At the first ever high-level meeting on nuclear disarmament at the United Nations in New York on 26 September, cutting through all the usual jargon of non-proliferation and moans about lack of progress was a clear call for change. The great majority of states expressed concern about the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, and calls in support of the humanitarian imperative have now reached such a pitch that not even the nuclear weapon possessors can ignore it any longer.
If proponents of the status quo had hoped that the high-level meeting on nuclear disarmament would be business as usual and the humanitarian approach would meekly fade away, they must have been sorely disappointed. It felt instead like a requiem for the step-by-step approach and a clear signal that non-nuclear weapon states are increasingly ready to take the lead on outlawing and eliminating nuclear weapons.
The first shot across the bow came from the President Fischer of Austria, who invoked the words of John F Kennedy about the fragility of a nuclear-armed world and neatly encapsulated the current state of play, “Our collective efforts to move away from the nuclear abyss have remained too modest in ambition and brought only limited success. Nuclear weapons should be stigmatized, banned and eliminated before they abolish us.”
It wasn’t just Austria – statements delivered on behalf of the African Group, the Arab Group, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), the New Agenda Coalition (NAC) as well as strong individual statements by Brazil, Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, Malaysia, Mongolia, Mexico, Nicaragua and Nigeria, among others, expressed the need of a legally binding instrument which would prohibit nuclear weapons. Minister of Foreign Affairs Viola Onwuliri, in particular, did not mince words – the “efforts to outlaw, eliminate and consign nuclear weapons to the dustbin of history must start now.”
Attempts to obfuscate and confuse the calls for real action to eliminate nuclear weapons were quite familiar and came from the usual suspects – coming in the tired form of denunciations of initiatives that might “distract” and divert attention from “existing processes”. In an alarmingly tone deaf statement, the United Kingdom, the United States and France even chose to express “regret” for efforts to highlight the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, labelling them a distraction. The Foreign Minister of Ireland, Eamon Gilmore, soundly rejected this notion arguing instead that the humanitarian imperative has been “written into the DNA” of the NPT following the final document adopted at the 2010 Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Philippines called out the step-by-step approach for what it is: “foot-dragging”. As they did by snubbing the Oslo conference in March 2013, the three nuclear-armed states continues to not see that they are fighting a losing battle.
If the joint statement by the three nuclear armed states was useful for anything at all it is that it recognises that there is a new game in town: the support for the humanitarian imperative is here to stay. Non-nuclear weapon states are starting to gain confidence and reclaim ownership over a debate that has previously been controlled by nuclear weapons possessors.
The momentum is here and it is undeniable. So, where do we take it? Mexico’s Minister of Foreign Affairs José Antonio Meade officially announced the follow up conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, which will take place in Nayarit in February 2014. This facts-based discussion will be an opportunity to once again demonstrate that the only way to prevent the unspeakable suffering threatened by nuclear weapons is to ban and eliminate them.
As Nosizwe Lise Baqwa laid out in civil society’s statement, “that nuclear weapons have not already been clearly declared illegal for all, alongside other prohibited weapons of mass destruction is a failure of our collective social responsibility.” There are obstacles on the path forward, but the path is there: it will take courage. It will take leadership by states free of nuclear weapons. But they will have the support of civil society.