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Bulletin 218: UN Working Group builds momentum among large majority of world's countries toward treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons

May 15, 2016

Dear friends and colleagues --

Trish and I are in the process of returning from Geneva after the very interesting eight-day May meeting of the 2016 "Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) Taking Forward Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament Negotiations." Before that we took part in a weekend campaign meeting of some 130 persons led by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), in which the Study Group is an active partner organization -- one of 440 partner organizations in 98 countries in all.

I sent a partial report on the OEWG to some local Study Group members on 12 May, which has been kindly sent around to a few list-serves. As an update it was a bit stale by the time it could finally be sent but it has some useful background, which I will not repeat here. The present Bulletin attempts to update that report somewhat. (If you live in New Mexico and you didn't receive that partial update directly AND you want to be on a New Mexico emailing list, please drop me a line to that effect.)

For us, and for others with whom we have spoken, this meeting was far and away the most powerful, interesting, and important multilateral meeting of states on nuclear disarmament we have ever attended. A process leading to negotiation of a new disarmament treaty is now underway and will continue in the fall at the UN in New York.

There is general agreement among a large majority of the world's countries that the essential common ground in any new treaty, and the first thing thing that needs to be done, is to prohibit the possession, development, transfer, and use of nuclear weapons
-- that is, to fill the legal and normative gap that has prevented, and unless fixed will continue to prevent, successful disarmament diplomacy.

Excellent daily summaries from this meeting can be found in the OEWG newsletters of Reaching Critical Will (RCW), which were handed to disarmament delegates each morning. In addition to straight reporting, Ray Acheson's editorials captured very well, in our view, the import of each day's discussions. RCW also maintains an index of documents and working papers submitted.

In addition to Ray's fine editorial Friday's edition also contained an editorial by me on why a ban treaty would be an effective disarmament measure. We also submitted a working paper (NGO 19, "Progress in multilateral nuclear disarmament requires a treaty prohibiting the possession, threat, or use of nuclear weapons").

The United Nations Office in Geneva (UNOG) has created an archive of audio recordings of speakers in chronological order, separated by speaker/country (To use, first go to the box titled "organization" and choose "WG on nuclear disarmament"). Be patient. This archive has worked for me up to now -- allowing for 1 day's lag for UNOG to get the recordings posted -- but it is working only haltingly here in Heathrow.

To get some flavor of the proceedings try listening (using the above archive) to Mexico's intervention on the last day, Friday, May 13; Jamaica's speech of the same day, and the important back-to-back speeches of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), from Australia (Dr. Tillman Ruff) and Malaysia (Dr. Ron McCoy) that same afternoon.

Importantly, nuclear weapons issues are now being increasingly linked to development issues, human rights issues, and gender issues by many diplomats, providing powerful new themes and modes of analysis.

Many people have asked about the content of a possible ban treaty -- what it might be, and how negotiating such a treaty has become widely seen by states as the most viable approach, or the only viable approach, to break the nuclear disarmament deadlock. If you have those sorts of questions you might want to take the time to listen to the May 11 talk of Dr. Nick Ritchie, Lecturer  in International Security at the University of York (full paper). The audio of that talk is well worth the time. Dr. Nitchie spoke with particular clarity and effect.  

The flow of discussion over these past eight days (building on the preceding four days in February) can be likened to a very wide river that gradually narrows as it enters a canyon and picks up speed and focus. At first one may with some freedom navigate across the river or even buck the current to travel upstream, but as it narrows the current becomes too powerful to oppose, and one must trim one's boat accordingly.  Over these days the increase in momentum toward disarmament negotiations, centered on a ban treaty, in 2017 has been palpable.

It was interesting to see three influential states that had been opposing progress on a ban treaty -- Norway, Netherlands, and Australia -- visibly neutralized over the course of these eight days, by developments in their own parliaments -- by democracy, in other words. Dynamic, creative campaigns by ICAN partner groups in Norway and the Netherlands forced parliamentary debates on prohibiting nuclear weapons, with such power and popularity that these foreign ministries had to mute their opposition last week. In Australia the government fell, and since the opposition Labor party support (or may support, I am unsure which as of this writing) negotiation of a ban treaty (again, because of in-country lobbying), diplomats at the OEWG became barred from taking a position on such a controversial issue until a new government is formed.

But most of all, the yearning for disarmament, which is now quite strong and sophisticated in a large number of states across the global South especially, is finding fresh expression for the simple reason that this meeting was not held under paralyzing consensus rules, which the nuclear weapon states use to crush progress. The same will be true in the First Committee and General Assembly this fall, meaning that those who want to flat-out oppose negotiation of a disarmament treaty will be out-voted, probably by wide margins. Other tactics to delay, diffuse, distract, de-fund, co-opt, and so on will be put into action by the nuclear weapon states, but with what effect? We will see.

For an excellent summation please see ICAN's final press release, "May session ends with huge support for ban." I would like to send other links with reports and analyses, but I am out of time.

Best wishes,

Greg Mello


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