Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, SOAS University of London dp27@soas.ac.uk

Open-Ended Working Group Report

On Friday 30 August the Open-Ended Working Group on taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations (OEWG) adopted its final report after two weeks of debates, discussions and ruminations over various ideas, elements, and proposals submitted by governments and civil society groups.  A SCRAP representative was there for the whole two weeks to observe the proceedings, participate in the discussions, and eat the free lunchtime sandwiches.

The Working Group was mandated by the 67th session of the UN General Assembly to “develop proposals to take forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations for the achievement and maintenance of a world without nuclear weapons”, and over the course of 2013 the OEWG met three times – May, June, and August – at the Palais de Nations in Geneva.  With the current deadlock in the Conference on Disarmament and little real movement elsewhere on the subject of abolishing nuclear weapons, the OEWG presented an opportunity to discuss concrete progress, explore ways to start negotiations, and to look at issues in greater depth than in other forums.

Over the course of the sessions in May and June, the OEWG heard presentations from disarmament experts, academics, UN officials, and members of civil society on a multitude of relevant nuclear disarmament issues.  At the same time, government delegations and accredited NGOs had the opportunity to submit working papers that introduced their own ideas on how to achieve and maintain a world without nuclear weapons.  It was the primary aim of the August session of the OEWG, however, to reflect on these discussions and papers and to develop proposals for transmission to the UN General Assembly.  Accordingly, the chair of the group structured the proceedings around six thematic clusters, each led by a different friend of the chair.  While the topics were diverse, the delegations got caught up in debates over what approach to take to achieve a world without nuclear weapons and the elements that would make up the approaches.

Much of the discussion focused on the “building blocks” approach to nuclear disarmament, which has been put forward as an alternative to the “step-by-step” and “comprehensive” approaches.  Unfortunately, the proponents of building blocks never adequately explained just how it would be the game-changer everybody sought.  Indeed, the key working paper advocating this approach (A/AC.281/WP.4) presented as its “blocks” a list of stalled efforts (e.g. entry into force of the CTBT, commencement of negotiations of an FMCT) and other actions that have failed to generate sufficient enthusiasm (e.g. reduction of non-strategic and non-deployed nuclear weapons).  Many of the other working papers submitted to the group included similar nuclear disarmament wish lists, with little deviation from past proposals that have been raised (and got nowhere) in different forums.

NGOs made a constructive contribution to the debates, with Reaching Critical Will in particular submitted a working paper calling for a prohibition on the possession, stockpiling, development, or transfer of nuclear weapons.  RCW argued that for such a treaty it was not necessary for the nuclear-weapon states to be part of the negotiations, but once it was concluded it would further stigmatize the weapons, provide incentives for financial institutions to divest from companies involved in nuclear weapons, and build pressure for disarmament.

SCRAP made its own views known to the OEWG, highlighting that the Working Group had overlooked other aspects of disarmament that could facilitate the total elimination of nuclear weapons.  SCRAP’s representative at the OEWG pointed out that efforts to achieve zero nuclear weapons would be made much easier when attention has been given to conventional disarmament and regional confidence-building measures and to those capable of strategic intervention across regions.

Despite the faults of the Working Group, it should be emphasized that it did provide an open space for states and civil society to explore ideas unbound by the rules that have stymied progress in other forums.  However, without the nuclear weapon states it felt like an essential voice was missing.  Many stated noted that if the Open-Ended Working Group has its mandate renewed by the General Assembly, greater efforts would have to be made to encourage the P5 to participate.

Fabian Rutherford, SCRAP Advisory Committee member