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OEWG Report, Vol. 2, No. 15

Editorial: The windup ban chronicle
17 May 2016


Ray Acheson

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A ban on nuclear weapons is coming. Already, before the Chair presents his final report and recommendations to the General Assembly, that message has been received loud and clear. 

  • 127 states 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”.
  • Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Philippines, and Zambia sponsored a proposal to convene a negotiating conference in 2017 for a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons. Austria, Jamaica, and others indicated their endorsement of this recommendation.
  • 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.

Now, the question for the Chair is whether or not he will reflect this overwhelming support and clear recommendations for the prohibition of nuclear weapons in his report to the General Assembly. The question for the nuclear-supportive states—who have articulated their support for nuclear weapons more strongly than ever before—is whether they will try to block a document with a clear recommendation from the majority of states. The question for those states wanting to pursue a prohibition is if they will accept anything less than what they have passionately and rightfully demanded at this meeting.

The debate at this session of the open-ended working group crystallised two positions on nuclear weapons: they are good for security, or they are bad for security. Those states arguing that nuclear weapons are good for security seem to hold two notions of security in their mind—that of the state, and that of human beings, the environment, and global justice. Those emphatically rejecting any perceived security benefit of nuclear weapons have a more holistic view of security. For these, as Jamaica articulated, disarmament is about people. All people.

“We appreciate that major a factor contributing to resistance to change is often the fear of the unknown and apprehension to depart from a known course of action, even in the face of failure,” noted Shorna-Kay Richards of Jamaica in her closing remarks. But those calling for prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons also have fears, she explained: “fear for our security; fear for our survival. Indeed, we fear that the ‘grand bargain’ which enabled the coming into the being of the NPT, which is not being implemented in both letter and spirit as well as the backtracking on commitments freely undertaken, keeps us on the brink of massive nuclear violence and threatens the very survival of humanity.”

Fear, however, has brought courage. The demand for prohibition in the face of resistance from nuclear-armed states and their nuclear-supportive allies is a bold, historic move. It opens up space for progress across so many areas and can have a significant impact on the dynamics of international relations, peace, and security.

Ms. Richards quoted Maritza Chan of Costa Rica, who in 2015 said “democracy has come to nuclear disarmament.” Indeed, we have seen greater participation by developing nations in nuclear weapons discussion through the conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. We have seen parliaments in nuclear-supportive states such as the Netherlands and Norway demanding progressive positions on prohibition from their governments. We have seen an overwhelming chorus of voices on the final day of the open-ended working group calling for a fair report that reflects the views of the majority and does not allow the tyranny of the minority to limit collective progress.

The opportunity for change and progress is upon us. States now have a choice: they can shrink from the difficulties that any forward movement requires, especially forward movement that a powerful minority opposes. Or, they can seize this opportunity boldly and move ahead to establish a conference to negotiate a legally binding treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons What we know is that there is a concrete proposal for negotiation a nuclear weapon ban treaty on the table. We know that it is supported by the majority of states and civil society. It may not be an easy path ahead, but that must not stop us. A ban is in reach, now.

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