by Dr Rebecca Johnson

Driven by “the imperative of human security for all”, Austria pledged at the HINW conference to work to “stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons in light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences and associated risks”.

The Third International Conference on the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons (HINW), closed last week with a compelling “Austrian Pledge” to “identify and pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons”.

A comprehensive  Chair’s Summary was the anticipated outcome of the Vienna Conference, and few were expecting Austria to go beyond this.  In presenting the Austrian Pledge, Secretary-General of Austria’s Foreign Ministry Dr Michael Linhart explained that the facts and findings of the Vienna Conference – as well as previous HINW conferences held in  Oslo and Nayarit – had showed that more diplomat action was needed.

The Austrian pledge will go down in history. Driven by “the imperative of human security for all and to promote the protection of civilians against risks stemming from nuclear weapons”,  Austria promised to disseminate the evidence and findings from the Vienna Conference and “cooperate with all relevant stakeholders, states, international organisations, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movements, parliamentarians and civil society to stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons in light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences and associated risks”.

While the Austrian Pledge is widely interpreted as a commitment to take forward a multilateral process to ban nuclear weapons, Dr Linhart also called on “nuclear weapons possessor states” to take “concrete interim measures to reduce the risk of  nuclear weapons detonations, including reducing the operational status of nuclear weapons and moving nuclear weapons away from deployment into storage, diminishing the role of nuclear weapons in military doctrines, and rapid reductions of all types of nuclear weapons.”

The Vienna Chair’s Summary fulfilled its primary role of giving a broadly balanced “birds eye view” of the main findings from the in-depth panels and the major themes drawn from the closing debate, in which over 100 of the 158 governments participated, along with representatives from international NGOs.  With many looking ahead to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference in May 2015, it was important that so many NPT states welcomed how the Vienna, Nayarit and Oslo conferences have reframed the debate and re-energised efforts to fulfill the NPT’s nuclear disarmament (Article VI) obligations.  In one panel, two of the ambassadors most responsible for the successful outcome of the 2010 NPT Review Conference – Libran Cabactulan and Axel Marschik – discussed the adoption and relevance of the paragraph in the disarmament action plan in the final outcome document from the 2010 NPT conference that expressed “deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons  and reaffirms the need for all States at all times to comply with applicable international law, including international humanitarian law.”

Building on this, at least 45 governments in Vienna explicitly called for further multilateral negotiations to prohibit nuclear weapons, some echoing the  Nayarit Conference Chair’s call for “the commitment of states and civil society to reach new international standards and norms, through a legally binding instrument”.

For the first time in the HINW process two NPT nuclear-armed states – the United States and Britain – attended, as well as India and Pakistan, two nuclear-armed nations that have rejected the NPT.  In addition, though the Chinese government was not formally represented behind a name plate, they sent observers to Vienna to keep them in the loop.  Though these nuclear-armed governments were warmly welcomed, some of their statements were troubling, as they seemed unable to engage with the evidence demonstrating the security dangers and military uselessness of such weapons of mass suffering, choosing instead to underline their desperate reliance on nuclear weaponry for the foreseeable future.

The United States shocked many – including its own allies – by following the powerful testimonies of two survivors of American nuclear testing, Michelle Thomas of Utah, USA and  Abacca Anjain-Maddison of the Marshall Islands, with a tone deaf, standard text that just reiterated US nuclear policies and positions.  A later US statement tried to regain some of the goodwill engendered by the Obama administration’s decision to participate in the Vienna HINW conference, but still largely missed its mark.  Evoking the speech President Obama gave in Prague in April 2008 by saying that “the United States stands with all those here who seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons”, the US noted the “growing political will” to pursue a practical disarmament agenda.  But rhetoric about “strategic stability” with Russia and post cold war reductions in its nuclear weapons no longer suffice, even though many will welcome that the US wants to work with the UK and others to “trust and verify further nuclear reductions” and deal with relevant “technical problems”.  If these governments can take the lead in putting the technical and verification solutions in place to persuade their nuclear-armed partners, rivals and nuclear establishments to achieve genuine disarmament, that would be very helpful. But that doesn’t mean they can carry on modernising and producing nuclear weapons.  Quoting Obama’s endorsement of the “voices for peace and progress” is not enough if the president is not listening or is too politically hamstrung to respond effectively to what those voices are saying. As discussed widely in Vienna, a diplomatic process to prohibit nuclear weapons will increase the pressure on all the nuclear-armed states to accelerate and accomplish the kinds of steps that the United States says it wants to take.

The UK statement agreed that “devastating humanitarian consequences could result from the use of nuclear weapons”. The point, said Ambassador Susan le Jeune d’Allegeershecque, was what conclusions to draw from that fact.  Although UK governments have accepted that banning and eliminating chemical and biological weapons is conducive to national and international security, this statement asserted that nuclear weapons ensure “stability and security” that might be jeopardised by steps to ban and eliminate them.  Reitering that the UK intended to “maintain a minimum credible nuclear deterrent” for as long as might be deemed “necessary”, the UK delegation seemed to assume Trident replacement would go ahead with a nuclear warhead stockpile of “180 by the mid-2020s”.

This complacent statement was received glumly by British participants in Vienna, including a number of MPs from the Westminster Houses of Parliament, the European Parliament, and the Scottish Parliament.  Also in attendance was a Scottish Government official responsible for dealing with nuclear accidents and emergencies in Scotland, which hosts two nuclear weapons bases at Faslane and Coulport, just north of Glasgow. It turned out that the Scottish Government had requested that this official be included on the UK delegation as his role and expertise were so relevant to the issues being discussed in Vienna. After hearing nothing back from the Foreign Office, he attended informally, joining the ranks of civil society experts.

India and Pakistan also spoke. Referring to “the serious threat to the survival of mankind that could be posed by nuclear weapons” India argued for “increased restraints on the use of nuclear weapons in a step by step manner”, and suggested that the Conference on Disarmament (CD) ought to do this job. Pakistan also accepted that the “use of nuclear weapons will have far reaching destructive impact even beyond the zone of conflict”. Recognising that “only real solution for negating this threat is the total elimination of nuclear weapons,” Pakistan also suggested the CD as the place to commence negotiations on a “comprehensive convention” that would prohibit all aspects of nuclear weapons including their possession, production, use and threat of use.  Only 65 states are members of the CD, which has been deadlocked since 1996, in large part due to Pakistan’s opposition to CD negotiations on the incremental step of a fissile materials cut-off treaty (FMCT).  Frustration with the CD’s cold war structure and political problems have prompted the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and a growing number of governments to conclude that the only appropriate forum and process for negotiating a nuclear ban treaty must be “open to all and blockable by none”, as underscored in ICAN’s Vienna statement.

Some of the strongest statements were from African and Latin American countries, many of whom put their weight behind negotiations to ban nuclear weapons. In addition to many national statements, Opanal, the Agency for the 1967 Tlatelolco Treaty and nuclear free zone that prohibits nuclear weapons throughout Latin American and the Caribbean said: “We must act to delegitimize nuclear weapons at the political level and to criminalize them as has been done in the case of other weapons of mass destruction”.  South Africa, which “voluntarily destroyed its nuclear weapons” in the 1990s, recognised that it had a “legal obligation and … moral responsibility to contribute to the humanitarian initiatives”, and was therefore “currently considering options, including our role in any follow-on activities and meetings”.

In her opening testimony to Vienna, atomic bomb survivor Setsuko Thurlow from Hiroshima wanted the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 2015 to propel governments to achieve the goal of prohibiting and eliminating all nuclear weapons, urging: “Let us start this process, beginning with negotiations on a ban treaty, here and now in Vienna.”

Austria’s courageous Pledge – and many, but not all, governments – have heeded the wisdom of Setsuko and the other indomitable nuclear weapon survivors, the Red Cross and humanitarian and disarmament experts.  Though formal negotiations have not yet been launched, filling the legal gap between prohibition and elimination will necessitate a universal treaty that at the very least bans the use, deployment, production, stockpiling, transfers and proliferation of nuclear weapons, requiring their total elimination.

This is the third report from the Vienna Conference by Rebecca Johnson. Read the first and second reports.