from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Meeting Halfway: Nuclear Weapon States and the Humanitarian Disarmament Initiative

December 04, 2014

Anti-nuclear weapons demonstrators protest in New York ahead of the May 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference.
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Below is a guest post by Naomi Egelresearch associate in the International Institutions and Global Governance program.

Nuclear weapons rarely appear on lists of pressing humanitarian concerns. Yet for a growing movement of both nonnuclear weapon states and civil society groups, the devastating humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use has been a rallying cry for prompt disarmament. While the Obama administration has repeatedly declared its commitment to nuclear disarmament, momentum to put this commitment into action has waned as the glow of the New START treaty has faded.

However, on November 7, the State Department announced that the United States will attend the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons from December 8–9, 2014. Vienna will be the third such gathering organized by a coalition of nonnuclear weapon states (NNWS) and civil society groups. For the United States, which declined to attend the two previous conferences in Oslo, Norway (March 2013), and Nayarit, Mexico (December 2013), this marks a small but significant step forward for multilateral disarmament. On December 2, the United Kingdom announced that it too would attend.

The United States and United Kingdom should demonstrate their commitment to disarmament by taking concrete steps toward this goal in a multilateral context, but nonnuclear weapon states and civil society groups will also need to ditch the quixotic assumption that a world without nuclear weapons will necessarily be more peaceful—and offer alternatives for maintaining international security. Talking past one another will not lead to a productive conference or to nuclear disarmament.

The humanitarian disarmament initiative (HDI) emphasizes the indiscriminate humanitarian effects of nuclear weapons use to advocate for nuclear disarmament. It also frames disarmament as a responsibility for nonnuclear as well as nuclear weapon states (NWS). The widespread support for HDI—which has been endorsed by more than 155 governments—reflects frustration of many NNWS at the slow pace of disarmament by the nuclear powers. The NNWS also perceive themselves as excluded from disarmament negotiations, unable to influence a process in which they have a major stake. Meanwhile, many civil society participants seek to emulate the Mine Ban Treaty process, which civil society helped enact by generating initial momentum for a ban, encouraging states to support it, and even drafting parts of the treaty text. Many civil society members of the HDI advocate for a total ban on nuclear weapons, trying to shame states that possess nuclear weapons into giving them up.

The humanitarian disarmament initiative has also gained strength from the inaction of the permanent five (P5) members of the UN Security Councilthe United States, China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom—which are recognized as NWS under the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Although divided on other issues, the P5 have adopted a unified stance, advocating a ‘step-by-step’ approach to disarmament within the framework of existing multilateral mechanisms, including the NPT and the Conference on Disarmament. This consolidated, gradual approach has antagonized many NNWS and civil society organizations, which seek to move disarmament discussions and negotiations to less stale forums.

What, then, to make of U.S. and UK attendance at the forthcoming Vienna conference? Neither country has altered its official position on disarmament. Indeed, the State Department has explicitly stated that the United States does not regard the meeting as an appropriate venue for disarmament negotiations (or even pre-negotiations) and that it will not engage in such discussions in Vienna. Still, participation has important symbolic value, suggesting a willingness to listen to opposing views about disarmament and a desire to rebuild battered trust between NWS and NNWS. It also implies recognition that disarmament involves a larger community of stakeholders, including civil society. As both Washington and London are well aware, the next NPT review conference will be held in May 2015, and will likely be highly contentious. Participation at the Vienna conference may help clear the air in advance of that gathering and facilitate a more productive outcome.

More substantively, the United States and the United Kingdom will have an opportunity to shape the outcome of the meeting in Vienna. At the Nayarit meeting last December, the Mexican chair caused consternation when he produced a summary calling for a legally binding nuclear weapons convention—a goal many states did not fully support. While this document represented only the view of the chair, any consensus-based outcome document from the Vienna conference will need to strike a balance between diverse views, ranging from civil society groups such as the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) to states that continue to rely on nuclear weapons for deterrence.

How the United States and the United Kingdom choose to engage the Vienna conference, however, may be even more important than their decision to attend.

The United States could simply repeat its longstanding position that disarmament is the responsibility of NWS and should take place through existing channels and a step-by-step process, while highlighting its past accomplishments, including the New START treaty with Russia. This tired approach won’t achieve anything, though. It will likely further antagonize NNWS, many of which adamantly insist that nonproliferation efforts must be linked to tangible steps toward disarmament. The United States needs these partners to prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons. U.S. officials, and their UK counterparts, therefore should adopt a more positive agenda in Vienna, engaging NNWS as essential partners and taking steps to demonstrate their commitment to disarmament.

For example, the United States could take an active role in the joint UK-Norway Initiative [PDF], which seeks to develop a way for a nonnuclear weapon state to verify disarmament by a nuclear weapon state. The United States could also alleviate a potential sticking point in further disarmament negotiations by funding more research on how to verify nuclear disarmament at low numbers of warheads (which will require new verification methods). In this light, the December 4 announcement of a new U.S.-led international partnership for nuclear disarmament verification is welcome news.

The two countries should both consider new forums for disarmament negotiations, particularly since the Conference on Disarmament—the sole multilateral forum for disarmament negotiations—has been deadlocked since 1996. The United States could also build on its 2013 Nuclear Employment Strategy—which reduced the situations in which the United States might potentially use nuclear weapons—and seek to further limit the role of nuclear weapons in national security. Similarly, the United Kingdom could update the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review [PDF], which outlined a plan for nuclear weapons reductions, and identify additional measures toward disarmament. Future progress in the step-by-step disarmament process, such as ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), would also demonstrate to NNWS that the United States is committed to reducing the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. The United Kingdom has already ratified the treaty. Admittedly, the outcome of the November 2014 midterm election has made U.S. CTBT ratification an even more distant prospect.

For Vienna (and the HDI overall) to succeed, however, NNWS and civil society groups will need to show movement of their own. Perhaps the most important shift would be to understand and appreciate that not only NWS but also many NNWS (particularly those under the U.S. nuclear umbrella) regard nuclear weapons as a valuable deterrent. The HDI can only make progress if its members, both states and civil society groups, engage with the security concerns raised by those who rely on nuclear deterrence, rather than dismiss their arguments out of hand.

The HDI should seek to answer how security would be maintained in a world without nuclear weapons rather than assuming that such a world would inherently be more peaceful. All states and civil society groups that will attend the conference share the goal of promoting global peace and security: the HDI should seek to find points of agreement between its diverse participants, and build from there. Nuclear disarmament cannot exist without the cooperation of states that possess nuclear weapons.

To avoid mimicking the disarmament talk shops that have frustrated the HDI, participants at the Vienna conference will need to develop suggestions to lay the groundwork for multilateral disarmament discussions and negotiations. Both states and civil society groups should arrive in Vienna prepared to discuss what they themselves can do to create these conditions. The Vienna conference is not intended to result in a consensus-based road map to nuclear disarmament—nor should it aspire to, given the diversity of opinions on how nuclear disarmament should take place. What it can do is end the dialogue of the deaf that has too long characterized interaction between nuclear weapons states and those calling for prompt nuclear disarmament.