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First partial report from Geneva: proposals for starting negotiations on a treaty banning nuclear weapons have been submitted by a large majority of countries

May 12, 2016

Dear friends --
(Letter to local members; tell us if you want off this relatively exclusive list.)

First (partial) report from Geneva: proposals for starting negotiations on a treaty banning nuclear weapons have been submitted by a large majority of countries

  1. Important developments from last week, lightly updated with more to follow
  2. Sources of information
  3. Background

Dear colleagues --

Trish and I have been in Geneva for almost two weeks first at a 2-day campaigner's meeting with about 130 colleagues from around the world, then at the 2016 "Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) Taking Forward Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament Negotiations."

It's been like drinking from a fire-hose here and we have had almost no time for ordinary communications. In fact I may not even be able to send this message, originally crafted for reporters, to any of our mailing lists. Our email distributor wouldn't accept a message from Switzerland last time I tried. We'll see how it goes with this one.

Trish is upstairs tweeting the content in statements and interventions from the floor. She now has an extensive following on twitter. I have spoken from the floor, submitted a working paper, will publish an editorial today, and we both have been discussing issues with delegations, NGOs, and UN officials for the past week. In all this, time has been of the essence.

I am writing you in part to share the grandeur of what has been happening. For more information on this see some of the sources listed below. It will not be easy to process this from within the dark cave of nuclear militarism in which we live in the U.S.

We will put the best of these developments on a web page in due time -- once the fire-hose slows to a manageable flow.

Last week I had a request from a reporter with a national audience to summarize developments here in Geneva. Most of what follows stems from that request.

For U.S.-based reporters and observers, what is happening here may seem unreal or irrelevant, since it comes from outside our usual echo chamber -- from beyond our horizon. But these developments are real. In terms of content, momentum, and overall significance this OEWG meeting is certainly one of the most, and probably is the most, important multilateral disarmament meeting since 1995, when the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) was indefinitely extended without amendment. Attempts to incorporate stronger disarmament content in the treaty were defeated.

Of course any changes would have required consensus among states parties. False calls for unity and consensus are a familiar tool of the U.S. and other nuclear weapon states to block disarmament progress. Upstairs, right now, there may be some nuclear "umbrella" state whining that consensus is needed before doing...anything.

That 1995 defeat was in hindsight a turning point against disarmament in the post-Cold War world, which led to the long twilight of the second Clinton administration and what has followed in domestic policy.

The extent to which the tremendous momentum among non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWSs) for a treaty prohibiting the possession, transfer, development, use (etc.) of nuclear weapons are relevant in our "exceptional" country right now is partly up to us. Sooner or later, however, these developments will be hard to ignore. The momentum here is very hard to deny. There is a new sense of agency and of urgency, backed by deep knowledge and growing experience in a new generation of diplomats and NGO leaders.

The U.S. is not present. Neither are any other nuclear weapon states. Our reliable sources inform us that the U.S. is supplying back-channel talking points to its 30 NATO and South Asia nuclear "umbrella," aka nuclear-dependent, states. "Peace-loving" states like Germany and the Netherlands are supporting nuclear weapons. And we will be demonstrating at several of these embassies later this afternoon, for the benefit of news media in those countries.

As I said to a few reporters last week it is fascinating to see the interplay of courage, evasion, deception, and bursts of candor in the mortal men and women who are the characters on this particular stage.

  1. Important developments last week

    Multiple proposals were made last week for near-term negotiations on a treaty banning nuclear weapons in official foreign ministry submittals, in addition to the proposals made in floor statements.

    For example:
  • Working paper 34 from nine states parties to three nuclear weapons free zone (NWFZ) treaties proposes to begin negotiations on a ban treaty in 2017, essential elements of which are provided.
  • Working paper 15 from the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), composed of 33 states, proposes to begin and complete negotiation of a ban treaty as soon as possible, by 2018 at the latest.
  • Working paper 36 from the 127 states who have signed the Humanitarian Pledge calls for urgent negotiation of a ban treaty and suggests elements of the content and process.

I could go on, but there are more up-to-date, expert summaries available from RCW and ICAN (see next section below). The breadth and depth of state support for banning nuclear weapons is breathtaking.

These and other state contributions not listed here assure that the OEWG report will include a mandate -- not a consensus mandate but a strong mandate -- to pursue negotiations on one or more new nuclear disarmament treaties, including but not limited to a ban on nuclear weapons, by far the best-supported option.

  1. Sources of information (compiled for reporters who might want to do in-depth stories, originally -- see ICAN and RCW sources, updated daily, for the best updates and interpretations)
  • United Nations Office in Geneva 2016 OEWG (Foundational page only. The UN has no consolidated page to track the official documents and statements from this event. RCW does this to the best of its ability.)
  • The Chair's Synthesis Paper from the February meeting (April 21)
  • Background ICAN/RCW podcast
  • 2016 OEWG (RCW)
  • ICAN at the OEWG
  • ICAN OEWG news releases
  • Audio recordings of the plenary meetings so far, in chronological order, separated by speaker/country (To use, first go to the box titled "organization" and choose "WG on nuclear disarmament"). These are about 24 hours behind events here.
  • ICAN Facebook
  • Trish's Twitter account
  • From ICAN Austria:
    • "The new Abolition Map illustrates governments’ record on nuclear disarmament at a glance. States are awarded a green, a yellow or a red dot, reflecting their level of commitment to a nuclear weapon free world. Throughout the OEWG, we will update this analysis and feed it with new statements.
    • Our Tweet map displays twitter communication on nuclear weapons and nuclear disarmament in real time - displaying the last thousand tweets tracked around the world. We are tracking a number of terms, entities and hashtags related to nuclear weapons and disarmament - now including #OEWG! (click here for a full list of terms tracked along with additional info)." [Mello: In 2014 in Vienna, ICAN Austria activists provided similar real-time updates on giant (~2.5 meter x 3.5 meter) vertical DIY touchscreens made with silk-screen fabric in aluminum frames, each with an thin invisible plane of infrared laser light to illuminate fingers as they nearly touched the scrim and an infrared webcam to see these illuminated points, which feed was used as a pointing device or mouse.]
  1. Background
    As of Monday 2 May, there were 83 states and 79 NGOs in attendance at this meeting. These numbers rose a little this week but not too much. States in attendance on 2 May were:
Afghanistan    Algeria    Argentina    Armenia    Australia    Austria    Belgium    Brazil    Cambodia    Canada    Chile    Colombia    Congo, Democratic Republic of    Costa Rica    Cote d'Ivoire    Croatia    Czech    Dominican Republic   Ecuador    Egypt    El Salvador    Estonia    Finland    Germany    Greece    Guatemala    Haiti    Holy See    Honduras    Hungary    Indonesia    Iran    Iraq    Ireland    Italy    Japan    Kazakhstan    Kenya    Korea    Kuwait    Laos    Latvia    Lebanon    Lithuania    Madagascar    Malaysia    Malta    Mexico    Montenegro    Morocco    Myanmar    Namibia    Nepal    New Zealand    Nicaragua    Nigeria    Norway    Oman    Palau    Palestine    Panama    Peru    Philippines    Poland    Saudi Arabia    Serbia    Singapore    Slovakia    South Africa    Spain    Sri Lanka    Sudan    Sweden    Switzerland    Thailand    Netherlands    United Arab Emirates    Togo    Tunisia    Turkey    Ukraine    Venezuela    Vietnam

I am guessing that at least three-fourths of the NGOs here, including the Los Alamos Study Group, are partnered with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).

That is because this entire negotiating forum is basically the result of efforts by ICAN and its 440 partner organizations in 98 countries, which then became efforts by states, groups of states, and entire continents (South and Central America, and Africa, for example).

Without going through the history of ICAN since its inception in 2007, this has happened primarily in and through:

  1. Three special fact-finding conferences (Oslo, Nayarit, and Vienna) devoted to the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons ("the humanitarian approach"), which were heavily attended by delegations from states;
  2. Discussions and diplomatic failures at Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) preparatory and review conferences;
  3. Initiatives undertaken at UN General Assembly (UNGA) meetings;
  4. Hundreds if not thousands of in-country meetings with foreign ministries, parliamentarians, and others by ICAN partners, and their related political organizing; and
  5. Endorsements of a nuclear ban treaty by various prestigious persons and groups such as Nobel Peace laureates and -- this week -- the four major world-wide associations of medical professionals.

Obviously, these ICAN efforts have built on broader prior and parallel efforts by many others -- millions of people actually -- over several decades. The genius of ICAN has been to sharply focus long-standing nuclear disarmament aspirations, as well as standing expertise and institutional capacity, into a clearly-focused agenda and process which in principle cannot be blocked by nuclear weapon states (NWSs).

Initially led by a changing group of perhaps ten or a dozen states, interest in a treaty banning nuclear weapons became explicit (thanks to Austria) via the "Humanitarian Pledge," now signed by 127 states, which inter alia commits states to supporting negotiation of a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. An additional 22 states which have not formally signed the Pledge voted for it in the form of an UNGA resolution last fall. It appears that the number of states willing and able to provide leadership to this movement is increasing.

As a result of this powerful groundswell, by what is now an overwhelming majority of countries, the UNGA created this negotiating forum last fall (after competing status-quo proposals were defeated).

As an aside, I am pleased to say that the Study Group has been part of these efforts from an early point. Ray Acheson (in New York) and Mia Gandenberger (in Geneva), both in the Reaching Critical Will (RCW) nuclear disarmament program of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) as well as on the Study Group board of directors, have been among those who have done a great deal to create the present forum. Trish and I have played supporting roles attending, talking to diplomats, contributing to newsletters and fact-finding reports and speaking at conferences, side events, and elsewhere.

The humanitarian approach to disarmament is not new. What has been renewed over the past few years is a focused effort to ban the bomb, i.e. to apply what we know about nuclear weapons and therefore to actually prohibit them, much as chemical and biological weapons are prohibited. Accession to a prohibition treaty would be entirely voluntary. States retaining or depending upon nuclear weapons would gradually become outlaws.

As a social and political process this can be very clearly distinguished from prior U.S.-based nuclear disarmament efforts in a number of positive ways (which are copied here with edits from LASG Bulletin 198, December 2014):

  • It is not based in the U.S. and not subject to the adverse political conditions that prevail here;
  • Much of its leadership is a full generation younger than is typical in U.S. nuclear policy organizations, which by and large have not been successful in generational renewal;
  • Most of its funding does not come from, nor is it hostage to, U.S. foundations;
  • Its leadership is multinational and naturally diverse;
  • Instead of being “institution-centric” or even “network-centric,” the campaign is organized around a clear moral vision and a clear, practical objective, namely a ban;
  • Many of the leading organizations involved are not exclusively focused on nuclear weapons but include broader humanitarian and development objectives; and, most crucially,
  • Banning nuclear weapons does not depend on the sympathy or even the participation of either nuclear weapon states or their allies.

The nine NWSs dislike or disdain this approach to nuclear weapons as well as the conferences and fora which embody it. They generally don't attend. The U.S. finally showed up in Vienna in December 2014 (having skipped prior gatherings in Norway and Mexico), principally to condemn the conference. (This backfired.) The NATO nuclear states -- the U.S., U.K., and France, all putative democracies with active civil societies -- are the NWSs most threatened by this movement. They have worked actively to undermine it, largely behind the scenes, with Russia and China (who do not feel so threatened) joining them for the sake of diplomatic solidarity. 

No NWS is here. In the present forum, U.S. perspectives and strategies for undermining disarmament negotiations are being carried, with interesting independent variations, by the nuclear "umbrella" (or as they might better be called, "nuclear-dependent" states -- or, as has become popular, "weasel states"), all of which are U.S. allies. (These nuclear-dependent states are the 28 NATO states, Australia, South Korea, and Japan.) It is the U.S. (directly, and indirectly through its allies) which is the main state actor fighting a treaty that would prohibit nuclear weapons. The U.S. always strenuously opposes multilateral disarmament negotiations and measures.

This OEWG will report back to the UNGA this fall after a final 3-day OEWG meeting in August. Then the UNGA will again take up competing proposals for how to go forward. There will be votes. As is evident, there is a very clear and widespread demand to open a negotiating forum for a new disarmament treaty to "fill the legal gap," complementing the NPT's vague Article VI disarmament mandate. Negotiations this week and next are devoted to conditioning the coming debate in the fall over what form such a negotiating forum should take.

The first meeting of this OEWG in February set the stage for this month's meeting, which comprises the core of the OEWG's work. The February meeting was summarized in a Chair's synthesis paper, which came under immediate mild attack from nuclear umbrella states this past Monday but was nonetheless praised by most states. Most countries in the world are simply not following the U.S./NATO/Australia/Japan lead on nuclear disarmament, a reality which has characterized this movement since its beginning.

For more background on the humanitarian disarmament movement see the ICAN and RCW web sites linked above or scroll through Los Alamos Study Group archives since our Feb 12, 2014 press release, "International Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of nuclear weapons." There are too many articles to list.

That's it for now. I hope our listserve will allow this to reach you without further ado.


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