The Open-ended Working Group (OEWG) established late last year by the UNGA for ‘taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations’ recently concluded the second of its three 2016 sessions. Several aspects of its work warrant reflection as the dust settles.

By Tim Caughley via UNIDIR

A feature of the most recent session of the OEWG was its refreshing inter-activity—at least, by comparison to the set-piece monologue of other forums in which nuclear disarmament is discussed such as the Conference on Disarmament (CD), the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), and United Nations Disarmament Commission (UNDC).

Reasons for this high level of thrust and parry in the debate stem in part from the way the OEWG was organised, and included:

  • Clever structuring by the Chair through the use of ‘warm-up’ presentations by panellists at the beginning of each new topic on the agenda;
  • The effectiveness of panellists in providing information on and clarity to the issues, and in presenting perspectives often missing from debates in other forums; and
  • The presence of civil society representatives to add their views throughout the session and to press states on their national positions.

There also seemed to be a readiness among delegations to take full advantage of this improved way of doing business. The clear mandate of the Working Group with its focus on the risks and humanitarian consequences of use of nuclear weapons, transparency surrounding their possession and legal measures for achieving nuclear disarmament, also helped structure the debate.


The depth of engagement in the OEWG on these issues appears to reflect new energy and urgency across a broad swathe of the international community on how best to take nuclear disarmament forward. But several realities deserve mention here.

First, the breadth of participation in this session of the OEWG, although on the increase, does not yet include the nuclear-armed states (NAS). (The effect, incidentally, of their choosing not to attend or participate in any way, has been to propel their allies into the front lines of the debate.) The NAS argue, as indeed do many of their allies, that the global security environment is not conducive to advancing nuclear disarmament except through the currently stalled steps of the ‘step-by-step’ or ‘progressive’ approach they favour.

Second, while the absence of the NAS was a matter of regret to all participants, a large majority see the global security situation as a spur rather than a bar to action. Indeed, several proposals were tabled to pursue that concern:

  • Latin American states (‘CELAC’) proposed ‘a multilateral diplomatic process for the negotiation of a legally binding instrument for the prohibition of nuclear weapons towards their total elimination’;
  • More specifically, a cross-regional group of states championed the convening of a ‘Conference in 2017, open to all States, international organizations and civil society, to negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons’.

The idea of negotiating a prohibition treaty occupied centre stage in the OEWG’s work. Opponents of the idea—largely states in nuclear alliances, favouring the step-by-step approach—doubt the effectiveness of such a measure at this time because they do not expect the NAS to participate in such negotiations. They also fear that it might impact negatively on the NPT. Proponents of the prohibition approach believe, however, that a ban will reinforce that Treaty and, in building a norm against the possession of nuclear weapons, thereby increase the stakes against the proliferation of those armaments.

The issue of participation, though, is a more complex one. Take the NPT for example. Only five of the nine states that possess nuclear weapons accept to being bound by that treaty. Eventual agreement to actually eliminate all existing nuclear arsenals is unlikely, thus, to be within the framework of the NPT. In this connection, it is a recognised strength of the CD that all nine NAS are members of that Conference. But efforts to advance nuclear disarmament in that forum have long been paralysed, and there is little reason for hope now, least of all on a prohibition to which NAS would be opposed.

Meanwhile, with only 65 member states, the CD is far from meeting the test of inclusivity to which many nations within and outside that body aspire. Certainly, the two proposals just mentioned contemplate negotiating forums that are much more inclusive than the CD. The conferences envisaged in those two proposals would, like the OEWG, be open to all states, intergovernmental organizations and civil society. And the UNGA could itself decide to conduct nuclear disarmament negotiations.

In reality, however, arguments about participation and inclusivity mask a bigger issue, which is the fact that UN forums like the OEWG can resolve deadlocks by voting. This is in contrast to the CD and the NPT where there is a rule and tradition respectively of taking decisions only by consensus, thus protecting even the smallest minority from outcomes that would be contrary to their interests. This is an approach insisted upon by the NAS and their allies.


Matters of process and participation in furthering multilateral nuclear disarmament have a number of dimensions beyond those just mentioned. The most basic considerations, as seen so far in the OEWG’s debate, are these:

  • The humanitarian and environmental consequences of a nuclear detonation and its fallout are almost certain to be of regional if not global significance: every nation, therefore, has a stake in participating in the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons;
  • The risk of a nuclear detonation is greater than zero, and levels of transparency of nuclear-weapons holdings by the NAS are of continuing concern;
  • Prohibition of possession and use of nuclear weapons could precede or follow the verified elimination of those arms, or take place contemporaneously;
  • Negotiation, in advance of elimination, of a prohibition of those weapons with the purpose of strengthening the norms against possession and use need not necessarily involve the participation of the NAS. But it would be imperative for a prohibition negotiated following elimination to involve their participation and implementation of the outcome;
  • It would of course also be imperative for the NAS as possessors of nuclear weapons to participate in negotiations to verifiably eliminate their stocks of high-grade fissile material and their entire nuclear arsenals;
  • Decisions on the elimination of nuclear weapons and on prohibiting their possession and use thenceforth would, in other words, be ineffective unless taken by consensus.


Then there is the much-debated significance of the current international security situation for taking forward nuclear disarmament. In that regard, the prospects at this time seem no more or less favourable for pursuing the steps supported in the OEWG by allies of the NAS than they do for the prohibition approach.

In a recently published ILPI/UNIDIR guide to the issues surrounding the prohibition approach, we pointed out that such a process would, in the likely absence of NAS and some of their allies, ‘have clear limitations in actually bringing about the elimination of nuclear weapons in the short-term. This is something that proponents as much as opponents acknowledge. Such a scenario is not dissimilar from the present situation, in which progress towards elimination of nuclear weapons at a multilateral level is not occurring. Yet the possibility of failure of a future nuclear-weapon-ban regime to lead to elimination is construed as worse than continuing to achieve nothing in [multilateral] nuclear disarmament efforts, when it is in fact more or less the same’.

But while the dispute over this point plays itself out, the inescapable reality as reflected in remarks made to the Annual NATO Conference on WMD Arms Control, Disarmament and Non-proliferation on 9 May by Mr. Kim Won-soo, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, is this:

First, the world cannot and should not return to the nuclear dangers that plagued the Cold War and the ever present threat of nuclear annihilation. States should recall that during times of heightened tension during the Cold War, the international community managed to make progress on disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control measures which then served as important steps to reduce tensions and build confidence. We must act now to rebuild engagement and resume making progress.

See full article here.