Disarmament Insight


Monday, 11 March 2013

Humanitarian Success

Interest in learning more about the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons drew almost 130 states to a meeting in Oslo recently.  Given the high consequences for humanity of any detonation of a nuclear weapon, such a large turnout is hardly surprising. 
Notably, however, the 5 permanent members of the Security Council - all possessors of nuclear arsenals and all subject to NPT obligations to disarm - declined their invitations to attend.  Their reasons for staying away warrant examination.
But first some facts.  The Oslo event was simply an evidence-assessing opportunity - no negotiating, no decisions, no lofty declarations.  Rather, the conference offered an arena for a fact-based discussion of the humanitarian and developmental consequences associated with a nuclear weapon detonation. The meeting drew on inputs from a wide-range of scientific, medical, and other experts including disaster-preparedness specialists from the Red Cross Movement and UN agencies.
Nonetheless, the 5 NPT nuclear weapon states (P5) collectively took the view that the 2-day Oslo meeting would divert discussion and energy from a practical step-by-step approach towards nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.
Given the current paralysis in nuclear disarmament negotiating fora - a state of affairs that played a part in inspiring the new approach represented by the Oslo meeting - this is a curious argument.  What are the practical steps to which the nuclear weapon states might be referring?
Apart from ongoing US-Russian bilateral steps and some inconclusive P5 caucusing, there’s not much evidence of activities of any progressive kind. 
- For instance, the practical steps agreed by the nuclear weapon states as part of the NPT parties’ consensus in 2000 were honoured in the breach, if not undermined by some of the P5, until belatedly re-affirmed in the 2010 Review Conference action plan. 
- No practical steps are possible in the Conference on Disarmament which has long been blocked by a succession of nuclear weapons-possessing states.
- Progress on even the most basic opening up of transparency via agreement amongst the P5 on a reporting format for the NPT’s repository of information on nuclear weapons’ holdings is glacial.
- Any further relaxation of the cold war levels of alert of nuclear weapons is sternly opposed by 4 of the 5 permanent Security Council members when the issue comes before the UN General Assembly from time to time.
- Fulfillment by the nuclear weapon states of the NPT article VI obligation “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament” is unconsummated.  Worse, attempts by other states to offer a focus on nuclear weapons - such as at the Oslo event and the forthcoming UN Open-ended Work Group on nuclear disarmament (OEWG) - have been spurned.
- The most that can be said about possible practical steps currently in train is to hope that the P5 are making steady progress, along with all other NPT parties, in implementing the 2010 action plan.
The 5 nuclear weapon states opted not to be represented in Oslo even by a junior note-taker.  This leaves them open to criticism of seeming insensitivity to the argument of the vast majority of states that issues affecting nuclear weapons are of consequence and concern to all nations, not just the possessing countries.  This they may deny. But in the absence of any sustained progress on possible steps towards nuclear disarmament in which they are collectively involved, there will inevitably be speculation on the real reason for the 5 NPT nuclear weapon states to shun the Oslo meeting. 
What can be said, however, is that the Oslo event, the OEWG in mid-year, the UN High Level Meeting on 26 September, and the Mexico-hosted follow-up to the Oslo meeting are bringing heightened new focus to nuclear weapons’ issues this year.  Equally, these meetings offer opportunities for the P5 to outline progress on the practical steps to which they attach so much importance including those on which they have undertaken to report to the NPT PrepCom in 2014.  Taking up these opportunities would be rather more consistent with the spirit of the NPT especially article VI than being absent.  Let’s hope that they will reconsider their approach.
Tim Caughley and John Borrie


Sylvie Brigot-Vilain said...

Thanks for sharp comments ! As a French citizen I totally agree with them! The P5 absence from Oslo was telling. France ( as others) should engage constructively in this dialogue, that is complementary, and in line with their obligations under Article VI of the NPT; and not opposing a blind and stubborn faith in stalled nuclear disarmament. They should start putting an end to the the old rhetoric and engage before it is too late, before the world has to face the consequences of the actual use of a nuclear bomb. Sbv