OEWG Report, Vol. 2, No. 6

From discussion to proposals: looking to the next step for the OEWG
26 February 2016 

Mia Gandenberger and Ray Acheson

The final day of the open-ended working group (OEWG) on nuclear disarmament heard the final panel presentation on additional measures to increase awareness and understanding of the complexity of and interrelationship between the wide range of humanitarian consequences that would result from any nuclear detonation. The panel was followed by an interactive exchange of views about disarmament forum standards.

The humanitarian impact conferences

Mr. John Borrie was the single speaker on the final panel. He reviewed the lessons learned and the new information made available in the course of the three conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons in Oslo, Nayarit, and Vienna. Among other things he highlighted the greater understanding of the history of near-misses, the inability to respond adequately to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences, the long-term effects and suffering of victims of the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as that of the victims of nuclear testing, the evidence about the world wide effects on the climate of a potential nuclear war or exchange, understanding effects of the gendered effects of ionizing radiation, and finally the increased yet not sufficient understanding of the risks surrounding nuclear weapons.

Take home messages from the three conferences were, in Mr. Borrie’s view, the understanding of the transboundary effects and the global nature of the challenge; the fact that the scope, scale, and interrelationship of a nuclear detonation’s effects are more complex than previously thought; that there is no adequate response capacity on the state or international; the understanding that while it is hard to assess the probability of use, it is difficult to envision how any such use would conform with existing rules of international humanitarian law; the humanitarian pledge endorsed by 125 states; and that nuclear disarmament is increasingly talked about in a less theoretical way.

Combining security and humanitarian concerns

Despite continued criticism of nuclear deterrence from states like Mexico and Austria, which argue that this concept is irreconcilable with humanitarian concerns, some states, including Belgium, Turkey, and Australia, maintained that while the humanitarian concerns inform their nuclear disarmament efforts, as long as nuclear weapons exist, they will rely on nuclear weapons for their security.

Recalling the discussions around the joint statements on the humanitarian impacts to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) conferences and the meetings of the UN General Assembly First Committee, Mexico expressed disturbance at the inability to subscribe to the commitment to never use nuclear weapons again under any circumstances. Refusing to make this commitment and continuing to value nuclear weapons as a security tool amidst increasing tensions in the geopolitical security environment, argued Ambassador Lomonaco of Mexico, suggests that nuclear weapons may be used again.


Following up to points made during the panel presentation, Austria and Ireland sought Mr. Borrie’s views on the interrelationship of the consequences and the transboundary effects of a nuclear detonation, as well as the connection to other global issues.  Mr. Borrie recalled the effects of the sever floods in Thailand that greatly affected the world food production as well as that of electronic parts to illustrate interconnectedness of the global economy. Effects of a nuclear detonation would therefore most likely have non-linear effects.

Nuclear disarmament is a fundamentally interconnected issue and Cuba indicated that in thinks that together with climate change it represents the fight for survival of the human race.  Mr. Borrie stressed that nuclear disarmament is a fairly easy issue in some sense compared to climate change, as it is not beyond human wit and depended mainly on changing the minds of policy makers.


In building on yesterday’s discussion, where panelists highlighted the existence of internal risk assessments made by nuclear-armed states, Austria reiterated that the burden of proof had shifted to the nuclear-armed states and sought Mr. Borrie’s advice on where more information on risks would be useful. New Zealand was similarly interested in the nuclear-armed states’ assessments of consequences and risks, suggesting these could also inform a possible review of compatibility of any use of nuclear weapons with international law. Sweden wondered how to best use the information available and what more could be done with regard to transparency.

In that connection Mr. Borrie referred to research within the nuclear weapon complex of the United States on how to measure the effects. One example had revealed that past US models had really only taken into account the blast damage, but not the secondary and tertiary effects of a nuclear weapons detonations. Another example is US computer models for impact calculations that have been proven faulty. Consequently, nuclear-armed states have not been eager to talk about these processes.

With regards to ways to increase transparency, Mr. Borrie referred to the Federation of American Scientists, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), and others for resources of available information. However, he argued that it would be useful for nuclear-armed states, as well as those in nuclear-alliances, to share more information. Additionally, he regretted the fact that a lot of information provided to international organisations was not made available to the public, because of confidentiality agreements.

Legal gap

To clarify different understandings of the legal gap, Austria explained that the humanitarian pledge, based on the discussions during the conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, refers to the fact that the existing body of law on nuclear weapons does not adequately provide for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons. Sweden agreed with this interpretation, saying there is no legal gap in the NPT, but the body of nuclear weapon-related law in general. 

While some delegations, including the Netherlands and Canada, disagreed with that depiction, South Africa in its closing statement recalled that two-thirds of UN member states support the humanitarian pledge, therefore signalling a general acceptance of the legal gap. One way towards filling it could be a ban treaty that would serve as a building block or effective measure towards the goal of a nuclear weapon free world, suggested South Africa.


Some speakers, including Ecuador, Guatemala, Kenya, Spain, and Japan, underlined the importance of awareness-raising. Kenya noted the efforts of civil society in this connection. Others, including Ecuador, Japan, Austria, and Malaysia, highlighted the importance of peace and disarmament education. Ecuador stressed the effectiveness of educating students in schools, universities, and military schools about international law and international humanitarian law, as well as the catastrophic humanitarian effects of nuclear weapon detonations. Japan underlined the special role of Hibakusha and Youth communicators in advancing awareness throughout the world. Australia also pointed to the work of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative led by Japan in this context.

Guatemala wondered what role nuclear weapon free zones could play in awareness-raising. Mr. Borrie suggested that taking into account regional differences, the discussion of risks or why these zones chose to prohibit nuclear weapons in their regions could be discussed and serve as an awareness-raising measure.

Mexico will likely host a side event on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons to the World Humanitarian Summit to be held later this year in Istanbul.

The way forward

A number of speakers, including the Netherlands, Canada, Japan, and Australia highlighted the need to find common ground on contentious issues, mainly those discussed under the exchange of views after the first panel. With regards to the discussion on the other panels, those speakers welcomed the convergence on matters like the need for transparency and the importance of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation education. 

Others, like Ireland and Mexico, again underlined the urgency for action on nuclear disarmament. Given that existing approaches to nuclear disarmament are “stale, flat, and unprofitable,” said Brazil, the OEWG should recommend to the negotiation of a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons, with the possibility of additional protocols for elimination to be negotiated at a later stage. Egypt agreed with this suggestion in principle, however thought the Conference on Disarmament is the only forum to negotiate disarmament treaties.

In closing, the Chair outlined the way forward in preparation for the May session to be held from 2–13 May 2016 in Geneva. All working papers submitted before 7 April 2016 will be taken into consideration for the Chair’s synthesis paper that hopefully will be circulated during the third week of April. This paper will inform the discussion and organsiation of work for the May session. Working papers submitted after the organizational deadline will be taken into due account for the final report.


This first session of the OEWG has provided an opportunity for some exceptionally open and progressive discussions about the way forward for nuclear disarmament, in particular on a on treaty banning nuclear weapons. The nature and scope of interventions was far superior to what we are used to seeing in most multilateral forums on disarmament. The parameters for civil society participation allowed for fruitful interaction with governments.

However, while this first session was positive and useful, we must not be complacent moving forward. The purpose of this body is to “substantively address” and make recommendations to the UN General Assembly about “concrete effective legal measures, legal provisions and norms” to achieve and maintain a nuclear weapon free world. The prohibition of nuclear weapons is clearly crystalising as the dominant proposal in this regard; more concrete discussion about a treaty banning nuclear weapons will be necessary at the second session in May. It will be a good opportunity for states and others to submit elements of such a treaty for consideration.

As Egypt and Mexico argued, proposals other than effective legal measures are of secondary importance in terms of recommendations, as made clear by the formulation in the UN General Assembly resolution establishing the OEWG. While discussions about transparency, verification, de-alerting, and other aspects of work related to nuclear disarmament are important, and while nuclear-reliant states were open in their participation in these discussions, these issues are not currently the heart of the matter. The nuclear-reliant states avoided questions related to their military doctrines, risk assessments, and rules of engagement and put forward years-old arguments against a ban treaty, insisting (rather incoherently) that it would be both useless and dangerous.

While not everyone is willing to keep up with the debate, other states have clearly spent a lot of time thinking about this issue since the 2015 NPT Review Conference. Brazil’s delegation put forward interesting views on what a prohibition could cover. Malaysia and Costa Rica included the ban treaty in their overview of possible legal measures, noting that it could be negotiated without the nuclear-armed states.

Several delegations pointed out this fact in their interventions, which the nuclear-reliant states pushed back on, arguing that the nuclear-armed states must be involved in any measure related to nuclear weapons moving forward. Of course, the only measures that nuclear-armed states must indeed be involved with are the ones that nuclear-reliant states promote: it is only nuclear-armed states that can increase transparency, reduce alert levels, etc.

But there is one measure that can be done without them and that is prohibition. It is this very measure that states that still cling to nuclear weapons as part of their security doctrines refute the effectiveness of. They are not the only ones though—some key Non-Aligned countries such as Cuba, Egypt, and Iran also spoke against a ban treaty, arguing that a nuclear weapons convention would be more appropriate and effective. They are committed to nuclear disarmament in words, yet refuse to acknowledge the credibility of the only current option for moving forward. They would prefer to wait for elimination. And wait. And wait. And wait.

Demands that the nuclear-armed states must participate in these discussions are becoming embarrassing. States usually want to exercise their own agency. It is puzzling to watch the nuclear-reliant states cast off agency in this context, as part of their ongoing, fruitless search for what they call “the middle ground”. As Ambassador Lomonaco of Mexico said, there is no middle ground anymore. “You are either for the elimination of nuclear weapons, or not.”

The nuclear-armed states have shown time again that they are not for the elimination of nuclear weapons. Failure to comply with article VI, modernisation programmes, security doctrines, and refusal to participate in the conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons or the OEWG meetings demonstrate this. Indeed, just this week the United States test-launched two intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

The nuclear-armed states do not have good faith when it comes to nuclear weapons. John Borrie drew an analogy to the 2008 financial crisis, saying that nuclear-armed states have privatized the (perceived) benefits of nuclear weapons while socializing the risk to everyone. The claim that non-nuclear-armed states have “divided” the international community is preposterous. The vast majority of states reject nuclear weapons for themselves and for everyone else. They are not creating divisions by refusing to accept the global injustice thrust upon them by the nuclear-armed states. The nuclear-armed states, and their allies who likewise defend the continued possession and modernisation of nuclear weapons, are the ones creating divisions. As Mexico said, they are welcome to join the majority.