The open-ended working group concludes

Beatrice Fihn | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF
6 September 2013

The open-ended working group (OEWG) concluded its session late on Friday, 30 August with the adoption of its final report, despite some last minute concerns from a few delegations. With the support of the majority, the Chair, Ambassador Dengo of Costa Rica, managed to successfully move to adopt the report without needing to vote.

The OEWG met for 15 days throughout May, June, and August. It had been tasked by the UN General Assembly to take forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations for the achievement and maintenance of a world without nuclear weapons. In section IV of the report, the proposals and discussions are summarized “without prejudice to national positions, or priority, or attempting to be comprehensive or exhaustive.”

The report summarizes the proposals into six main sections focusing on taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations for the achievement and maintenance of a world without nuclear weapons, including:

  • Approaches;
  • Elements ;
  • Reviewing the role of nuclear weapons in the security context of the twenty-first century;
  • The role of international law;
  • The role of states and other actors; and
  • Other practical actions.

Not surprisingly, the different sections contain quite a bit of overlap and sometimes resemble a laundry list of every single proposal that has ever been made. There are a few old and stalled proposals, such as universalization of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), or entry into force of the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). There are also a significant number of proposals already agreed upon as action items from the 2010 NPT Review Conference.

However, the report also acknowledges new proposals, such as a prohibition of the possession, stockpiling, development, or transfer of nuclear weapons. This proposal was the main focus of Reaching Critical Will’s working paper, and is reflected in the report under paragraph 29, “elements necessary for maintaining a world without nuclear weapons once achieved,” and in paragraph 35, under “the role of international law”. It is unfortunate that the prohibition of nuclear weapons was placed under “elements necessary for maintaining a world without nuclear weapons once achieved,” as it implies that a prohibition would be the final step once elimination is achieved.

Quite the contrary, a treaty banning nuclear weapons—as described in the Reaching Critical Will working paper—is a measure that can be taken today, even without the participation of the nuclear-armed states. Thus it is actually more appropriate to include under paragraph 28, “binding instruments towards achieving a world without nuclear weapons to be implemented in an interim phase.”

Other new and interesting proposals reflected were the idea of undertaking a study of the evolution of international law relevant to nuclear weapons, including international humanitarian law, human rights law, environmental law, and in the legal realm of the International Criminal Court. Delegations also discussed the need to challenge the status and perceived value attached to nuclear weapons, and to focus on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons.

But the real value of the OEWG is not the words in its final report—it achieved more than that.

As is noted in paragraphs 41 and 42, the participants in the OEWG noted that all states have a responsibility to act “in the light of the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons.” These paragraphs also mention in particular that non-nuclear-weapon states have a role in promoting global nuclear disarmament.

This is one of the main successes of the OEWG. It managed to empower non-nuclear weapon states and spend a significant amount of time discussing what can be done today, even if nuclear-armed states are not engaging constructively. Despite the fact that only two nuclear-armed states showed up at the OEWG, no one seemed to think the discussions were of any lesser significance. This is an important shift in approach to nuclear weapons and is possibly a signal that the traditional power dynamics between nuclear-armed and non-nuclear weapon states are changing.

The OEWG was also a welcome break from traditional blame-game rhetoric often heard at the NPT or CD meetings. Several delegations managed to focus on actual ways forward, rather than emphasizing what others should do. The discussions were rich, informative, and contained mostly constructive dialogue, something that is almost unheard of in other fora. This could potentially contribute to building trust and confidence between states, and reduce tendencies to polarize attitudes and approaches on nuclear weapons.

The third significant achievement of the OEWG was its openness to civil society and academics. Not only did non-governmental actors get a significant place in the panels during the May session, but were allowed to intervene in the discussions freely and even submit official working papers. This openness contributed to a constructive atmosphere and enhanced the discussions. Hopefully the OEWG has highlighted the value of civil society participation to many governments and can be used as model for future endeavors.

So as we are concluding this year’s session of the OEWG, governments must now consider what to do with the proposals reflected in the final report, and how the General Assembly can respond to it. It is obvious for many in civil society that this was a worthwhile initiative, and there are strong reasons for wanting to extend the work for another year.

However, a simple repetition of this year’s mandate will not be enough. The international community has now developed long lists of proposals and with this report as a starting point, a new mandate must move the international community forward, to actual negotiations.