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2015 No. 4

Editorial: Who’s afraid of an open-ended working group?
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF and Thomas Nash | Article 36


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A take it or leave it approach is not inclusive. Any initiatives for future steps on nuclear disarmament that don’t involve the nuclear-armed states have no future. To seek piecemeal solutions outside the existing machinery is not the right way forward. An open-ended working group without consensus will not succeed.

The United Kingdom, Russian Federation, China, and United States made these assertions in opposition to the resolution tabled by Mexico and others to establish an open-ended working group (OEWG) next year in Geneva that seeks the development of new legal provisions and norms for nuclear disarmament. They and the other nuclear-armed states have consistently tried to characterise the humanitarian initiative as divisive and polarising. They accuse countries keen to pursue disarmament of being unwilling to “engage” the nuclear-armed states. Yet the nuclear-armed constitute a small handful of states that hold the threat of mass destruction over the rest of us, wield an absolute veto in the context of the UN Security Council and the Conference on Disarmament (CD), and refused to participate in the 2013 open-ended working group and most of the conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. It would seem that this approach is much more polarising, divisive, and non-engaging than a working group that is open to participation by all states and offers a veto to none.

These assertions are a desperate attempt by powerful countries seeking to retain their stranglehold over processes for nuclear disarmament. They have already lost their grip on the discourse. The humanitarian initiative has fundamentally undermined their already threadbare claims of legitimacy for nuclear weapon possession and the concept of nuclear “deterrence”. The establishment of an OEWG that operates under standard UN rules rather than consensus offers a chance for committed states to begin work to fill the legal gap with respect to the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons, as many have committed to do. Indeed, states that have endorsed the humanitarian pledge should make plans to use the OEWG that would be established by the Mexican-led resolution as a place to begin work to fulfill their commitment. It is this opportunity that has destabilised the nuclear-armed states and sent them into overdrive to squash any such work.

There is of course a second OEWG on the table, suggested by Iran. This working group would operate by consensus in New York over the next two years. This is a curious set-up, as it seems to almost exactly replicate the dysfunctional UN Disarmament Commission (UNDC). Operating by consensus in New York in continuous three-year cycles, the UNDC has failed since 1999 to reach agreement on any recommendations related to nuclear disarmament. Establishing an OEWG that operates under the same parameters of the UNDC would appear to undermine the outcome of the first special session on disarmament, which established the UNDC. It would be a strange move, considering how important the NAM states, including Iran, consider that outcome. It is also strange in light of Ambassador Wood’s position that the Mexican-led OEWG’s purpose is to “subvert established disarmament machinery”—by the same rationale the US should have the same opposition to the Iranian OEWG.

Other key questions that could be raised by Ambassador Wood’s assertion include: Is the Mexican resolution really all about “subverting” the existing machinery? Is it not actually about making progress on disarmament? Can machinery that has not produced results in 16 years (the UNDC) or 19 years (the CD) even be subverted? Haven’t certain states already subverted it themselves by insisting on the application of the consensus rule as a right to veto?

As usual, it’s all about the rhetoric. Whatever the nuclear-armed states say about the humanitarian initiative, or a nuclear weapon ban treaty, or an OEWG operating without consensus, they do not actually operate themselves in a way that is consistent with preventing humanitarian harm, making concrete progress on disarmament, or collaborating in an open and constructive spirit with all countries in the world. States committed to nuclear disarmament should not let the foot-stomping and fist-banging of the nuclear-armed states prevent them from moving ahead with progressive measures to make the world safer, more humane, and more just.

Regardless of whether or not the nuclear-armed states choose to engage, the rest of the world should continue to work towards a prohibition on nuclear weapons based on the humanitarian pledge that gathers committed states towards that end. These pledge group states should begin to discuss elements for a legal instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons and they can use the Geneva-based OEWG as one place to take forward this work. Such an instrument can be elaborated, negotiated, adopted, and implemented even without the participation of nuclear-armed states, if they choose not to join. Such an instrument will have economic, legal, political, and social implications for the possession and deployment of nuclear weapons. The nuclear-armed states’ increasingly frantic and arrogant opposition to the initiation of any work on such a treaty should give those in favour of progress some indication of the relevance and power of this approach.

“Most if not all initiatives are based on disappointment or disillusion, but emotions are the worst adviser in this kind of very serious work,” cajoled Mr. Yermakov of the Russian Federation (if not the First Committee’s most convincing orator, certainly its most entertaining). Nobody would disagree that this is serious work. The impulse for this serious work towards a prohibition on nuclear weapons stems from a rational consideration of the humanitarian evidence. It also stems from a recognition both of the illogical insanity of “nuclear deterrence” and of the risks to which it exposes all human beings every minute of every day. Thoughtful states must continue to use every avenue to reject this irresponsible and immoral practice and the intellectually corrupt belief system propping it up. The nuclear-armed states will push back hard every step of the way, but this should be no surprise. History is replete with examples of the powerful few fiercely and jealously defending what they have convinced themselves to be in their interests. Fortunately, history is also punctuated by strong leadership and the achievement of social and political change. The achievements that are celebrated today on human rights, humanitarian law, justice, the environment were driven by those who would not allow their proposals to be extinguished by the most powerful. Each of these proposals for the common global good was once confronted by a haughty dismissal that: “It will not succeed.” Those making such dismissals of the movement to prohibit nuclear weapons should heed the historical record that exactly this attitude of arrogance and hubris has spurred on movements for change.

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