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OEWG Report, Vol. 2, No. 10

Editorial: 70 years of our discontent
5 May 2016


Ray Acheson

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Wrapping up the first week of the open-ended working group (OEWG) on nuclear disarmament with a focus on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, Wednesday’s OEWG meeting provided a chance for participants to articulate their concerns with the continued existence of these weapons and demand concrete action to eliminate them. Delegations highlighted the relationship of nuclear weapons to development, human rights, gender equality, and economic justice, making it clear once again that the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons is a key aspect of security for all. Lines are being drawn in the sand here in Geneva and the stage is set for next week’s examination of elements for legal measures, provisions, and norms.

Leave no one behind

Displacement, mostly due to violent conflict, has reached record levels. The average length of displacement is now 17 years. 125 million people currently require humanitarian assistance. The funding required to meet these needs was up to $19.5 billion last year. As Sara Sekkenes of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) said, “This is not sustainable.”

It is not sustainable as it is now. But as both UNDP and the Austrian delegation emphasised, once you add a nuclear weapon detonation into the mix, things just get worse. The international system is overloaded as it is and the capacity to respond to the immediate and lasting effects of a nuclear weapon detonation is completely inadequate. “The overall scope of current humanitarian action and the costs to secure a sustainable and irreversible implementation of the 2030 Agenda [of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)] that leaves no one behind is already challenging the international establishment to the brink of its ability,” explained Ms. Sekkenes. The likely impact of a nuclear weapon detonation “risks derailing multilateral commitments already made to humanity”. 

El Salvador echoed this concern, noting that the problem isn’t just how much money is spent on nuclear weapons themselves, but how much money is diverted from the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. Brazil and Thailand highlighted SDG Goal 16, which is about promoting “peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development”. While the only reference to weapons in the 2030 Agenda relates to reducing illicit arms flows, the effective implementation of Goal 16 and the overall agenda requires a human security integrated approach to weapons, war, peace, development, and economic justice.

The elimination of nuclear weapons should be mainstreamed throughout the international system, suggested El Salvador. The development, possession, proliferation, and use of nuclear weapons has implications for a range of issues and just as the UN system tries to “mainstream” gender and development across issue areas, it should mainstream disarmament. Sweden agreed that nuclear weapon issues need to be much better reflected and integrated in other policy points, including those related to gender equality and children’s rights.

Leaving no one behind requires humanitarianism, inclusive and sustainable development, and the preservation and promotion of peace, people, and the planet, noted Ms. Sekkenes. “Such imperatives could help shift the discourse on nuclear weapons from strategic, security and military considerations to humanitarian, moral and ethical ones.”

Humanitarian imperatives spur action

Another push towards the humanitarian, moral, and ethical considerations of nuclear weapons comes from survivors of nuclear weapon bombings and testing. Last month in Australia, four indigenous women from South Australia and the Marshall Islands toured four cities in four days to speak about the impacts of nuclear testing and call for a treaty banning nuclear weapons. On Wednesday in Geneva, Setusko Thurlow, survivor of the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima, addressed the OEWG. She talked about her experience in the bombing and called for the prohibition of nuclear weapons. Masako Wada, survivor of the US atomic bombing of Nagasaki, also spoke at the OEWG, calling for concrete action from the participating states.

Many states welcomed their testimony. “Her voice as witness and the weight of her moral authority cuts through all abstract debate to bring us a true understanding of the devastating reality of this terrible weapon,” said the Irish delegation. “We must never forget that when we speak of security, we speak of the security of humanity, of the men, women and children living in the nations we represent.” Austria’s working paper on “Nuclear weapons and security: a humanitarian perspective,” also makes this case, concluding that a national security approach does not contradict a humanitarian approach.

In this connection, Ireland urged states to take inspiration from survivor testimonies and to “channel our response to their powerful testimony into equally powerful action.”

Many states have chosen to do so. 127 have signed the Humanitarian Pledge to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons. These states submitted a proposal to the OEWG calling for the urgent pursuit a new treaty to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons. The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States has submitted a proposal calling for the start of “a multilateral diplomatic process for the negotiation of a legally binding instrument for the prohibition of nuclear weapons”. Nine states—Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, and Zambia—submitted a proposal to convene a negotiating conference in 2017 for a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons. 

Five Pacific island states—Fiji, Nauru, Palau, Samoa, and Tuvalu—submitted a proposal setting out possible elements to be included in a treaty banning nuclear weapons and calling for negotiations to begin later in 2016. Among the elements suggested in this working paper are obligations related to the fulfilment of victims’ rights and the remediation of contaminated environments. Palau, the first state in the world to adopt a constitution banning nuclear weapons, talked about the “untold anguish, heartache and pain” caused by nuclear testing and highlighted the importance of filling the legal gap for victims’ rights. The inclusion of victim and survivor rights in a ban treaty has also been suggested by ICAN members such as Article 36, Mines Action Canada, and WILPF.

Many delegations have indicated support in their interventions to the OEWG for the negotiation of a prohibition treaty, and many have done so before this meeting.

Narrowly-defined “national security” imperatives prevent action

Yet still a handful of states continue to insist on their “security dimensions” of nuclear weapons, as if national security is distinct from human security. At best, this suggests a disconnect between their sense of obligation to protect their citizens and their understanding of what is needed to so. At worst, it is a demonstration of the state putting its own perceived interests ahead of it’s citizens’.

These states insist on an incremental, step-by-step approach to nuclear disarmament. On Wednesday, Australia, Belgium, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, and Norway once again spoke in favour of cautious steps that in effect prioritise the interests of the nuclear-armed states over the interests of humanity.

Japan highlighted the G7’s Hiroshima Declaration adopted last month. The commitments contained in this Declaration, as Wildfire has pointed out, are actually weaker than those agreed to by consenus at the 2010 NPT Review Conference. The 2010 outcome document unequivocally committed all states parties to the total elimination of nuclear weapons. The Hiroshima Declaration only commits the G7 states to “creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons”. “The commitment to seeking the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons appears to have been replaced by a commitment to seek the peace and security the G7 judge necessary for a world without nuclear weapons,” argues Wildfire. “One small change in text, one giant leap backwards for nuclear disarmament.”

Netherlands and Norway called for a focus on verification, transparency, and confidence-building measures. Italy demanded extensive and constructive engagement with the nuclear-armed states. These states have repeatedly spoken against the development of a treaty banning nuclear weapons. On Wednesday, Belgium again argued that it is “not the time” for such a treaty, suggesting it would lead to insecurity, mistrust, and less transparency—as if the nuclear-armed states’ or nuclear-supporting states’ engagement with each other or the rest of the world now is secure, trusting, or transparent.

Incrementalism versus bold action

Australia argued that the “progressive approach” advocated by nuclearised states is not designed to maintain the status quo. Yet, it has done so, for more 20 years.

History shows that incrementalism is a code word for retrenchment. As Princeton University’s Matt Karp has written, “The simple truth is that virtually every significant and lasting progressive achievement of the past hundred years was achieved not by patient, responsible gradualism, but through brief flurries of bold action.”

This is as true with banning nuclear weapons as it is with national and local social movements spurring change around the world. Those in positions of power do not want to relinquish tools that they believe solidify their dominance over others. This power—and the tools that sustain it—must be challenged from the bottom up.

“We must be honest,” said Dr. Ira Helfand of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) in his address to the OEWG. “Nations do not possess nuclear weapons merely to deter nuclear attack by other countries. They possess nuclear weapons to project national power. No nuclear weapons state has exploded an atom bomb on an enemy since Nagasaki, but they use them all the time to bully and intimidate the rest of the world. And in order to maintain that power they threaten the security of their own citizens and all of humanity.”

The Thai delegation noted that there are prevailing efforts holding back progress on nuclear disarmament. It highlighted the importance of questioning the legitimacy of nuclear weapons and challenging the established narrative about these weapons of terror. Confronting and upending the narrative of those who hold humanity in contempt by wielding weapons of mass destruction is crucial to effecting change. This process is already well underway and the moment for prohibition is surging in Geneva and around the world. It is time for states to decide if they want to retrench the status quo or engage in a bold flurry of action to ban nuclear weapons for all.

In its remarks, Ireland quoted former foreign minister Frank Aiken from a 1963 speech to the UN, in which he argued that the non-nuclear-armed states can “do something more than watch and pray while the nuclear powers negotiate or fail to negotiate the agreements required to avert the dangers which threaten them and all of us.” It is time to ban the bomb. Next week at the OEWG is an excellent opportunity to discuss how.

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