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Thursday, May 6, 2010: A newcomer’s impressions of the NPT

May 6, 2010

By Misha Byrne

It’s Day Two of the NPT, and I’m rapidly coming to realise just how important civil society organizations are to the running of official UN events. Far from being passive observers, NGOs are known, respected and often consulted by missions from NPT countries; there’s definitely a scope for making a difference.

A few brief examples from the last few days…

Example 1: WILPF and Reaching Critical Will

The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) has a long history, dating right back to its founding in 1915 (making it the oldest women’s peace organisation in the world). To be honest, I’d never really heard of it before I arrived in New York, but the NPT Review Conference certainly seems to know and respects WILPF’s work. Why?

In 1999, WILPF began a project called ‘Reaching Critical Will’ to support and facilitate “total and universal disarmament, the reduction of global military spending, and demilitarisation of politics and society”. While RCW is strong on disarmament advocacy throughout the world, it’s also widely respected in the NPT community for its detailed analysis of emerging issues as they unfold, even on a daily basis here in New York. Ray Acheson, Beatrice Fihn and Emma Bjerten Gunther are part of a core RCW team working late each night to summarise the day’s events and provide commentary on how close (or how far) the NPT is from achieving its goals.

So much so in fact that the ‘News In Review’, published daily by RCW, is read by NGOs and diplomats from the missions alike. The RCW website is considered the ‘go-to’ place for information about what’s going on at the NPT (even the daily timetable of official and side-events), and it has become standard practice for countries to provide RCW with copies of their statements as soon as they’re delivered for posting on the RCW website and inclusion in the daily Review. (Note that RCW is given access to, and reports on, what’s happening long before session transcripts are available through official channels.)

Make sure you check out the Reaching Critical Will website ( It’s probably the single best place to get a comprehensive analysis of what’s going on at the NPT this month (as well as the current standing of other UN initiatives related to nuclear weapons).

Example 2: ICAN

As civil society groups go, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) is still relatively young, yet in just a few years it’s become an established and increasingly recognised NGO.   Tim Wright (originally from Melbourne, Australia) has been in New York for the last two months meeting with missions from NPT countries to talk about a Nuclear Weapons Convention (as have other NGOs), and we’re starting to see the pay-off coming back, with new – and important – countries mentioning a NWC in their opening statements over the last two days.

The ICAN-hosted session on a Nuclear Weapons Convention was held today for a full-house of NGO representatives and diplomats. Overflow attendees were leaning on walls and sitting on the floor as speakers outlined the overall structure of the draft NWC and discussed the obstacles to persuading countries to pursue it. To be fair, today’s session was largely filled by NGOs, reflecting the competing demands on diplomats’ time at the commencement of the month-long conference, but that balance was in stark contrast to ICAN’s sessions in the lead-up to the NPT (where, Tim reports, he’s had rooms full of diplomats to engage in education on what makes up the NWC, why it’s needed, and why now).

The work is far from done – many states report concern that pursuing a NWC would distract from the NPT, and education and lobbying is required to persuade that, in fact, the NWC would strengthen it. Still, there have been heartening signs: Ban Ki-moon continues to endorse a NWC now (and on Sunday explicitly acknowledged the role of civil society thus far in bringing the NWC to prominence); Gareth Evans, joint head of the International Commission on Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Disarmament (ICNND), said that it was an issue to be taken seriously; and several States (though not enough) endorsed the NWC in their opening statements, including traditionally cautious Switzerland, amongst others. Wednesday was another big day, with 12 more states also calling for a convention.

As a grassroots organisation, ICAN continues to have an important voice in NPT side-sessions and, while it doesn’t always get the answers we’re looking for, states are certainly listening to the questions. Make sure you check out the daily updates Tim is posting about progress on the NWC on the ICAN website (

Example 3: Misha Byrne?

Ok, so I’m not actually that important. In fact, before I got to New York, I had assumed that, as someone fairly inexperienced in international relations, I’d be sitting in a corner and fighting for space up the back of General Assembly sessions. Indeed, with the UN building currently being renovated and many NPT sessions taking place in a sophisticated multi-roomed shed, there was a general feeling amongst IPPNW students that we’d be lucky to get in the door to any sessions at all.

A few days in, and I’m interested to find that there’s nothing to stop me or anyone else from pursuing active lobbying here at the NPT. Sure, Ban Ki-moon keeps being whisked in and out of sessions by his little security team, and Hilary Clinton was here only long enough to deliver the US’s opening statement in the general assembly hall. But the diplomats are here for a month, the invitation to ask questions is open (to anyone in the building, including us), and with a raft of informal events in addition to the formal sessions (like the launch of an exhibition of the history of the CTBT last night) there’s plenty of access – and the freedom to start a conversation.

In truth, I’ve left most of the talking to more experienced IPPNW staff and doctors, thus far. But this morning I plucked up courage to talk to Susan Burk after her off-the-record NGO briefing on current US positions, and this afternoon a group of students will visit the Dutch mission headquarters to dialogue with them on their positions in disarmament. (The Dutch are not as bad as others when it comes to nuclear policy, but their membership of NATO and the presence of US bases on their soil make it important that we keep pushing for a stronger stance.)  I head home this coming Sunday, but wish I could stay longer – Inga Blum (a former IPPNW student and NWIP co-ordinator) has just organised another meeting, this time with the Chinese delegation, for Tuesday next week.

Looking forward to the Dutch meeting this afternoon. But after that, I’ll have to content myself with heading home quickly to lobby my own government!

P.S. There is lots more I could talk about:

  • The daily off-the-record briefings from different countries are a really interesting forum, both to hear what governments are thinking, but also for them to get an insight into what’s going on in the NGO community. Already, in the last few days, some diplomats have expressed surprise at how strong the support for a NWC is in civil society.
  • Other major peace groups, including INESAP, Global Zero, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Mayors for Peace
  • The 10-million-strong petition organised by two Japanese groups.
  • … and much more.

But I think the more important message to students and newcomers, in particular, is simply to realise that we’re not beating our heads against the wall here. The change is probably always going to be slower than we’d like… But the decision-makers are aware of us, and what we want. And there are lots of ways that more of us can get involved in ways that make a noticeable difference.

  1. Rachel permalink
    May 15, 2010 6:18 pm

    Great work Misha!! I am so pleased you are there soaking it all in.

  2. May 7, 2010 10:45 am

    Thanks Misha for your atmospheric account of the gathering in New York. Reading it alongside the RCW News in Review, I now have a picture of groups meeting and hustling about while agendas get developed.

    I’m pretty much alone in my community with my interest and concerns for the weapons issue, and keep wondering why we are going such a long way round to confront the dilemma we are in.

    I find the IPPNW site is ever tidy and watchful and coherent with its comments, but for a group in my imaginings with medical training and skills, I wonder why you don’t assess the patient more thoroughly.
    I mean by that, take a good slow look at the processes of nuclear fission. This may sound contrary but in plain language fission looks like an enormous act of sexual congress.

    There’s a classic series of photographs, made by the French military when they were testing a nuclear device. I can’t post them here, but they are in a file “Romeo and Juliet in the Atomic World” at my web site:
    To most people’s eyes, it is a series of pictures portraying an enormous explosion. But look with more curiosity, look maybe with women’s eyes, and observe that we are in effect witnessing a love story. We are observers of a romantic and sexually charged interaction, going on between the masculine and feminine forms of energy released out of matter by fission.

    This simple insight changed my whole understanding of the Atomic World, and nuclear power, and even the Universe. Though what we are asked to consider seems no more than ancient wisdom. But it is not easy when our schooling gives so much authority to physics. In this mood, I can not see us resolving the nuclear issues until we become curious about a metaphysics of the atom.

    Thanks for your comments in praise of RCW. I wonder if I could post these idea to them. I’ll give it a go.

    Good wishes for your journey home.

  3. May 7, 2010 3:04 am

    I wish I could be there with you all. I’m following all your blog and facebook posts religiously and spreading the word! Hope the festival goes well. Xanthe

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