The final day of the open-ended working on nuclear disarmament (OEWG) was a picture of diplomatic theatre. At the last moment the Australian delegation tried to upset the process by demanding a vote on what all other delegations believed was an agreed text. This did not prevent the adoption of a clear recommendation, supported by at least 107 states, for the commencement of negotiations in 2017 on a legally-binding instrument to ban nuclear weapons, leading to their elimination. In fact, this recommendation was even strengthened by oral amendment due to Australia’s move. This is a historic moment, the “most significant contribution to nuclear disarmament in two decades,” as Mexico said during its closing remarks.
The development of this text was not easy. Negotiations over the outcome document were held in increasingly smaller groups, closed to civil society. They continued late into the night on Thursday and replaced the scheduled plenary meeting on Friday morning. When consultations finished, the final report was somewhat weaker than earlier drafts, particularly around how the level of support for 2017 negotiations is reflected—replacing “majority support” with “widespread support”. A minority of countries successfully demanded that a factual report not reflect reality.
But Australia’s insistence on a vote opened this up to change. The demand prompted Guatemala to propose an amendment strengthening the recommendation to make it clear that the OEWG unequivocally recommended negotiations on a ban treaty in 2017. This amendment was adopted by majority vote, as was the report as a whole.
This is an impressive achievement for every state that genuinely supports nuclear disarmament. All African, Latin American, Caribbean, Southeast Asian, and Pacific states, together with several in Europe, have united behind a proposal for the UN General Assembly to convene a conference next year to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading to their elimination.
Of course, those countries that believe nuclear weapons provide them with security continue to reject the push to prohibit them, as this will have significant implications for their current policies and practices. The report notes that “other states” did not agree with the recommendation for a prohibition treaty and instead recommended that any process on nuclear disarmament “must address national, international and collective security concerns and supported the pursuit of practical steps consisting of parallel and simultaneous effective legal and non-legal measures to take forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations.” These “other states” did not make a recommendation on any particular process, other than staying on the same course that we have been unable to advance on for the past two decades.
The lack of specific recommendations for action is not the only problem with this framing. It also puts the prohibition treaty in opposition to security concerns and in opposition to what is “practical”, and even seems to suggest that it excludes the possibility of other activities. Each of these assertions is false, and has been repeatedly challenged by those supporting the development of a prohibition treaty. A ban treaty is about security—the security of everyone to be free from the threat of massive nuclear violence. A ban treaty is practical—it is the most practical initiative that can be undertaken in an environment in which the nuclear-armed states refuse to participate in multilateral nuclear disarmament discussions, are investing billions to extend the lives of their arsenals into the indefinite future, and in which their non-armed allies lobby them not to even change their security doctrines to bring them in line with their commitments and obligations.
None of this, however, takes away from the historic importance of this outcome. In the grand scheme of things, the replacement of “majority support” with “widespread support” is not very significant. The truth is in the numbers. Of those participating in the OEWG, at least 107 states support negotiations; 24 do not. This truth is also clear in the narrative portion of the report, which retains the reference to majority support. The narrative also expands upon the recommendation that explains the importance of the prohibition treaty to elimination and describes the process of establishing prohibitions, obligations, and political commitment to a nuclear weapon free world.
This is what most states have agreed, indicating their intention to take specific, concrete action at this year’s General Assembly. This, thanks to the amendment adopted, is what the OEWG has officially recommended to the General Assembly.
Looking ahead, the importance of the principles of a process that is open to all, blockable by none, and inclusive of civil society remains crucial. The OEWG process in August did not reflect the practice of inclusivity reflected in the February or May meetings. When states are considering the mandate for a resolution to establish the ban treaty negotiating process this October, it’s imperative that they use the model of the earlier meetings to ensure that civil society and international organisations are part of the process, and that all delegations regardless of size can participate effectively.
In the meantime, we should recognise the importance of where we are now. For 71 years the majority of countries have experienced the injustice and insecurity that nuclear weapons represent. Together with civil society from around the world, they have demanded nuclear disarmament only to be frustrated by deadlock and hypocrisy. They have worked with nuclear-armed states and others that believe in the “value” of these weapons to reach agreements and establish commitments and processes that should lead to disarmament, only to see repeated failures to implement obligations and even steps backwards, made through increased investments in the modernisation of nuclear weapons.
The scene looks different now. The collective opposition to the current state of affairs has found a united voice and a pathway to action. The battle is far from over—we anticipate that some states will continue to try to thwart progress at this year’s First Committee [at the UN General Assembly], and that achieving the elimination of nuclear weapons will take more than a prohibition treaty on its own. But we are as close as we have ever been to launching a concerted, credible challenge to nuclear weapons and we have the momentum and the moral authority to succeed.