Open-ended working group demonstrates traction of the humanitarian approach

On 30 August, the Open-ended Working Group (OEWG) concluded its work with the adoption of its final report. The OEWG’s mandate was to “take forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations for the achievement and maintenance of a world without nuclear weapons”. The final report opens by noting that the deep concerns about the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons was the impetus for the creation of the body, and contains an overview of existing and new proposals submitted by states, civil society and academics. A treaty banning nuclear weapons resonated with the participants, as several organisations and states spoke about the potential that a ban treaty would have in establishing the concrete framework within which to embark upon the path to elimination.

In its working paper Reaching Critical Will (RCW), an ICAN partner organisation, observed that nuclear weapons are the only weapons of mass destruction that are not yet prohibited through a binding legal instrument, unlike chemical and biological weapons, both of which have long since been banned. What was clearly put forth in the OEWG proceedings was that despite the obligation on parties to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty under Article VI to pursue in good faith negotiations to achieve nuclear disarmament, there has been an utter lack of progress in this regard. Non-nuclear weapon states place the blame at the feet of nuclear-armed states, while the latter point to security doctrines and arguments about rogue states that are not party to the NPT, generating a seemingly endless cycle of false starts and finger-pointing. Although many non-nuclear weapon states have proved that real progress can be made outside of the NPT and other stagnant forums through their adoption and ratification of Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone treaties, a binding international legal instrument banning nuclear weapons would compound upon and reinforce the impetus created by treaties like Pelindaba and Tlatelolco. As was noted by RCW in its report such a ban treaty would also reinforce the NPT by fulfilling the Article VI obligation.

The final report will be submitted to the United Nations General Assembly where it will be reviewed and a decision will taken as to whether or not the OEWG will see its mandate renewed. Ultimately the efficacy of the OEWG as an alternative forum to will depend on how the General Assembly responds to the report and under what conditions the mandate is renewed. All things considered, one of the major accomplishments of these 2013 sessions has been to mainstream the concept that, given the global nature of the catastrophic effects of nuclear weapons, the responsibility to eliminate them cannot and will not lie solely with the nuclear armed states, and thus proposals as to how to break the gridlock should not be subject to their approval, tacit or otherwise. This is reflected in Paragraphs 40-42 of the report. As was noted by Beatrice Fihn, of RCW and ICAN’s international steering group, the fact that only two nuclear-armed states chose to participate in the forum did nothing to dampen the significance of the discussions and could possibly be seen as a “signal that the traditional power dynamics between nuclear-armed and non-nuclear weapon states are changing.”