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OEWG Report, Vol. 2, No. 8

Editorial: Is it 1984 at the OEWG?
3 May 2016


Ray Acheson

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Listening to the discussion on the first day of the open-ended working group on nuclear disarmament (OEWG) on now in Geneva, it’s difficult to avoid, as usual, the sense that one is caught in a George Orwell novel. In this doublethink world, nuclear weapons are safe; states clinging to a decades-old agenda entangled in a decades-old stalemate are progressive; and the most important thing is to engage states that haven’t even shown up to the talks.

With the nuclear-armed states out of the room, it appears to be the task of their nuclearised allies to prosecute thoughtcrime—i.e. anything that challenges the dominance of those possessing or supporting nuclear weapons. These states, including Belgium, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, and Spain, argue against the prohibition of nuclear weapons. In their interventions and working papers they have described banning nuclear weapons as premature, irresponsible, and ineffectual. In a classic demonstration of doublethink, they simultaneously assert that they support a nuclear weapon free world and seek to prevent feasible actions to attain it.

They also complained that the Chair’s synthesis paper is not “balanced” and does not reflect their “progressive approach” adequately. Representing 14% of states in the world, they have delivered 29% of the statements at the OEWG so far this year (see the article by Elizabeth Minor of Article 36 on page 4). This would seem to suggest overrepresentation of a minority-held view, making the call for “balance” in a Chair’s summary seem rather undemocratic. At the same time, these states blame others—e.g. the overwhelming majority of states in the world—for being “divisive”.

Not everyone at the OEWG is buying into the doublethink, however. The 54 states of the African Group reiterated its call for a ban on nuclear weapons, as did Brazil and Ecuador, among others. Ireland and called for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons while Austria, Kenya, and the International Committee of the Red Cross called for a new legal instrument. New Zealand criticised the status quo as untenable.

Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, and Zambia have submitted a working paper to the OEWG recommending that the UN General Assembly convene a conference in 2017 to negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons. These non-nuclear-armed states all recognise what Ecuador described as their collective responsibility to spearhead measures such as a prohibition treaty. As the Brazilian delegation rightly pointed out, if the nuclear-armed states wanted a nuclear weapon free world, we would already have it. Negotiating an elimination treaty with their participation at this time is not viable. It’s time to ban nuclear weapons.

The risks are too high to wait. That was clear from the remarks of Patricia Lewis of Chatham House. The risks are increasing, she argued, due to the increase in nuclear-armed states, rising global tensions, urbanisation, and what seems to be a weakening norm against the use of nuclear weapons, as seen in the number of threats of use. The probabilities of a nuclear weapon detonation will always be contested, Dr. Lewis noted, whereas the consequences are irrefutable. Thus the precautionary principle must be applied, as it has been successfully during climate change negotiations.

The Mexican delegation had a number of questions for the nuclearlised states participating in the OEWG, asking if they had any say over security measures or if those are left to the United States alone. 

Italy stated that NATO nuclear weapons are “safe, secure, and under positive control,” without providing any details. Germany said NATO nuclear weapons have reduced alert levels from the time of the Cold War. None directly addressed Mexico’s questions.

For those that still question the prohibition approach despite the absence of nuclear-armed states and the growing dependence on newspeak and doublethink by their nuclearised allies, here are a few questions:

  • If the countries that possess nuclear weapons have failed to comply with their legal obligation to disarm in the course of 45 years, are spending billions of dollars to build up or extend the lives of their arsenals into the indefinite future, and refuse to attend multilateral discussions on taking forward nuclear disarmament negotiations, should we wait for them to lead the way to a nuclear weapon free world?
  • If the majority of the world’s states—including the 127 states that have endorsed the Humanitarian Pledge to fill the legal for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons—reject nuclear weapons as a tool for national security or global stability, consider them a terrible threat to humanity, and want to get rid of them, are they being “divisive”?
  • If the only open path to “creating the conditions for nuclear disarmament” is a ban treaty, are we not obligated by our responsibility to humanity to pursue that path?

The answers to these questions should inform the OEWG’s recommendations to the General Assembly as well as discussions here over the next two weeks.

For more details about the opening discussion see the News in Brief on page 6 of the OEWG Report.

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