2015: An end to speculation?

Humanitarian Initiative, NPT

2015 looks to be a decisive year, not least for the humanitarian initiative. But what else is on the horizon?

By Magnus Løvold

In January 2014, the stage had already been set for the humanitarian initiative. Preparations for the Nayarit conference were in their final stages, and rumours about a follow-up conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons in Vienna had been all but confirmed by the Austrian Government’s 2013 – 2018 Work Programme. States and organizations working to promote a humanitarian approach to nuclear disarmament had a good idea of what 2014 would bring, and the remainder of the year was, according to one observer, “mere logistics and implementation”.

In comparison, 2015 looks less clear. No state or group of states is yet prepared to announce a follow-up conference after Austria successfully wrapped up the third conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons in December 2014. Widespread rumours about a fourth conference in South Africa have since, oddly enough, only found clear public expression through a Norwegian statement of support. Meanwhile, where the humanitarian track in the field of nuclear disarmament will go next remains a matter of speculation.

These discussions are likely to intensify in the lead-up to the four-week-long five-yearly Review Conference of the states parties to the NPT in late April and May. However, to predict what will transpire out of this four-week diplomatic exercise is a difficult, if not impossible, task at this stage.

In the coming months, many states will no doubt formulate their policies and expectations with a view to the postponed conference on a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East, the outcome of the sixth meeting of the “P5 process” in London in early February, as well as the quality and coherence of the five NPT nuclear weapons states’ national reports on the implementation of the 2010 Action Plan. The prospects for reaching a comprehensive agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme before the second extension deadline on 1 July, will also no doubt play into the NPT Review Conference expectations game.

But for many in the disarmament community, the most urgent question will be how the positive dynamics of the three humanitarian impacts conferences will influence the deliberations of the 2015 Review Conference. Austria has signalled its intention to “present the facts-based discussions, findings and compelling evidence of the Vienna Conference […] to all relevant fora, in particular the NPT Review Conference […]”. Austrian diplomats have not yet announced how they intend to do this. How these efforts will fare in the cauldron of NPT politics is not clear either, but hopefully, the growth in support of the humanitarian consequences initiative will be seen for what it is: a sign of commitment to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, rather than as some catalysing agent “to blame” for blockage or lack of implementation of the vaunted step-by-step approach to nuclear disarmament in the first place. The NAC’s “Effective Measures” Working Paper on Article VI of the NPT, submitted to the 2014 NPT Preparatory Committee, will probably also be useful in keeping the 2015 Review Conference focused on substance, not merely procedural outcomes.

And then there are the things that never seem to change. The nuclear disarmament paper mill will no doubt continue to churn out its usual amount of familiar statements, resolutions and working papers in the CD—now in its 19th year without a programme of work—as well as at the United Nations Disarmament Commission in April and at the First Committee of the United Nations General Assembly’s First Committee in October. While the first 2015 session the CD was reported to almost reach the level of “interactive discussions”, and despite plans of organising a CD Civil Society Forum in March, the Conference’s failure to adopt a programme of work in late January indicates that any hope of progress in these forums are likely to be disappointed again.

But in the big scheme of things, 2015 might not be remembered for what happened (or didn’t happen) at international diplomatic conferences. The three conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons have already produced more than enough new evidence to warrant a fundamental re-think of old policy positions and create new dynamics in discussions about nuclear disarmament. As the ICAN campaigning machine swings in behind the Austrian Pledge in the hope it will eventuate in a nuclear weapon ban treaty process, the most significant political developments of 2015 might not take place in New York or Geneva, but rather in national capitals such as Berlin, Brasilia, Abuja, Pretoria, Manila, London and Cairo. Political decisions of any import are, after all, normally taken in national, not international, arenas. The decisions to organise the three humanitarian impacts conferences were taken in Oslo, Mexico City and Vienna, respectively, and this gives reason to believe that decisions about future conferences will follow the same pattern.

Also worth mentioning is the 100-year anniversary of Women’s International League for Peace of Freedom (WILPF) in late April. In light of the continued existence of some 16,000 nuclear weapons, it might be argued that this conference symbolises the inability to date of civil society interests, however well meaning, to exert sufficient leverage over states’ behaviour. However, it might also serve as an important reminder of how mobilisation of new constituencies can upend the balance and create new dynamics in previously deadlocked political situations.

Add onto that the much-anticipated 70-year anniversary of the 1945 nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August. The horrifying evidence and testimonies brought forward by people who witnessed the catastrophic humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons first hand in August 1945 puts the slow pace of nuclear disarmament in a stark perspective. The 70-year anniversary of these events provides civil society and other actors with a mobilisation arena and a key opportunity to get the outcomes of the three humanitarian consequences conferences out to a wider audience.

At the end of the Nayarit Conference in February 2014, the Mexican Deputy Foreign Minister, Juan Manuel Gomez Robledo, stated that the 70-year anniversary of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was “the appropriate milestone to achieve our goal”, while leaving the actual nature of that goal ambiguous. In light of this, an end to speculation about the goal of the humanitarian initiative is one concrete thing to reasonably hope for in 2015.