Open-Ended Working Group reconvenes to address means of breaking nuclear disarmament gridlock

August 19, 2013

19 August 2013

Today marks the opening of the third and final session in 2013 for the open-ended working group (OEWG) at the United Nations in Geneva. For ICAN, this new arena represents an opportunity to lay the case for a treaty banning nuclear weapons as the logical and decisive next step towards achieving a world free from these weapons.

The OEWG was established by UN General Assembly Resolution 67/56, adopted in October 2012, with the task of developing “proposals to take forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations for the achievement and maintenance of a world without nuclear weapons”. The sessions feature participation from state delegations, international organisations and civil society, and have been chaired by Ambassador Manuel B. Dengo of Costa Rica. At the third session, the group will finish its work and prepare and adopt its report to be submitted to the General Assembly.

The creation of this new forum is an indication of the growing frustration at the lack of progress made on nuclear disarmament in the traditional forums, most notably that of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Speaking at a panel discussion on multilateral treaty-based commitments and obligations at the first session in May, Beatrice Fihn, Manager of Reaching Critical Will and member of ICAN’s International Steering Group, noted that despite numerous attempts to concretise the obligations laid out in Article VI of the NPT, including the “13 Steps” plan adopted in the 2000 NPT Review Conference and the 64-point action plan adopted at the 2010 Review Conference, the proposals have amounted to little and have no clear timelines nor benchmarks to measure progress. Indeed, the main problem with the NPT is that the nuclear armed states party to the treaty view Article VI as a license to maintain their arsenals until they are ‘ready’ to disarm, while lambasting those who criticise them for their lack of substantive progress for “upsetting the strategic balance” and even undermining the NPT.

It is in the wake of these false starts and failed road maps that the open-ended working group comes in. According to Fihn, “We are here to address nuclear disarmament, because the international community is not satisfied with the results so far. When something doesn’t work, you change.”

In addition to being a signal of the intransigence of existing forums on nuclear disarmament, the OEWG has served as an arena where new ideas and approaches can be debated. For ICAN, the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons are too horrific to not take a central role in any debate about nuclear disarmament and the clear next step to ridding the world of the spectre of a nuclear detonation is to ban nuclear weapons outright.

Dr Rebecca Johnson, Co-Chair of ICAN and Director of Acronym Institute, delivered a presentation on the ‘Perspectives on the necessary framework to achieve and maintain a nuclear weapons free world’. A main reason why the steps and action plans put forth at the NPT have so frequently been “ignored or subverted” is due to the absence of a clear legal prohibition on nuclear weapons: “An international ban treaty will provide legitimacy and accountability for measures to prevent access to the weapons and curb incentives to proliferate. It becomes the spur for collective action, including developing tools and technologies to monitor and verify progress and provide confidence among regional and international rivals.”

Other important contributions to the discussion of the merits of a treaty banning nuclear weapons have come from Thomas Nash, Director of Article 36 and member of ICAN’s International Steering Group, and a working paper submitted by Reaching Critical Will. Nash praised the involvement of international organisations like the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, as well as the humanitarian actors within the UN such as the OCHA and UNDP and argued that a new treaty to ban nuclear weapons is possible in the next few years and it is, in fact, an anomaly in international law that they have not already been outlawed. Such a treaty would be a “step in a process – the ban would be an additional tool towards a nuclear weapon free world; elimination usually follows prohibition,” he noted, pointing to the experience of the prohibitions of chemical and biological weapons which were instrumental in ensuring the progress of their elimination, currently ongoing.

Reaching Critical Will, an ICAN partner organisation, asserted that, “the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons provide a clear rationale for negotiating a ban on nuclear weapons.” It recommended that that the OEWG deliberate on the merits of a treaty banning nuclear weapons “as a constructive and effective path towards the elimination of nuclear weapons” as well as urging all countries to “submit fresh, innovative ideas for breaking the ongoing stalemate in nuclear disarmament”, focusing on what steps can be taken now, even without the participation of all nuclear-armed states.

Over the next few weeks, ICAN encourages governments to ensure that the humanitarian concerns of nuclear weapons remain at the forefront of considerations:

“This is what needs to be the basis of the work of this open-ended working group. We hope that all states here will continue to think deeply and constructively about what is possible, necessary and achievable to prevent further unacceptable humanitarian harm from these weapons of mass suffering.”

Selected statements and presentations:

ICAN Statement (link)

Reaching Critical Will Working Paper (link)

Beatrice Fihn, Reaching Critical Will (link)

Rebecca Johnson, Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy (link)

Thomas Nash, Article 36 (link) (link)

Susi Snyder, IKV Pax Christi (link)

All statements and presentations can be found at


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