Open-Ended Working Group furthers the disarmament agenda in Geneva

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On Thursday and Friday, the UN Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) on nuclear disarmament meets for the third time in Geneva. The OEWG was established in December 2012, under UNGA Resolution A/RES/67/56, to develop proposals for innovative and measured steps to take forward multilateral nuclear disarmament for the achievement and maintenance of a world free of nuclear weapons. The group emerged from a recognition of the lack of progress being made through existing channels (i.e. the Conference on Disarmament (CD)) and it is open to all states who have an interest in furthering the disarmament agenda. This week, the group will be reviewing working papers submitted by delegations that outline clear recommendations on what to present to the UN General Assembly (UNGA) this autumn, based on the previous two OEWG sessions in which members of civil society played a leading role in shaping discussions.

The two previous sessions have involved exchanges between experts in the nuclear disarmament NGO community and like-minded states looking for ways to break through the barriers to disarmament. BASIC’s Senior Fellow and Director of the Rethinking Nuclear Weapons Program, Ward Wilson, was one of these experts who presented to the OEWG in the first session on traditional approaches to multilateral disarmament and recognized commitments. Other sessions have focused on: nuclear weapon free zones; necessary frameworks to establish a world free of nuclear weapons; transparency, confidence building and verification; approaching nuclear disarmament in new ways; the role of parliamentarians in nuclear disarmament; and roles and responsibilities for disarmament. Observers of the process so far have noted that the working group seems to have established a “new standard of engagement,” whereby states are speaking candidly, asking honest questions, and engaging on tough issues that have been ignored in other fora.

The group will submit its final report to the opening session of the UNGA First Committee this autumn and many observers expect the report to yield interesting results. Experts are pushing for proposals on multilateral disarmament that are action-oriented and tackle tough questions like, ‘to what extent is a world free of nuclear weapons a priority for the rest of the international community?’ or ‘what actually constitutes nuclear disarmament and what are credible benchmarks?’. Interestly enough, since it is a group of like-minded experts and states committed to nuclear disarmament, possibly the most controversial question they will tackle is ‘what constitutes the next step for nuclear disarmament’? Some are pushing for a treaty that bans nuclear weapons while others are seeking a more comprehensive step-by-step approach, possibly within the NPT.

To the surprise of many, Pakistan and India have been involved in the sessions of the OEWG. Unlike the CD, states in the OEWG do not have the power to block discussions on issues that they find uncomfortable, so other members of the OEWG can use this as an opportunity to get Pakistan and India seriously engaged in the conversation on disarmament. This could be a crucial opportunity to open up dialogue on the issues of the Fissile Material (Cut-off) Treaty. However, the recognized NPT nuclear weapon states (NWS: U.S., UK, Russia, France, and China) have declined the opportunity to participate in the OEWG. In fact, all of these states, except China, opposed the creation of the body in the December vote at the UNGA. U.S. representatives cited that they did not support the non-consensus based approach of the OEWG. Perhaps also, the NWS believe that this could further complicate their efforts to manage nuclear disarmament discussions and expectations through the so-called ‘P5 process’. They would have far less control of the agenda in the Open Ended Working Group, and would have to address difficult challenges to their approach.

The next twelve months will be crucial in preparing the expectations of the international community for when the NWS report progress on their nuclear disarmament and transparency responsibilities under the 2010 NPT Action Plan when the NPT Preparatory Committee meets next May 2014. The OEWG proposals will play an important role in setting those expectations and challenging the efforts by the NWS to manage them. Equally, speeches such as the one from President Obama in Berlin last week will also have influence, mixing the expression of lofty disarmament objectives with a rather modest concrete disarmament agenda (see Chris Lindborg’s recent analysis of the implications of Obama’s speech on the nuclear strategy review here). This speech and revelation of the long anticipated Defense Department Report on the Nuclear Weapon Employment Strategy, will undoubtedly feature in discussions in some measure at the OEWG this week.