Open-ended stalling tactics

UNGA

The nuclear-armed states stand to benefit the most from a second open-ended working group on nuclear disarmament. 

By Magnus Løvold

As disarmament diplomats are scratching their heads trying to figure out what to make of the First Committee of the UN General Assembly in October, the Genevois rumour mill reports that certain states are planning to table a resolution establishing an open-ended working group (OEWG) on nuclear disarmament.

Considered in the context of three conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and the Humanitarian Pledge, this proposal appears designed to stall further progress towards negotiations of a nuclear weapons ban treaty.

In theory, of course, an OEWG on nuclear disarmament could be moulded to address the fundamental flaws of the nuclear disarmament regime. OEWGs come in many different shapes and forms and can constitute one-off affairs or last for several years; an OEWG can have a clearly defined objective or a broader and more general purpose; it can review, study, develop proposals, make recommendations and decisions or even negotiate legally binding instruments—in short, an OEWG can do pretty much anything. As such, proposing to establish an OEWG in itself seems to be a relatively neutral act.

Again in theory, therefore, an OEWG on nuclear disarmament could build upon the evidence showing the unacceptable humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons; it could engage humanitarian actors instead of the so-called nuclear disarmament community; it could stake out a clear objective, such as a new legally binding instrument prohibiting nuclear weapons; it could moreover be given a mandate to negotiate such an instrument and even adopt it with a simple majority. In theory, an OEWG could do all these things.

Another open-ended working group on nuclear disarmament might reverse much of the progress made by the humanitarian impacts initiative.

The problem, however, with this kind of hypothetical reasoning, is partly that it assumes too much and is too easily dismissed as wishful thinking. If the purpose of establishing a second OEWG were to pursue a concrete political objective, the rumours would be about that objective, and not about a format of discussion. Indeed, the states and civil society actors mentioned in connection with this proposal are known for stating their disarmament priorities in aspirational and notoriously ambiguous terms. If history is any indication—and it usually is in international diplomacy—a second OEWG will likely suffer the same fate as the previous OEWG on nuclear disarmament, that is, as a relatively unstructured and patchy report relegated to the ever-expanding netherworld of half-hearted multilateral initiatives, dutifully referenced, year after year, in the annals of the United Nations.

But the bigger problem with this kind of reasoning is that it leapfrogs considerations of political motivation and therefore fails to address the question of who is likely to benefit from the establishment of another OEWG on nuclear disarmament?

An open-ended working group would re-open rhetorical escape routes for the nuclear-armed states and allow them to be seen as “doing something” without committing to any specific course of action.

In the wake of the three conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, many states, particularly the nuclear-armed states and their allies, are getting increasingly uncomfortable with calls from civil society and other actors to endorse the Humanitarian Pledge to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons.

Coupled with the lack of progress in traditional disarmament forums, the three humanitarian impact conferences have threatened to shut off all receptiveness to arguments designed to explain and justify the retention of nuclear weapons and the slow pace of nuclear disarmament.

The sense of discomfort now experienced by some of the nuclear-armed states and their allies is arguably one of the main indicators of the political potential of the humanitarian impacts initiative.

For the nuclear-armed states, the grand disillusionment of the 2015 NPT Review Conference blocked the last rhetorical escape routes. After States Parties to the NPT failed to agree on an outcome document in May 2015, “established mechanisms”, “the 64-point Action Plan”, or, indeed, “the Conference on Disarmament as the sole disarmament forum” will no longer be perceived as valid counterarguments to a nuclear weapons ban treaty.

States comfortable with the status quo in nuclear disarmament will use the proceedings of an open-ended working group as a pretext for delaying a decision to actually do something.

Pressed as they are into a corner, it is clear that no group of states stand to benefit more from an OEWG than the nuclear-armed states. Even preliminary discussion about an OEWG would allow these states to divert attention away from the evidence showing the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, and towards a wholly hypothetical discussion about where, in what format and by which procedures future nuclear disarmament discussions could take place.

Discursively, an OEWG would re-open rhetorical escape routes for the nuclear-armed states and allow them to be seen as “doing something” without committing to any specific course of action. More likely than not, moreover, states comfortable with the status quo in nuclear disarmament will use the proceedings of an OWEG as a pretext for delaying a decision to actually do something.

As such, another OEWG on nuclear disarmament might very well reverse much of the progress made by the humanitarian impacts initiative. States championing a humanitarian approach to nuclear disarmament would be ill-advised to support such a proposal.