Can the humanitarian initiative give the NPT an energy boost?

May 2, 2014

By John Loretz, Program Director, IPPNW

The contrast in mood and sense of accomplishment (not to mention purpose) between the Olso and Nayarit conferences and the NPT PrepCom could not be more obvious. Although the PrepCom is still in its first week and cannot be judged fairly yet, the statements in the general debate, with a few exceptions, have hardly broken any new ground. The Member States have danced more or less politely around the fact that there has been little or no progress in implementing the 2010 Action Plan, and the overall feeling of malaise has been hard to ignore. This does not bode well for the Review Conference itself, since a successful outcome depends upon a positive evaluation of the steps that have been taken to implement the Action Plan.

The nuclear-armed States have all submitted implementation reports describing what they consider to be progress along a “step-by-step path” to a nuclear-weapons-free world. Most of the items in these reports, however, have been recycled from any number of previous reports. Not much has happened since 2010, other than some P5 meetings to talk about transparency and confidence building and some work on a brand new glossary of nuclear terms, which China has promised to deliver for the Review Conference. Transparency, confidence building, and clarity of language are all good things. They are also what one talks about when there is little else of substance to report. The UK, early in the general debate, said the 2010 Action Plan was never meant to be “a time-limited five-year exercise,” and suggested it could just be rolled over to the next cycle. And so it goes.

While many NPT Member States are clearly disheartened over the lack of progress in implementing the Action Plan, most seem to be keeping their criticisms in check, at least publicly, until next May. In private, most seem resigned to disappointment in 2015.

Strangely, despite oft-repeated assertions that the nuclear disarmament “process” needs to remain within the NPT, and that “outside” initiatives such as the Oslo-Nayarit conferences and the Open-Ended Working Group are distractions that could somehow weaken the NPT, the only really interesting contributions to the general debate so far have been about, or related to, work that has been done parallel to the NPT. The Marshall Islands explained that “almost five decades of an endless cycle of promises and further promises” had led it to file suit against the nuclear-armed States in the International Court of Justice in order to hold them accountable to their obligations. Austria announced that it will hold the Third Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in Vienna on 8 and 9 December.

“Austria is convinced,” said Ambassador Alexander Kmentt, “that the focus on…humanitarian consequences has a positive effect on international discussions about nuclear weapons. This forcefully underscores the need to eliminate and prohibit nuclear weapons as a shared and urgent objective. There is growing momentum to firmly anchor the humanitarian imperative in all discussions about nuclear weapons and nuclear disarmament.

“With this initiative,” he added, “Austria wants to strengthen the NPT, of which the humanitarian dimension is an integral and essential part.”

Despite the lethargic environment (one NGO participant aptly described it as “swimming through sludge”), ICAN’s campaigners have been doing yeoman’s work talking up the humanitarian initiative, the Vienna conference, and the ban treaty as something that supports the goal of the NPT as a complementary, not a competitive, initiative. They’ve been holding regional roundtables in order to generate support for the ban approach, and have persistently maneuvered their way onto the floor to talk with delegations and encourage them to make strong statements about the links between humanitarian impacts and disarmament.

As network coordinator Magnus Lovold wrote in his most recent update from New York, “ICAN has never pulled off better lobby work than we’re doing here at the NPT PrepCom.”

Let’s see if that enthusiasm is contagious. This is a PrepCom sorely in need of some energy and progressive ideas during the final week.



  • aiweiwei

    “Let’s act up! Ban nuclear weapons completely and unconditionally.”

    Ai Weiwei Artist and activist

  • sheen

    “If Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr were alive today, they would be part of ICAN.”

    Martin Sheen Actor and activist

  • bankimoon

    “I salute ICAN for working with such commitment and creativity.”

    Ban Ki-moon Former UN chief

  • yokoono

    “We can do it together. With your help, our voice will be made still stronger. Imagine peace.”

    Yoko Ono Artist

  • jodywilliams

    “Governments say a nuclear weapons ban is unlikely. Don’t believe it. They said the same about a mine ban treaty.”

    Jody Williams Nobel laureate

  • desmondtutu

    “With your support, we can take ICAN its full distance – all the way to zero nuclear weapons.”

    Desmond Tutu Nobel laureate

  • herbiehancock

    “Because I cannot tolerate these appalling weapons, I whole-heartedly support ICAN.”

    Herbie Hancock Jazz musician

  • dalailama

    “I can imagine a world without nuclear weapons, and I support ICAN.”

    Dalai Lama Nobel laureate