The year ahead

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As a new year gets underway, this ‘state of play’ report comments briefly on multilateral nuclear disarmament developments in 2015 and sets the scene for discussions in 2016.  It also reflects on possible trends and outcomes. 

By Tim Caughley

Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT): The five-yearly Review Conference in May 2015 ended after four weeks without any agreed result. The rate of progress on nuclear disarmament remains a hot issue in the NPT. A new five-year review cycle has begun, but its first meeting will not place until 2017. For the NPT, 2016 is thus a ‘gap’ year, leaving space for other forums such as the Open-ended Working Group (discussed below). Incidentally, the 2020 NPT Review Conference will coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Treaty’s entry into force.

United Nations General Assembly (UNGA): Last October, the UNGA’s First Committee on ‘disarmament and international security’ witnessed the introduction of several contentious resolutions on nuclear disarmament (see earlier comment on this site). Of the fifty-eight resolutions tabled in First Committee, almost half of them (28) dealt in one way or another with nuclear disarmament. They included new proposals on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, a concern reflected in the agreed outcome of the 2010 NPT Review Conference and pursued subsequently in a series of diplomatic conferences in Oslo, Nayarit and Vienna. And one resolution established an Open-ended Working Group (OEWG) for ‘taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations’.

Conference on Disarmament (CD): The annual 24-week session of this 65-member negotiating body begins on 25 January this year. It is 18 years since any substantive negotiations have taken place in the Conference.

  • The last occasion was in August 1998 when towards the end of its annual session, the CD formally established an ‘Ad Hoc Committee’ to negotiate a treaty with a mandate to prohibit the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other explosive devices (the ‘Shannon Mandate’).
  • That same year the CD also agreed a mandate to negotiate arrangements to assure non-nuclear-weapon states against the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons (negative security assurances (NSAs)).
  • And, in 2009, agreement was reached on a series of mandates on fissile materials, NSAs, nuclear disarmament and preventing an arms race in outer space, the four ‘core’ issues on the CD’s agenda.

But none of these mandates was pursued for more than a matter of weeks. Nor did any of them produce any outcomes. With the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996 being the last negotiation in the Conference, the CD has nothing to show for its efforts for twenty years.

Whether there will be any thawing in 2016 in the CD’s two-decade-long ice age is uncertain. It is possible in the wake of the work of a Group of Government Experts (GGE) in 2014 and 2015 on fissile material that impetus towards a new mandate for negotiations on that issue may develop. What is clear, however, is that as each desolate year passes, the impotence of the Conference in today’s global security environment deepens. Issues on its agenda have increasingly been taken up in other forums in the meantime.

Open-ended Working Group on nuclear disarmament: This OEWG is the third such forum established by UNGA in recent years to delve into core issues on the CD’s agenda. It follows a similar OEWG that met in 2013 on nuclear disarmament and the GGE on fissile material just mentioned. This year’s OEWG is obliged to report back to UNGA by October on its substantive work and on agreed recommendations. The General Assembly will then ‘assess progress made, taking into account developments in other relevant forums’ (i.e., the CD).

This trend by UNGA to set up parallel forums to discuss issues that have stagnated in the CD may be the ‘elephant in the room’ in this year’s session of the Conference as well as in the OEWG. Members of the CD will surely be conscious of that body’s increasing irrelevance and susceptibility to being by-passed. As for the OEWG, it is inherent—given the chronic paralysis of the CD—that in discussing legal vehicles needed ‘to attain and maintain a world without nuclear weapons’ the working group will weigh the effectiveness of pursuing a range of measures outside the Conference.

Emphasis on effectiveness—on ‘effective measures’, a term stemming from the nuclear disarmament obligation in article VI of the NPT—has itself become a trend in recent years. Agitation in civil society for giving concrete, effective expression to concerns about the humanitarian impacts and risks of nuclear weapons has progressively lifted the nuclear disarmament debate away above the sterile stand-off between those that contend that nuclear weapons help underpin global security and those who hold that they destabilise it. The 120-nation ‘Humanitarian Pledge‘ for taking effective measures to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons, thereby filling the gap among treaties outlawing weapons of mass destruction, is another manifestation of this trend. In the OEWG, the effectiveness of nuclear disarmament measures ranging from the ‘step-by-step’ approach favoured by nuclear weapon states to the notion of a nuclear weapons ban championed by civil society and a number of non-nuclear-weapon states is bound to come under close scrutiny.

UNIDIR’s and ILPI’s intention is to comment on those and other proposed vehicles for multilateral nuclear disarmament in a forthcoming study to be published before the OEWG begins its work late in February. We will, in addition, continue to promote this website as a source for debating this fundamental issue of developing effective measures for nuclear disarmament.