Ban on nuclear weapons at centre of new UN disarmament talks

March 2, 2016

The new UN working group on nuclear disarmament, known as the Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG), completed the first of its three sessions last week. The mandate of the forum calls on participants to address the new legal measures, provisions and norms need to attain and maintain a world without nuclear weapons. The 90 governments and dozens of civil society organizations in attendance heard from expert panels and engaged in a spirited debate about the momentum generated by the humanitarian initiative, the need for and viability of new legal instruments which would fill the so-called “legal gap” and the inherent risks related to the continued possession of nuclear weapons.

The working group kicked off on Monday, February 22nd, with remarks from former Secretary-General Kofi Annan who denounced the absence of progress in existing forums and acknowledged the right of non-nuclear weapon states to question whether the “existing architecture” was sufficient to bring about nuclear disarmament. “The [working group] should aim to galvanize international public opinion and, I sincerely hope, break through the paralysis which has characterized and stymied the debate on nuclear disarmament in recent decades,” said Annan.

In spite of the absence of nuclear weapon possessors the legitimacy and credibility of the forum has never come into serious question. As the discussions got underway, it became clear that proposals for a new legal instrument that prohibits nuclear weapons — even without the initial participation of the nuclear weapon states — was at the top of the agenda. The working group will reconvene in May for its second, and longest session, where it will consider proposals and discussions that arose last week as well as working papers submitted by governments and civil society organisations.

In a statement delivered on behalf of the campaign’s 440 partner organizations from 98 countries, ICAN Executive Director Beatrice Fihn identified many of the legal gaps that exist with respect to nuclear weapons and urged governments to consider the pathways available to them to rectify these obstacles through a new legally binding instrument. According to ICAN a new legal instrument prohibiting the development, production, testing, transfer, acquisition, transit, stockpiling, deployment and use of nuclear weapons, as well as assistance, financing, encouragement or inducement of these activities, is urgently needed to fill these gaps. Fihn noted the obligation of all states to work towards this goal: “Non-nuclear-weapon states are not merely encouraged to take positive steps towards nuclear disarmament; they are required to do so – regardless of the continued failure of nuclear-weapon states to act.”

Many states made interventions to express support for the so-called “ban treaty” proposal and the importance of proceeding with efforts to fill the legal gap even without the participation of nuclear weapon states, who have over the last two decades blocked all efforts to move forward with multilateral efforts leading to nuclear disarmament, including in the context of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the moribund Conference on Disarmament.

Among the more vocal proponents of a ban, Brazil and Malaysia noted that a ban treaty could be negotiated now and be part of a wider framework that later includes provisions for the verified elimination of stockpiles. Brazil argued that a ban treaty would have the merit of being “open to all and blockable by none”. It proposed that the UN working group consider elements to include in such a treaty. On the other side of the debate, some states argued for pursuing confidence-building measures and more modest “building blocks” which largely consist of the existing proposals that have languished in blocked forums or depend on nuclear weapon states to be successful. They warned against proposals which could further isolate nuclear weapon states and, in their view, further destabilize the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. These views were mainly limited to the states who are members of military alliances with the nuclear weapon states.

The OEWG will reconvene in May (2 – 15) to pursue the different legal measures in more detail. The agenda of the next session will be announced in April by the Chair of the OEWG, Ambassador Thani Thongphakdi of Thailand. ICAN expects the May session to further demonstrate the support of the majority of states for a treaty banning nuclear weapons.

Useful resources:

  • 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