Back to the Future… again… on an OEWG?


Talk of an Open-Ended Working Group on nuclear disarmament in 2016 in the Geneva disarmament community has the ring of a disappointing sequel about it.

By John Borrie

Last weekend the authorities of the village commune I live in erected a large movie screen at its lakeside beach for free nightly showings on consecutive evenings of each of the Back to the Future films. For those unacquainted with these classic 1980s movies, the protagonist—a young man named Marty McFly—finds himself (amazingly, and of course coincidentally) in three situations in which he must travel backwards or forwards in time to take charge of events in order to keep the present the way it is. He receives assistance from a time-travelling DeLorean automobile and his eccentric friend and inventor of the contraption, Dr. Emmett ‘Doc’ Brown. (The DeLorean was, in the movie, powered by plutonium ‘Doc’ Brown stole from Libyan terrorists. Not only did this say quite a lot about the preoccupations of the decade, it may have been a fine example of vigilante counter-proliferation.)


The real DeLorean DMC-12 was not carbon-neutral, unlike ‘Doc’ Brown’s plutonium-powered one. This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons (attributable to own work LSDSL 11:57, 27 June 2007 (UTC) 2004-Jul.-11.)

Perhaps one of the highlights of the three-night run of films was also the chance to pay to be driven in a loop around the village in a close replica of the famous time-travelling Delorean. It was a chance to feel involved with the movies and a bit special, and of course it delivered one back to exactly the spot one was in before. Perhaps inevitably, then, it drew my thoughts to the current situation in multilateral nuclear disarmament and arms control.

After a northern hemisphere summer in which some of the raw nerves from May’s failed NPT review conference may have healed, disarmament diplomats in Geneva are once again turning their minds to matters related to nuclear disarmament. Although expectations among many NPT delegations and civil society nuclear disarmament campaigners were high that South Africa would make some sort of announcement about a further conference of the humanitarian initiative, to date this has not come to pass.

Attention has thus turned by default to the next event in the disarmament calendar pertaining to nuclear disarmament matters. That event is the United Nations General Assembly, and in particular its First Committee on disarmament from this October. In multilateral disarmament politics, procedure is often taken as a proxy for substance when substance is not to be found, and so the prospect of the General Assembly authorizing a 2016 Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) on nuclear disarmament has reared its head.

Like the Back to the Future films, a bit of backstory is now required mid-narrative. The First Committee voted to hold an OEWG in late 2012, through a resolution co-sponsored by Austria, Mexico and Norway. The OEWG met during the first half of 2013 in Geneva, using unused monies from the Conference on Disarmament’s budget, to try to have more substantive and focused discussions on nuclear disarmament. The five NPT nuclear-weapon states (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) shunned it—just as they shunned the Oslo conference on humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons that March.

Nevertheless, the 2013 OEWG was generally adjudged to have been a success by those participating in it, although it was not repeated in 2014 and 2015.

Skipping forward to the 2015 NPT review conference, its never-adopted draft package of elements on nuclear disarmament contained this proposed language:

‘The Conference recommends that the United Nations General Assembly establish at its seventieth session an open-ended working group to identify and elaborate effective measures for the full implementation of article VI, including legal provisions or other arrangements that contribute to and are required for the achievement and maintenance of a world without nuclear weapons. The legal provisions could be established through various approaches, including a stand-alone instrument or a framework agreement. Without prejudice to the prerogative of the United Nations General Assembly to determine the methods of work of its subsidiary bodies in accordance with the rules of procedure, the Conference recommends that the open-ended working group conduct its work on the basis of consensus. The Conference encourages all States to engage in this open and inclusive process.’ [Emphasis added]

There are signs that some states now take this to mean that there should be no problem creating an OEWG this October. Others appear to have reservations, especially as operative paragraph 19 above actually has no status whatsoever, since the NPT review conference was not able to agree on any final document. The proposition that some part of it represents some sort of consensus among NPT state parties should not be assumed, especially as that draft document presumably represented a package containing a balance of compromises, in their view. (I would agree.) And of course states not party to the NPT—among them India and Pakistan, who are active in disarmament matters in Geneva—may yet have views of their own to express on the matter.

An OEWG draft resolution proposal, it must be stressed, has yet to emerge from the diplomatic undergrowth. There is no doubt whatsoever, however, that the prospect of an OEWG has become a hot topic for discussion in the Geneva disarmament community. And, there are signs it is currently fairly divisive. There is some scepticism among policy makers from those states most frustrated about the lack of nuclear disarmament progress that an OEWG along the lines of operative paragraph 19 would be anything more than a talk-shop, one that fills the time before a new NPT review cycle starts in 2016. In other words, they suspect the Marty McFly factor—interfering with the future, in order to keep the present the way it is.

Others may see this as an uncharitable view, and could point to the value of having ‘experts’ from governments talking to each other on a regular basis as part of informal pre-negotiations. The early days of talks about a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is one example they can cite. However, this assumes that such talks are going to lead anywhere, and that they aren’t a fig leaf for inaction in the first place. Another point is that the awareness-raising/trust argument is wearing thin for some in the disarmament community who have borne witness to the same kinds of rationalization for the continuation of the long-deadlocked Conference on Disarmament.

One must try to keep an open mind, of course. An important criterion for any OEWG would have to be whether it is capable of providing more than the usual fare of deliberative discussion and hand-wringing. That would imply the need for a mandate to negotiate, and a careful look at the appropriateness of a consensus decision-making rule. Such prerequisites would seem unlikely to command the support—or even acquiescence of—the nuclear-armed states. This reality may dampen any real and widespread interest in an OEWG sequel among non-nuclear-weapon states.