagement, where honest and inclusive discussions are seen as the way forward. Hopefully, there’s no going back from here.