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Home Articles Features Memo on OEWG faxed to 43 Govts, emailed to all of First Committee /UNGA

Memo on OEWG faxed to 43 Govts, emailed to all of First Committee /UNGA

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The below memo re the conclusions/final report (as orally amended) of the Open Ended Working Group on nuclear Disarmament has been faxed to 43 of the most critical governments, and emailed to every government in the general assembly.
John Hallam





John Hallam

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Dear First Committee Delegate:


I am writing to urge you in First Committee, to support all the measures recommended, especially but not only in paras 34, 66, 67, and 68 of the Final Report, (as orally amended) of the Open-Ended Working Group on Nuclear Disarmament, which met in Geneva in Feb, May, and August of 2016.


The author was present throughout the May OEWG meeting.


In focussing on these particular paras, I do not intend in any way to suggest that other paras and recommendations of the OEWG report are not important and desirable: ALL the recommendations of the OEWG final report should be implemented. In my view there is no contradiction between any of them. However, paras 34, 66,67, and 68, distil the most vital recommendations of a report that should be implemented as a whole.


This applies very strongly I might add, also to the 'progressive group' agenda, which not only does notcontradict the measures in paras 34,66, 67, and 68 of the final report, but which itself needs to be actually implemented as a matter of the utmost urgency. It is precisely the complete failure/unwillingness to progress meaningfully the 'progressive' agenda, that leads to the necessity to take more 'radical' measures.


The OEWG final report in addition, canvasses a number of measures including de-alerting and no first use, that are designed to reduce nuclear risks in the short term. Some (if not all) of these are themselves parts of the 'progressive' agenda. The literally existential importance of making progress on risk reduction items whose importance has sky-rocketed with the sky-rocketing of the risk of nuclear weapons use in the last five years cannot be overemphasised. Whatever deliberations arise out of the OEWG recommendation must include short-term risk reduction measures.


First Committee apart from the proposed OEWG resolution, also offers a number of resolutions on nuclear risk that are important and worthy of more widespread support, notably the resolution sponsored by Chile, Malaysia, Nigeria, Sweden, Switzerland, New Zealand, titled 'Operational Readiness of Nuclear Weapons Systems' that attracts wide support already, and India's Reducing Nuclear Dangers resolution. Wider cross-factional support for the latter would send a signal that very much needs to be sent.


Para 34 of the OEWG report reads:

A majority of states expressed support for the commencement of negotiations in the General Assembly in 2017, open to all States, international organisations and civil society on a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination, which would establish general prohibitions and obligations as well as political commitment to achieve and maintain a nuclear-weapon-free world. Representatives of civil society supported this view.”


It is astonishing that some delegations, notably Australia, have tried to argue that the 107 delegates total who support this view do not constitute a majority when, clearly, they do constitute a very substantial majority.


According to 67 and 68:


 67. The Working Group recommended with widespread support for the General Assembly to convene a conference in 2017, open to all States, with the participation and contribution of international organisations and civil society, to negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination, as outlined in paragraph 34. The Working Group also recognised that other States did not agree with the above recommendation and that they recommended that any process to take forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations 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, as outlined in paragraphs 40 and 41 for which there was no agreement. The Working Group further recognised the views expressed on other approaches.'


'68. The Working Group also recommended that States should consider implementing as appropriate the various measures, as suggested in this report, that could contribute to taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations, including but not limited to: transparency measures related to the risks associated with existing nuclear weapons; measures to reduce and eliminate the risk of accidental, mistaken, unauthorised or intentional nuclear weapon detonations; and additional measures to increase awareness and understanding of the complexity of and interrelationship between the wide range of humanitarian consequences that would result from any nuclear detonation; and other measures that could contribute to taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations.”


I have included 68 here as it emphasises the importance not only of the most attention-grabbing recommendation of the OEWG, the call in (34) and (67) to proceed to the negotiation of an instrument that will prohibit nuclear weapons, but of transparency measures and above all of immediate – term risk reduction measures which are of, as I emphasise, existential, and growing importance.


I also would like to comment on the reference in Para 67 to paras 40 and 41, on 'simultaneous effective legal and non-legal measures to take forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations', 'on which there was no agreement'.


This is I think, misleading. Paras 40 and 41 are essentially a statement of the 'Progressive Group' agenda, which as I emphasise, contains a number of risk reduction measures whose importance is emphasised elsewhere in the OEWG report. However I think it would be correct to say that not one item of the 'progressive' agenda is regarded by any government that attended the OEWG as in any way undesirable or unhelpful. However, no or little progress has been made on that agenda, and there is little prospect of that absent a new initiative such as the OEWG suggests. Indeed the de-legitimisation of nuclear weapons may be just what the agenda in paras 40 and 41 needs. Far from competing or undermining the 'progressive' agenda, the recommendations in (34) should add the one thing the 'progressive' agenda lacks, namely, actual progress.


The choice is not EITHER paras 34 and 67, OR Paras 40 and 41. The choice is paras 40 and 41alone (i.e. the status quo, as advocated by the 'Progressive' Group) OR paras 34 and 67 AND paras 40 and 41, as advocated by at least 107 governments. It is Both/and, not either/or.


I wish to conclude with a brief look at some of the purported arguments against the commencement of an immediate (2017) initiative in First Committee aimed at the establishment of a legally binding 'instrument' that outlaws nuclear weapons.


The German delegation noted that:

...In the OEWG meetings we contended that a possible ban treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons would not be effective. Any next step in nuclear disarmament needed to balance national security concerns, take heed of the international situation, and have buy-in from those states that actually possess nuclear weapons. As the proposal to proceed to a ban treaty negotiation ignored all of these conditions, we do not believe such a negotiation or treaty is justified. In our view, a Prohibition Treaty negotiation would only risk deepening the divide between NWS and NNWS.”


Australia noted in part that:

....A simple Ban Treaty would not facilitate the reduction in one nuclear weapon. It might even harden the resolve of those possessing nuclear weapons not to reduce their arsenals...”


Both these 'Progressive' states argue that in some quite mysterious way, the Ban Treaty – whose aim is surely to de-legitimise nuclear weapons – will lead nuclear weapon states to hang grimly onto or augment their nuclear arsenals (which they are already doing).


It is hard to see how any state that is in any way concerned about its international legitimacy or moral standing could in fact react in this way.


Certainly there is bound to be short term opposition from states who, even if they don’t want to admit it in wider forums such as the UN, secretly wish to hang on to nuclear arsenals. But all the 'ban treaty', 'legally binding instrument', (or convention or framework agreement) does, is to signal the unacceptable nature of those weapons - and their illegality. It signals also that so – called 'progress' via the 'progressive' route has simply not been taking place. Finally and above all, a legally binding instrument of prohibition will place immense pressure on the nuclear weapons states and states holding nuclear weapons to get rid of their nuclear arsenals. It stigmatises nuclear weapons precisely as they need to be stigmatised. And some powerful governments will not like that. This is no surprise.


One can also turn the question on its head and ask if we will be any better off under a 'progressive' agenda that never actually progresses anywhere, and whether current trends to modernise and reinvent nuclear arsenals will be halted or slowed or reversed by that – and whether the essential risk reduction measures that make such a major contribution to human survival (if they take place) are any more likely to take place, absent a global stigmatisation and marginalisation of nuclear weapons. The clear answer is 'no', and the situation will rather deteriorate until a catastrophe takes place. In other words, far from an instrument of prohibition worsening the situation, failure to negotiate one will worsen the situation.


The name of the game must be applying pressure to actors whose speciality is precisely applying pressure to others.


Provocatively: - It is even arguable that, while acknowledging that the normal law of treaties is that they bind only those who sign them, still more pressure would be placed on those states if the 'instrument' prohibiting nuclear weapons had within it a clause making it binding on all states without exception including specifically non-signatories. Failing this, ways need to be found to make it absolutely impossible simply to ignore what is after all a binding multilateral legal instrument that is intended to influence the behaviour of all without exception. Indeed its intent must be precisely to influence the behaviour of those who have NOT signed it. This is in a sense the very opposite of 'buy-in'. We don't ask for 'buy in' for drug traders when we frame measures to eliminate drugs – either in domestic or in international contexts, or from currency launderers when we frame measures to clean up financial markets. Weapons that have the potential to terminate civilisation and much else should be viewed the same way. We also don't ask drug traffickers to sign onto the relevant regulations. We arrest them.


It is simply not the case that greater pressure on the states that have nuclear weapons could lead to the opposite result to that desired. It is hard to see how it could ever be the case. And to obtain results, real pressure must be applied to powerful international actors. There is no way that won't lead to howls. And real pressure has yet to be applied.


Similarly, the argument that security issues need to be taken into account turns out on examination to be 'self-devouring'. It is precisely concern over security issues that leads the overwhelming majority of us, states and NGOs, to feel that the elimination of nuclear weapons is a matter of existential urgency and that they therefore ought to be illegal!


At the same time, it is the view of this author that space and flexibility should be made to encourage states that have nuclear weapons to 'engage', while absolutely preventing them from sabotaging, derailing, or obstructing that process. Germany argues that the nuclear weapon possessing states must 'own' the process. They must not. This could simply lead to it being abused by them. Others argue that on the contrary they must have nothing to do with it. This would make the initiative pointless. They must be brought into the process in some way and the process needs to be designed to accommodate that, but in a way that preserves and promotes the core intent of the process, to eliminate nuclear weapons.


I urge governments in First Committee to support a process, commencing in 2017, that leads as a matter of urgency to a multilateral legally binding instrument that makes nuclear weapons illegal, whether that be by simple Ban Treaty, Nuclear Weapons Convention, Framework Agreement, or 'hybrid approach'.


I urge in addition that other initiatives in First Committee that further the recommendations of the OEWG such as (but not only) Operational Readiness of Nuclear Weapon Systems and Reducing Nuclear Dangers in particular, be given strong cross-factional support and not only from their traditional support bases.


John Hallam

Human Survival Project

People for Nuclear Disarmament




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