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A win for resolve and courage at First Committee

November 12, 2015

Guest Editorial

by Ray Acheson, Reaching Critical Will of WILPF

[Reprinted from the First Committee Monitor, No.5, 2015, a newsletter published by Reaching Critical Will of WILPF.]

A few days before the vote on the Mexican-led resolution to establish an open-ended working group (OEWG), US Ambassador Wood said: “It will not succeed”. Last Thursday, the 135 states voting in favour of an OEWG that will be open to all but blockable by none proved that his assertion was not only unwise, but simply wrong. The resolutions on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, humanitarian pledge for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons, and ethical imperatives for a nuclear weapon free world were also adopted, not only by a majority, but by two-thirds of UN member states. It would appear that a great number of states are ready to finally stand up to the nuclear-armed countries and their nuclear allies and take concerted action for nuclear disarmament.

Of course now that the OEWG resolution has been adopted, the states opposed to advancing multilateral efforts to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons are already declaring that the working group will be unsuccessful. The five NPT nuclear-armed states parties said the mandate for the OEWG “lacks all those vital components that would guarantee both a meaningful collaboration and a productive outcome as a result of concerted collective effort.” Russia also said the OEWG “has no chance of being successful because it simply ignores fundamental principles of consensus.” The nuclear allies are also condemning the OEWG before it begins—Australia has already decided that the nuclear-armed states will not participate, while Japan said the OEWG does not have the proper mandate to explore effective measures for nuclear disarmament “in an appropriate manner”.

These declarations of “failure” are a bit similar to those made by non-state parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) that declare the treaty is not strong enough to warrant their accession. Faced with the reality of action by the majority, states attached to unacceptable weapons will apparently use any arguments they can find. In explanations of vote on First Committee’s first ever resolution on cluster munitions, Argentina and Brazil referred to the CCM’s interoperability clause as a reason to not join the treaty. Argentina said it would continue to advocate for a “comprehensive ban” on cluster munitions. Brazil, together with Russia, also argued that the CCM allows rich countries to develop “advanced cluster munitions,” which sets a double standard and, as Russia said, is a “cynical attempt to warp the market”. In reality, these arguments are a cynical attempt to avoid responsibility for taking action on cluster munitions. While saying that the CCM is not good enough, these states have not banned any cluster munitions at all. Far from it in the case of Brazil and Russia, which both continue to produce and sell these weapons. Most recently, Amnesty International reported that Brazilian-made cluster bombs may have been used by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

In the cases of both the OEWG and the CCM, a handful of states have declared that the activity or treaty is or will be unsuccessful, whilst refusing to participate. It’s a bit like standing on the sidelines with your arms crossed while people try to distribute supplies in an emergency, critiquing the relief workers, but refusing to provide any assistance yourself.

When it comes to nuclear weapons, the nuclear-armed have gone even further, by trying to prevent the relief from being provided at all. That is because they are afraid of it. “Can you imagine what chaos would occur in other areas if we acted without agreement or consent of different owners or users of different types of weapons?” cried Mr. Yermakov of Russia in protesting the idea that the CCM could be used as a model for other arms control or disarmament agreements. When it comes to nuclear weapons, those states that posses them or include them in their security doctrines don’t want anything being done without them. However, their refusal to participate must not stop the rest of the world—the absolute majority—from taking resolute action. The CCM and the vote on the Mexican-led OEWG are grounds for optimism that the rest of the world can and will take such action.

The nuclear-armed states probably won’t show up to the OEWG next year. That doesn’t matter. The OEWG will be successful if it draws together committed states to discuss elements for a legal instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons. The nuclear-armed states’ refusal to participate can only strengthen the resolve of committed states. They must not allow themselves to be bullied, because they are standing on the right side of history.

Those states supporting the examination of the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons or the humanitarian pledge to prohibit and eliminate them are not the states creating “divisions”. The international community is divided by the possession of nuclear weapons by a handful of states that refuse to disarm despite their legal obligation to do so. It is divided by the arrogance of those states that act as if their participation is crucial for the success of any activity whilst refusing to join said activity. Wanting to move forward with progressive actions that comply with and advance international law and norms is not divisive. Holding the majority of states back from doing so just because you wield weapons of mass destruction is.

The five NPT nuclear-armed states have argued that prohibiting nuclear weapons will lead to instability and insecurity. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Pakistan have argued that they must maintain nuclear weapons for their self-defence. India has suggested that nuclear weapon possession is act of “sovereign responsibility of states to protect their people in a globalised nuclear order premised on nuclear deterrence.”

These arguments are absurdities uttered in desperation. The vast majority of states recognise the insecurity generated by nuclear weapons and the injustice of a handful of states possessing them. The vast majority recognise the security, political, economic, and social benefits of prohibiting and eliminating nuclear weapons. The arguments above are articulated by a handful of states fiercely and jealously defending what they have convinced themselves to be in their interests. They reflect a total lack of regard for the interests of the rest of the global community.

Criticising the New Agenda Coalition’s resolution on accelerating the implementation of nuclear disarmament commitments, Mr. Yermakov of Russia declared that acceleration implies moving ahead alone. Arguing that everyone has to move forward together, he lamented a “dangerous trend” in which a number of states are not only failing to listen to each other, “but they don’t want to hear what their partners are saying.” In reality, however, it is the nuclear-armed states that are not listening to their partners.

In voting for the resolution on the ethical imperatives for a nuclear weapon free world, 124 states agreed that nuclear weapons “undermine collective security, heighten the risk of nuclear catastrophe, aggravate international tension and make conflict more dangerous.” In voting for the resolution reflecting the humanitarian pledge for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons, 128 states have called on all relevant stakeholders to “stigmatize, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons in the light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences and associated risks.”

This resounding majority of states must now translate their words into action. Many of these states have formally pledged to fill the gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons. Filling this legal gap is much more important than bridging the gap between those that want action and those that refuse to take action while condemning the other camp from the sidelines. There is no bridge to be built—where would it go? What middle ground lies between continued possession of nuclear weapons and their prohibition and elimination?

Maintaining nuclear weapons (and the illogical policy of so-called nuclear deterrence) until nuclear weapons are eliminated, as the nuclear-armed and many nuclear allies have attested they can, is an absurdity of Orwellian proportions. Similarly, the suggestion that disarmament can be pursued “in a way that is compatible with extended nuclear deterrence” as Japan seeks is nothing more than doublespeak. These positions assert the intention to maintain nuclear weapons until they are gone—but how can nuclear weapons be eliminated if they are being maintained? The step-by-step or “full spectrum approach” does not lead progressively to nuclear disarmament. Instead it preserves the “full spectrum dominance” of a few states.

Those states that have voted at this First Committee to establish positions and take actions that actually advance nuclear disarmament must not be distracted or deterred by fear mongering from those threatening massive nuclear violence over us all. They must instead stigmatise and prohibit these weapons in a way that challenges possession in legally, politically, economically, socially, and morally powerful ways. It’s time to ban nuclear weapons.

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