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New UN working group to discuss elements for a treaty banning nuclear weapons

The UN General Assembly adopted on 8 December 2015 a resolution setting up an open-ended working group that will develop “legal measures, legal provisions and norms” for achieving a nuclear-weapon-free world. This new UN body – which has the backing of 142 governments – is widely expected to focus its efforts on devising the elements for a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons outright.

The working group will meet in Geneva, Switzerland, in 2016 for up to 15 days. All UN member states are encouraged to participate. In the interests of achieving real progress, the working group will not be bound by strict consensus rules. It will submit a report to the General Assembly next October on its substantive work and agreed recommendations. International organizations and civil society organizations are also invited to participate.

WILPF, as a partner organisation of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), is encouraging states to use this working group as an opportunity to discuss and develop elements for a treaty banning nuclear weapons. Prohibiting nuclear weapons through a legally-binding international treaty is a practical, feasible, and effective way to help facilitate nuclear disarmament in the current context.

Open to all countries

Five of the nine nuclear-armed states – China, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States and France – issued a joint statement last month explaining why they opposed the creation of the working group. “An instrument such as a ban” would “undermine the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty] regime”, they argued, but did not explain how.

They said that they could have supported an “appropriately mandated” working group bound by strict consensus rules. However, such an arrangement would have allowed them, collectively or individually, to block all proposed actions and decisions, including the appointment of a chair and adoption of an agenda. The Mexican approach of giving greater control to nuclear-free nations is “divisive”, they complained.

Germany, which hosts US nuclear weapons on its territory, abstained from voting on the resolution, asserting that the working group is not “inclusive”, even though it is open to the participation of all nations. Japan and Australia, which believe it is acceptable to use nuclear weapons in certain circumstances, also abstained, offering vague explanations.

Nuclear-armed India and Pakistan argued that the working group would threaten the Conference on Disarmament – a Geneva-based forum that has been stagnant for close to two decades and excludes two-thirds of the world’s nations from its deliberations (mostly developing nations). They, too, abstained from voting on the resolution.

Time for action

The UN General Assembly this week adopted a number of other important resolutions, with 139 states pledging “to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons”, 144 declaring it in the interests of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again “under any circumstances”, and 132 describing nuclear weapons as “inherently immoral”.

Following the success of the three major conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons in 2013 and 2014, there is a growing expectation among governments and civil society that negotiations on a treaty banning nuclear weapons should now begin.

WILPF, through Reaching Critical Will, will participate in the open-ended working group along with other ICAN partners, providing advocacy, monitoring, reporting, and documentation.

This article was adapted from an ICAN press release.