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The right side of history

May 13, 2016

IPPNW at OEWGThe gavel has come down on the May meetings of the UN Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) on nuclear disarmament and, to paraphrase our friend and colleague Carlos Umana, if democracy has anything to do with it, we’re only one or two steps away from negotiations on a treaty banning nuclear weapons.

Step one happens in August when the OEWG sends its report, based on two weeks of substantive debate and more than 60 working papers from states and civil society, to the General Assembly. Despite the vocal and coordinated protests of a small number of nuclear-dependent states (aka “weasels”), the report should tell the GA that the overwhelming majority of states support the immediate commencement of negotiations on a new legal instrument prohibiting nuclear weapons.

Step two—voting to authorize negotiations—is up to the General Assembly when it meets in October. The nuclear-armed and nuclear-dependent states are in a panic, and will do everything they can think of to prevent this. If the majority can hold up under the pressure, however, the only remaining questions will be where, when, and how to get started.

IPPNW co-president Ira Helfand explains nuclear famine to OEWG delegate in Geneva.

IPPNW co-president Ira Helfand explains nuclear famine to OEWG delegate in Geneva.

Those are not trivial questions. For those who want to stay within the UN system, finding an effective home for the negotiations (and keeping them out of the dysfunctional Conference on Disarmament) will be a challenge. Those who prefer an external venue will have to find a state or a group of states willing to host and support the process.

The question of what should be included in the text of the ban treaty is also not quite settled, although the basic elements of that were outlined fairly consistently in several OEWG working papers. The one that brings all the pieces together most elegantly is WP.34, which calls for negotiations in 2017 and anticipates a successful outcome within a year. Similar proposals came from Latin American and Caribbean states (CELAC), five Pacific island states, and some individual states including Mexico and Brazil.

The nuclear-armed, soon-to-be outlaw states boycotted the OEWG, just as most of them had boycotted the three international conferences on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons. Their proxies—nuclear-dependent states from NATO countries, Australia, and Japan (aka “weasels”)—came to the OEWG with nothing more than a repackaged set of 20-year-old ideas about building blocks, confidence-building measures, and high-level but low-expectation summits that have produced nothing in all that time. Their rebranded “progressive approach” to nuclear disarmament was a thinly veiled attempt to maintain the status quo and thwart real progress.

IPPNW co-president Tilman Ruff: "Banning and eliminating nuclear weapons is the only way to secure planetary health."

IPPNW co-president Tilman Ruff: “Banning and eliminating nuclear weapons is the only way to secure planetary health.” ICAN photo

The weasels sonorous complaints that a ban treaty would be ineffective or destabilizing or premature or dangerous or immoral or would undermine the NPT or would unnecessarily hurt the feelings of the nuclear-armed states were openly ridiculed, as was their fatuous argument that nothing could be accomplished without the participation of the nuclear-armed states—who had refused to participate.

If there was one issue that defined this round of OEWG discussions and ultimately strengthened the resolve of the majority to press for a ban treaty, it was the shameless claim by the nuclear-dependent states that the focus on humanitarian consequences ignores the role of nuclear weapons in providing for their security. The large majority of states who see the very existence of nuclear weapons as an unacceptable threat to everyone’s security did not take kindly to this argument.

Here’s what Eunice Akiwo, the delegate from Palau—a Micronesian island state that suffered from decades of nuclear colonialism during the Cold War—had to say about nuclear weapons and security as the OEWG session drew to a close:

I understand that some delegations believe it is too soon to prohibit nuclear weapons. I understand that some delegations worry we are moving too fast.

But time is running out.

If we fail to act now, and these horrible weapons are used again, what responsibility will we all bear? Could we have stopped it from happening?

I hope that all delegations, in deciding whether to join the negotiating process for a ban, will bear in mind the many victims of nuclear weapons around the world.

I hope that all delegations will recall the harm inflicted on the people of the Pacific as a result of more than 300 nuclear test explosions. For decades, we have suffered from epidemics of cancers and other diseases and illnesses – passed on from one generation to the next.

Our precious island homes, and the vast Pacific Ocean on which we depend for our livelihoods, have been poisoned with radiation.

We cannot turn back time. We cannot undo the harm and damage. But we can together work to ensure that no one else ever suffers as we have.

I was shocked yesterday to hear a number of delegations speak about the importance of nuclear weapons. I had thought that, as parties to the NPT, we were all committed to the goal of eliminating these deadly weapons of mass destruction.

But Mr. Chairman, it did not quell my optimism, because the momentum we have all contributed to toward a ban is clearly unstoppable. The only question now is:

Will you stand on the right side of history?

One Comment
  1. May 13, 2016 5:59 pm

    Reblogged this on A Green Road Daily News.

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