Open Ended Working Group


Geneva saw something new this week: actual constructive conversation about nuclear weapons. The United Nations established the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in its current form in 1978, expecting it to be the main forum for disarmament negotiations for a number of different types of weapons, including nuclear weapons. But the rules of the CD--limited membership, any one member can block action--have caused its work on nuclear weapons to stagnate for 20 years. This week was the opening session of the Open Ended Working Group on Disarmament (OEWG), a new body created to allow discussion on nuclear weapons disarmament in a different setting.

The OEWG is chaired by Manuel Dengo, an experienced and wily diplomat from Costa Rica who seems to have figured out how to unlock the frozen debate on nuclear weapons. The sessions have been marked by quite spirited and frank discussions and experienced diplomats shake their heads and whisper in the hallways that they’re hearing new things from their colleagues. The staff of the group even plays soft, jazzy music on the sound system in the meeting hall before sessions--another subtle and effective cue that these are informal, relaxed discussions.

BASIC is represented at the OEWG. (Photo credit: Ward Wilson)

I’ve been attending this week and was invited to speak on the opening panel. I suspect that Ambassador Dengo deliberately put me up front because he knew that I would say things that would shake up the delegates and, perhaps, energize those delegates who felt that change was needed. I talked about the fact that nuclear weapons advocates had been wildly wrong in their early assessments of nuclear weapons, that nuclear weapons advocates still had some of their facts wrong (bombing Hiroshima didn’t win World War II and Cold War crises are evidence of the weakness of nuclear deterrence, not its reliability), and my belief that this is a new moment in the discussion about nuclear weapons. It is a time of opportunity when the room for maneuver opens up and there are possibilities. You can read the full text here.

Already the new venue has drawn interesting results. It was not clear at the outset whether any of the nuclear weapons states would participate. The P5 (United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France and China) had decided not to attend. But on the first day representatives from both India and Pakistan were present and they got drawn in to the conversation. India has now asked for time to describe for the OEWG the Gandhi proposal for disarmament. It is a coup of sorts to have actual nuclear states participating in a somewhat free-wheeling discussion. Unlike the CD, in the OEWG nuclear states don’t have the power to block any thing that they find uncomfortable. The OEWG looks like it might be a very interesting new development and, possibly, a place where real work might get done.

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The ever-listening radar of Twitter sent me a link to Basic and your post about a new mood in the OEWG deliberations. The phrase "even idealist know there is no such thing as a genie in a bottle" had me sit up in the moment, because that is the very theme I find myself looking at. So I read your opening talk and found it lucid and sensible until the Conclusions, and then I need to say that the restricted field of view that most people have of the nuclear subject, caused your optimistic approach to fade into hopeful platitudes. Ouch ! Sorry to dampen down your squib. My contrary view is that we are madmen for not looking and wondering about the genie in the bottle. This is the reality and inquiry that I think dearly needs our attention. While we have an excellent knowledge of the physics of the atom, hardly a moment has gone into considering the metaphysics of the atoms, which are in effect small family systems of universal energy. Even a cursory look along this avenue of inquiry reveals that the same forms of energy are in the atom as are here between us humans. This is a quick indication of the kind of thinking I believe we need to bring to our nuclear work. I have developed a web site which seeks in the first place to outline the large holographic setting of our Universe: this is the modern name for the principle known in ancient times by the simple phrase: "as above, so below". Once we have some greater confidence in this overarching universal principle, then we have a tool that lets us look down into the world of the particles and see how familiar and family-based their dimension is. While we are focused and fixated with only the physics of the atom, the subjective nature of our nuclear work remains invisible, and I'd say we have not got the slightest chance of ever sorting the weapons issue. It's not easy to find that we are still near the beginning of discovering the whole nature of the Atomic World. I like to think that the weapons are but a first crude unavoidable gadget we have made, typical of our human nature, as we have arrived in a new landscape. The difference in magnitude of everything in there hinders us from seeing how similar and familiar this newly-discovered sub-continent is to our own world. Now is the time to pause and look at how we look into this new world. I found a significant revelation from looking at the photographs taken by the French military of one of their weapons tests: it is not exactly a genie coming out of the bottle so much as "two energetic ghosts", the one typically masculine, the other displaying classic feminine behaviour. The whole effect we know as the mushroom cloud. And because we fear it, we look away, when really it deserves our best curiosity. Slow down the whole process and see that there is a Romeo and Juliet story being played out, at close to the speed of Light. This is the right way to look at our nuclear work, and start seeing the larger deeper shape of the Universe we are within. This 21st century way of seeing the Atomic World and the nuclear issues then provides for many other ways to see and respond to the weapons. I trust it will provide a new window for your Working Group to look through, and formulate how we might proceed. Thanks for the opportunity to post these comments. With good wishes. Ian Turnbull. Findhorn. Scotland