Vienna Day 2: The end of the beginning

Comments, Vienna

Almost 160 countries, and nearly one thousand delegates—including many from international organizations and civil society—attended the Vienna conference on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons. What did it achieve on its second and final day? This post offers some immediate impressions. See our twitter feeds and previous posts for more coverage. A posting next week will provide more in-depth analysis of the meeting’s outcomes and significance.


Dr. Gro Nystuen of ILPI presents to the Vienna Conference (image courtesy of author).

This second day of the Vienna conference continued the substance-oriented discussions begun on Monday, with a panel of experts focused on offering a “birds-eye view” on international norms and the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. This session aired environmental law, international health law, international humanitarian law, and disarmament law perspectives. A senior World Health Organization lawyer, Steve Solomon, concluded that the 2005 International Health Regulations would almost certainly apply in the case of nuclear weapons use in populated areas, due to their health impacts. There were, in addition, two very good presentations by ILPI’s own Gro Nystuen (on the humanitarian origins of international law regulating arms) and an expert from the University of Oslo associated with ILPI, Nobuo Hayashi. Nobuo’s presentation on the fundamental ethical and moral principles on which international legal regulations of nuclear weapons are based was a particularly novel aspect—the Vienna conference possibly being the first time such considerations have been discussed in such an international setting. (His talk will also be developed in an upcoming ILPI-UNIDIR paper.)

The legal panel rounded out a substantive agenda that was more in-depth than the Oslo and Nayarit conferences (at which I presented, along with Tim Caughley), building as it did on the awareness and understandings developed in those meetings among policy practitioners. As important as this was, the greater significance of Tuesday’s work revolved around the seven-hour general debate that followed. With more than one hundred delegations wishing to take the floor, the Austrian hosts of the conference ran the session continuously through the lunch and coffee breaks with a view to being able to produce the promised Chair’s summary by early evening.

Do a bunch of speeches really matter? Not according to some. Nevertheless, whatever their content, these statements from governments, the Red Cross Movement and others reflected the note of urgency that the humanitarian initiative has added to long-stymied efforts for nuclear disarmament.

While the Vienna conference was a “broad tent”-style meeting, it also meant that competing perspectives were very much to the fore. Civil society, much of it coordinated by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) seeks a treaty comprehensively banning nuclear weapons. Their targets are not the nine nuclear-weapon-possessing countries per se, but the other states that have to live with the risks that the continued existence and deployment of those weapons pose, despite having forsworn them. And, ICAN has sought to expose the dissonance in the policies of states which rely on nuclear weapons for their perceived security, but which nonetheless insist on their commitment to achievement of a nuclear weapon free world. This incongruity is something ICAN and others have exploited in their campaigning, especially with parliamentarians in those countries.

A growing number of states are receptive to such a call, as indicated by their Vienna statements. This came as a surprise to many American-based think tankers attending a humanitarian initiative meeting for the first time—many of them seem to have discounted its significance before, maybe due to a focus on developments inside the Washington beltway rather than outside it.

ICAN’s reframing makes so-called umbrella states like the NATO European countries (including Norway, one of the instigators of the humanitarian initiative), Australia, Canada and Japan, rather nervous—not to mention the nuclear-armed United Kingdom and the United States governments attending Vienna. The latter in particular insisted on the viability of the step-by-step approach, which in fact has basically stood still for at least the last fifteen years. Yet the recent Scottish referendum on independence has made Britain’s nuclear deterrent a political hot potato, and we understand this contributed to the United Kingdom’s decision to attend, especially in view of the United States decision to participate.

All of this further exposes the essential political problem underlying the current international situation on nuclear weapons. Vienna and its predecessors have underlined the horrific consequences of nuclear weapons use in populated areas and the continued risks—in effect, building a political framing for urgent action. It makes the usual claims for the utility and pre-eminence of the stalled ‘step-by-step’ approach seem a little dubious. The question is what to do about the situation. Moreover, which configuration of countries has the political courage to raise their heads above the parapet to lead an advance toward new norms—and when? On this, Vienna provided few definitive answers.

There is not space here to give a detailed account of the many statements in the general discussion in Vienna. But what shone through in most of these speeches was mounting frustration at the current situation of nuclear disarmament impasse. The most vocal proponents of continued dependence on step-by-step (including Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States) had little to offer here but staying the course, with little hope of progress in sight, although the United States outlined a rather modest but possibly quite useful proposal for a public-private partnership with the Nuclear Threat Initiative on nuclear disarmament verification.

Nevertheless, a comprehensive ban treaty is still a scary prospect for many. A Cuban proposal that popped up for a nuclear weapons treaty negotiation by 2018 received little in the way of an audible echo, and few Western states even talked about the need for legally binding instruments beyond the usual rhetorical menu of urging 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty ratification, negotiations on curbing nuclear fissile materials, and getting the deadlocked Conference on Disarmament back to work.

It all meant that capturing the diverse perspectives of almost 160 nations while conveying political momentum and urgency (toward what, for instance?) was never going to be an easy task for Austria, even with a summary to be issued under its “sole responsibility” rather than as a negotiated document. Impressively, Austria pulled it off, with a four-page chair’s summary setting out the course and findings of the conference in a pretty fair and balanced way. The document consists of a first section outlining some conclusions it drew based on the substantive panel session, then listing some “general views and policy responses” reflecting the breadth of opinions expressed. This document is well worth reading in its entirety.

However, Austria wasn’t finished. It followed up the summary with its own carefully-worded national pledge read by its Deputy Foreign Minister, which it will invite other states to join. It is likely that many states will do so, especially as the ICAN campaigning machine swings in behind a joint-pledge exercise. The final paragraph reads:

“Austria pledges to cooperate with all relevant stakeholders, States, International Organisations, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movements, parliamentarians and civil society, in efforts to stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons in light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences and associated risks.”

Precisely what this means yet is not entirely clear. Austria closed the conference without delegations having the opportunity to take the floor to respond. ICAN has already put its own spin on this pledge, and what was undoubtedly a successful international conference drawing attention to the risks and consequences of nuclear weapons. ICAN’s post-conference press release claimed, “Austria pledges to work for a ban on nuclear weapons”. ICAN argues that the humanitarian initiative on nuclear weapons must initiate a treaty process in 2015, noting that 44 countries called for a prohibition treaty at the Vienna conference.

The humanitarian initiative, numerically speaking, is likely for the foreseeable future to have reached its zenith at the 158 governments attending Vienna. (There were no announcements of further follow-on humanitarian initiative conferences, although South Africa is understood to be thinking about hosting a meeting of some kind in the second half of 2015.) Now the attention of disarmament diplomats is turning to the next five-yearly meeting of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to be held in New York in a few months, and its less than bright prospects. What is clear is that Vienna signals greatly heightened expectation from a greater number of countries that the NPT must deliver something palpable, and not simply a rolling-over of the almost wholly unfulfilled disarmament commitments made previously by the nuclear-armed states.

The Vienna conference’s success has given governments of all positions plenty to ponder about in coming months as the NPT review meeting approaches. Behind it all, of course, is the troubling absence of progress toward a nuclear-weapon-free world by those possessing these arms. The three conferences of the humanitarian initiative mark emergence of new and more hopeful possibilities by creating pressure for change, even if it is unclear—probably at least until the NPT review meeting has had a chance to run its course—where it is ultimately leading. 2015 is going to be an eventful year for multilateral nuclear disarmament efforts.


John Borrie