Disarmament Insight


Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Civil Society and Humanitarian Issues

 In Japanese tradition, fireworks are flowers offered to the sky, converting gunpowder from a weapon of war to a prayer for peace.  Creating a Peaceful and Safe Future: Pressing Issues and Potential Solutions” was the theme of a conference held recently in Japan.  Organized by the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, through its Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Asia and the Pacific in cooperation with the government of Japan, the meeting was hosted by the city of Shizuoka beneath the inspiring presence of Mt Fuji.

The agenda covered a wide range of arms control and security issues but featured nuclear disarmament, beginning with an examination of “humanitarian issues and nuclear weapons”.  This was an understandable focus given Japan’s experience of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and it gave rise to an intriguing dynamic. 
Of course, Japan was part of the consensus adoption by the 2010 NPT Review Conference of the action plan in which deep concern was expressed by the NPT parties of the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons”.  And in a joint public statement in September 2010, the foreign ministers of the NPT lobby group of 10 states known as the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI), which includes Japan, publicly echoed the Review Conference’s concern about humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons’ use.
Japan has not, however, subscribed to the efforts of a larger, Swiss-led group to amplify this expression of concern. At the first preparatory committee meeting in the current review cycle of the NPT last May in Vienna, Switzerland delivered a statement on behalf of 16 states parties. Barely 6 months later a similar statement was delivered in the name of 34 states and the Holy See during the most recent session of the UN General Assembly.
That statement concludes with these words: “The only way to guarantee [that nuclear weapons are never used again] is the total, irreversible and verifiable elimination of nuclear weapons, under effective international control, including through the full implementation of Article VI of the NPT (see further below). All States must intensify their efforts to outlaw nuclear weapons and achieve a world free of nuclear weapons. Civil society plays a crucial role in raising the awareness about the devastating humanitarian consequences as well as the critical IHL implications of nuclear weapons”.
Japan, though sympathetic to this message, seems concerned that that over-emphasizing a humanitarian approach and a “rapid push for a ban” on nuclear weapons might invite staunch opposition from states possessing nuclear arsenals and thus prove counter-productive.  Japanese officials prefer for the meantime to approach the goal of nuclear disarmament in a manner it characterizes as “realistic”, “practical and gradual”, or “step-by-step”. Its view that the negotiation of a fissile material cut-off treaty (FMCT) should be the first such step is well known.
Whether concern about the humanitarian consequences of the detonation of a nuclear weapon will eventually inspire the successful push needed to ban those armaments remains to be seen.  Indeed, how best to make progress on nuclear disarmament is itself an open question, when existing forums hold so little promise.  The Conference on Disarmament (CD) – a body in which all nine of the nuclear weapons-possessing states are represented – is still chronically unable to reach the necessary consensus for a mandate for negotiations on nuclear disarmament (or on FMCT or anything else for that matter). 
Even embracing the word “negotiations” in relation to a mandate for progress on nuclear disarmament is a step too far for nuclear-armed states in the CD.  And in the NPT, the negotiations envisaged by Article VI of that treaty are not in prospect.  In the NPT, as in the CD, nuclear weapons states essentially control the agenda, relying on the consensus rule (or practice) to do so. 
Some civil society representatives at the Shizuoka meeting seemed skeptical of a step-by-step approach, at least in part because of the obstacles in the way of taking the first step. They are aware that Japanese delegates are very active in the UN General Assembly, NPT, CD as well as in the NPDI group where Japan, with Australia, has been pressing the nuclear weapon states for more reporting on nuclear weapons’ holdings and doctrines.  But they are equally aware that those states have not yet been responsive to these calls for transparency. 
Civil society in Japan holds the key to influencing their government, in order to help it to recognize the potential for the humanitarian approach for re-energizing the nuclear disarmament debate, and refocusing discourse on the effects of the use of those weapons rather than on their strategic and military purposes. 
In this connection, the words of the UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs delivered at another recent event in Japan are instructive.  On 2 February, during her keynote address to "The Second World Citizen Forum" commemorating the 125th anniversary of the Kwansei Gakuin University, Angela Kane made these observations: “Given the horrible humanitarian and environmental consequences from any war involving the use of nuclear weapons—consequences that would not only cross national borders but affect the entire planet—citizens everywhere are quite justified in raising their voices on behalf of progress in nuclear disarmament. There is enormous potential for progress in this great collective effort, provided the people are willing to pursue this goal, willing to encourage diverse organized groups throughout society to work for its achievement, and willing to extend this cooperation to the peoples of other nations”.
Measuring the potential for progress to which the High Representative refers will be the subject of further analysis in Disarmament Insight. The forthcoming events in Oslo on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons – the Civil Society Forum on 2-3 March and the international conference on 4-5 March - will be important pointers in this regard. Indeed, the fact that these events are taking place at all – and that they are currently the subject of widespread reflection in many states at present – is testimony to the value of bringing fresh humanitarian perspectives to bear on a problem of global significance that, in disarmament and non-proliferation terms, has become a Gordian knot.

Tim Caughley, Resident Senior Fellow, UNIDIR