No forums

Humanitarian Initiative

Only evidence-based discussions can fill the legal gap in the international framework regulating nuclear weapons.

By Magnus Løvold

The Conference on Disarmament in Geneva received another nail in its coffin when its long-standing civil society rapporteur, the Reaching Critical Will project of WILPF, on Tuesday 10 March announced that they would “cease engagement” with the Conference until its 65 member states agree on a program of work.

Having followed the Conference’s activities since the 1990s with impressive (some would say incomprehensible) patience, WILPF speak with some authority when they say that the Conference operates in a vacuum where “maintaining the structures that reinforce deadlock has become more important than fulfilling the objective for which it was created – negotiating disarmament treaties”. Indeed, a forum of negotiation that has spent nearly two decades in fruitless pre-negotiations hardly deserves reverence, and is rightly criticized for being one of the wastelands of multilateral diplomacy.

Civil society’s retreat from the Conference on Disarmament will no doubt feed into the debate about where—if at all—new multilateral instruments regulating nuclear weapons could be negotiated.

Formalistic discussions about the advantages and drawbacks of different multilateral forums and negotiation procedures are one of the pastimes of forward-looking diplomats and process-oriented disarmament activists. The Austrian Pledge to “identify and pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons” has added fuel to these discussions. Witness for example the new online forum, “Nuclear Threats and the Path to Eliminating Nuclear Weapons”, convened by Michael Hamel-Green on Joseph Camilleri’s website.

A forum is never a shortcut to political support.

But the Pledge, delivered at the end of the Vienna Conference, has also made discussions about forums more pressing, as these effective measures will have to be identified and pursued somewhere.

Cuba, it seems, has already made up its mind about the matter. In a proposal circulated during the Vienna Conference, Cuba moved away from its long-standing call for negotiations on a nuclear weapons convention to take place in the Conference on Disarmament, to a call for negotiations to take place in the UN General Assembly. In this, they seem to be in step with Brazil, who declared at the 2014 NPT Preparatory Committee that it would not “object [to] any negotiating process that could take place within the United Nations framework, as in the UN General Assembly”.

Timing, however, is of the essence. The sad state of affairs at the Conference on Disarmament should be a warning to states and other stakeholders tempted to skip the evidence and plunge head first into a lengthy discussion about forums. A forum or a set of procedures cannot by itself lend legitimacy to a process of negotiations and is never a shortcut to political support. In a best-case scenario, premature discussions about forums and procedures might be a distraction from the evidence already brought forward at the Vienna Conference and the two preceding conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. In a worst-case scenario, such a debate might eclipse the evidence-based discourse altogether.

The Austrian Pledge draws its legitimacy from a thorough examination of evidence showing the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons.

The Austrian Pledge has come about as a result of, and draws legitimacy from, a thorough examination of evidence showing the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. This is also what gives the Pledge political clout and the capacity to change decision makers’ view of these weapons.

So far, the evidence has shown that there is a mismatch between existing international law and our moral perception of the effects of nuclear weapons as unacceptable. The key question is how to align the rules regulating international relations with the facts brought forward at the three conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. An answer to this question will require further examination and propagation of evidence as well as a cool-headed assessment of the political appetite for action.

Untimely discussions about forums and procedures is not likely to be helpful.