Why should we care what happens in Vienna?

Comments, Vienna

What can we expect from next week’s international conference on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons in Vienna? And why does it matter?

Latest indications are that more than 150 countries will gather for the meeting Austria is hosting next week in its capital city—the third in a series of meetings focused on the consequences of nuclear weapons. These conferences began in Oslo in March 2013, with a second event held in Nayarit, Mexico last March. And, like at these other conferences, international organizations, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, academic experts and representatives of civil society will also attend.

The Vienna conference is significant for several reasons. The first is that it will broaden and deepen the discussions about humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapon use begun at these earlier meetings. It’s worth recalling that such substantive discussion is relatively unusual at the multilateral level. While there are plenty of (often set-piece) political statements about aspects of nuclear weapons control in forums like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)’s review process and the Conference on Disarmament (CD), these could hardly be called predominantly fact-based.

Discussing, as Vienna will, the drivers of risk and the consequences of nuclear weapons—rather than solely the security dimension of these arms and deterrence as is so often the case—may help to restore some balance to a policy discourse that is arguably out of kilter. Underlying the elegant-sounding logic of nuclear deterrence, after all, is the threat to carry out massive nuclear violence that, in a full-scale or regional war, would result in millions of deaths in the immediate aftermath and perhaps billions more in years to come. Nor, as we have been finding out, are the systems intended to ensure that nuclear weapons are kept under secure and authorized control as reliable and as safe as they should be. These risks need to be part of the discussion, and they will be in Vienna.

Underlying the elegant-sounding logic of nuclear deterrence, after all, is the threat to carry out massive nuclear violence that, in a full-scale or regional war, would result in millions of deaths in the immediate aftermath and perhaps billions more in years to come

A third reason why the Vienna conference will be significant is for the breadth of participation. The CD—some of whose members’ ambassadors over the years were apt to describe it as the “sole negotiating forum” and the “best club in town”—is still deadlocked after 18-years of stoppage. Nor is the CD particularly representative, with only 65 states in the club, and no civil society representation allowed.

Meanwhile, nearly all of the states in the world belong to the NPT. The problem is that four states that aren’t members (India, Israel, Pakistan and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) all possess nuclear weapons and are opposed to joining it. So, the NPT is useful for many things, but not as a universal forum for dialogue. And it’s cluttered by a lot of ideological and historical baggage.

It makes sense that beginning to address the risks and impacts of nuclear weapons should be open to all. That, after all, is what true multilateralism is supposed to be about, or as New Zealand Prime Minister Peter Fraser once put it to Winston Churchill, “an eye, an ear, and a voice” whenever decisions affecting one’s security are to be made. Given the global reach of fallout from nuclear weapons testing—another item on Vienna’s agenda—it’s difficult to think of anything more likely than nuclear conflict to affect the security even of countries in secluded regions like New Zealand. Vienna offers that opportunity.

Much has been made of the fact that the United States will attend Vienna, and now the United Kingdom has announced it will too. Like China, France and Russia, these two countries had shunned the Oslo and Nayarit conferences. Of course, their attendance may represent only a willingness to sit and listen, and perhaps to share their views at a meeting that Austria as host has promised will not negotiate on anything, or take any decisions. (Austria will instead release a chair’s summary at the end of the Vienna conference on its own responsibility, as its Norwegian and Mexican predecessors did.) But this willingness to engage is noteworthy. It is also worth noting that two other nuclear-weapon possessors (India and Pakistan) came to the Oslo and Nayarit conferences and participated constructively.

Fourthly, and perhaps most significantly, the Vienna conference represents a further step toward a point when, logically, a collective decision should be taken by the majority of the international community about how to reduce the risks nuclear weapons pose, and create more propitious conditions for nuclear disarmament. Although there is always value to learning more, by the conclusion of the Vienna conference the continued risks and impacts of nuclear weapon detonation events in populated areas are going to be clear enough. Meanwhile, the signs to date of the current five-year NPT review process suggest that the review conference in May 2015 may achieve—at best—some weak rollover of previous unfulfilled disarmament commitments. Negotiations in the CD remain a distant dream. Some fresh collective energy and thinking to reduce nuclear weapons risk further cannot come a moment too soon.

Some fresh collective energy and thinking to reduce nuclear weapons risk further cannot come a moment too soon

Perhaps one of the most notable things about the so-called humanitarian initiative so far is that it has visibly empowered the large majority of states—non-nuclear-weapon states—who are upholding their nuclear weapon-related obligations, for example on non-proliferation. It is to these states and to civil society to which we should probably be looking for leadership in constructively changing the game on nuclear disarmament.

Hopefully, the Vienna conference will help to reinforce the growing resolve to take real steps toward nuclear weapons elimination in the face of the fearful destructive risk these arms pose for our security while they continue to exist. As former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohamed ElBaradei recently put it in a statement of support for the Vienna conference, “it should be a mindset that understands that in our globalized world we will either succeed together or fail separately.”

 

John Borrie