The CD addresses Oslo: a “distraction,” or a dynamic opportunity?

Ray Acheson and Anina Dalbert | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF
5 March 2013

The Conference on Disarmament (CD) met on Tuesday, 5 March to focus on nuclear disarmament. Delegates from Cuba, Sri Lanka, European Union, Russian Federation, United Kingdom, United States, Switzerland, France, China, Egypt, Syria, Japan, Kazakhstan, and India took the floor. Algeria, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Mexico, United Kingdom, and the Republic of Korea issued rights of reply.

What the nuclear weapon states say has been done so far

The five official nuclear weapons states—China, France, Russian Federation, United Kingdom, and United States—all expressed their commitment to the concept of nuclear disarmament and mentioned the steps they have taken so far in this direction.

For example, Jo Adamson of the United Kingdom asserted that the UK’s policy is to have a “minimum credible deterrent” and argued that the UK “would consider using nuclear weapons only in extreme circumstances of self-defence, including the defence of our NATO allies.” Ambassador Jean-Hugues Simon-Michel of France said that France is keeping its arsenal “as small as possible,” as long as it is “compatible with France’s strategic context.” Ambassador Wu Haitao of China supports a long-term, step-by-step plan to disarmament.

They also stressed their joint meetings, the next installment of which will be hosted by Russia in April in Geneva.

Oslo Conference on Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons

While 132 countries gathered in Oslo, Norway this week to discuss the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons, the P5 decided not to attend. The UK, US, and Russian delegations argued that the conference was a “distraction” from existing initiatives. Ambassador Jo Adamson of the United Kingdom argued that at this time, all efforts should be focused on getting the CD back to work. While she said the UK respects “those who campaign against nuclear weapons,” it disagrees with them on the issue of the illegitimacy of nuclear weapons as well as on the ban of such weapons as the right way to achieve their elimination. Furthermore, the UK expressed concern that the Oslo conference “will divert attention and discussion away from what has been proven to be the most effective means of reducing nuclear dangers—a practical, step-by-step approach that includes all those who hold nuclear weapons.”

Similarly, Ambassador Laura Kennedy of the United States argued that it is better to focus “efforts and energy on practical steps we and others are taking to reduce nuclear weapon arsenals while strengthening nuclear security and the nonproliferation regime.” She said her government is fully aware of the humanitarian consequences of a nuclear detonation and that it will avoid such the use of nuclear weapons by “enhancing nuclear security worldwide while we steadily reduce nuclear arsenals, including by seeking to lock down fissile material worldwide.”

Ambassador A. Borodavkin of the Russian Federation took the argument even further. He stressed that a discussion on humanitarian consequences should take place within the CD in the presence of all states that have nuclear potential. Not doing so, he feared, might “pull apart the CD agenda,” which could consequently lead to a collapse of all disarmament mechanisms. Similarly, Ambassador Wu Haitao asserted that setting up new mechanisms would both undermine existing processes and at the same time divert the already limited budget.

On the other hand, Mr. Andras Kos of the European Union stressed that the current focused discussion in the CD should not be mistaken as s substitute for substantive work on a programme of work. “We should not create the impression that the CD is advancing while it is not,” he cautioned. Thus Mr. Laurent Masmejean of Switzerland stressed the fact that the Oslo conference is an important step towards ending the non-action within the CD.

While the P5 gave excuses for not attending the Oslo conference, Switzerland, Egypt, and Japan stated their full support for that groundbreaking meeting. Indeed, during the Oslo meeting itself, all of the participants welcomed Norway’s initiative to discuss this crucial dimension of nuclear weapons. Most recognized that it is complimentary to, not in tension with, existing efforts for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.

Notes from the gallery

The P5 may have collectively dismissed the Oslo initiative on humanitarian consequences as “distracting” or as detrimental to existing “plans,” but in reality, the Oslo conference proved to be the most relevant meeting on nuclear weapons held at the intergovernmental level in many years.

Rather than being divisive, it brought 132 governments together to acknowledge that the use of nuclear weapons would cause unacceptable devastation to human health, the environment, economies, development, infrastructure, and more; that there is no possibility of an adequate national or international response to such a catastrophe; and that this fundamental challenge to human and planetary survival must be addressed through preventative measures.

For most delegations participating in the Oslo meetings, prevention means ensuring nuclear weapons are banned and eliminated. The current step-by-step approach favoured by the nuclear weapon states and some of their nuclear-umbrella allies is in fact not effective. The step-by-step approach has had the same (unfulfilled) agenda since the 1960s. It has proven its inefficiency time and again, which is why so many governments and civil society groups have come together to discuss supplementary ways to implement the objective and legal obligations of the NPT and the first UN General Assembly resolution—the total elimination of nuclear weapons.

The idea that addressing the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons could “pull apart the CD agenda” is particularly disingenuous, considering the CD has been unable for more than 15 years to even adopt a programme of work let alone engage in substantive work. Furthermore, the argument that it is detrimental to address these issues in additional fora or processes is equally disingenuous. The nuclear weapon states engage in “alternative” process outside of the UN or CD frameworks all the time in order to address their non-proliferation concerns, such as through the Nuclear Security Summit or the Proliferation Security Initiative, among others. Yet no one accuses these processes of undermining the NPT or other existing processes.

Addressing the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons is in fact an effort to implement the 2010 NPT outcome document, through which all NPT states parties expressed their “deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons” and reaffirmed “the need for all States at all times to comply with applicable international law, including international humanitarian law.”

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), in a press release issued immediately following the Oslo conference, noted that the P5 have missed an opportunity for dialogue but that it has not stopped countries from moving forward. 132 countries chose to confront the horror of these weapons and have realized that far from being powerless to do anything about it, they can and must take responsibility and move ahead. Indeed, Mexico’s welcome decision to host a further meeting on this issue recognizes that the nuclear weapon free countries have an important role to play.

Next plenary meeting

The next plenary meeting will be held on Tuesday, 12 March at 10:00, and will focus on the issue of fissile materials. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) will deliver a statement on the occasion of International Women’s Day.

WILPF seminar on International Women’s Day

WILPF is also hosting a side event to mark International Women’s Day on Monday, 11 March. The seminar this year will focus on preventing armed gender-based violence through the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). It will hear remarks from WILPF Secretary General Madeleine Rees; Ambassador Peter Woolcott of Australia and Chair of the ATT negotiating conference; Dr. Anna Alvazzi del Frate of Small Arms Survey; and Ambassador Jo Adamson of the UK. The event will take place in Room IV in the Palais from 13:00 to 15:00.


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