Over 150 countries have participated in a series of high-level meetings lauded as the most significant movement on nuclear disarmament in decades – meetings from which the U.S. has remained notably absent. Now, Washington says it will participate.
WASHINGTON — In a surprise confirmation, the Obama administration announced late on Friday that it will attend an unusual conference next month that supporters say could help to nudge the global framework governing nuclear weapons in a new direction.
The meeting, called the Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, will take place Dec. 8-9 in Vienna. The conference will be the third in a series of high-level meetings held over the past year, which advocates are lauding as the most significant momentum toward nuclear disarmament in decades.
Supporters are working to use this process as “a lever to start negotiations to ban the bomb and declare they are illegal with negotiations to follow for their elimination,” Alice Slater, the New York director of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, an advocacy group, told MintPress News, “just as the world has done for chemical and biological weapons as well as landmines and cluster munitions.”
Representatives of nearly 130 countries took part in the first conference, held last year in Oslo. By February, for a meeting in Mexico, the number of official representatives had grown to nearly 150. Yet the five formally recognized nuclear powers — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States — had refused to participate.
On Friday, however, the U.S. State Department announced a policy turnaround, confirming that it will be sending a delegation to Vienna.
“Following a careful review of the agenda, as well as discussions with the conference host Austria, the United States concluded there were real prospects for constructive engagement with conference participants,” the State Department said in a statement.
“This event will be a useful opportunity to highlight the significant progress the United States has made and the resources it devotes to create conditions under which nuclear weapons are never again used.”
Changing the conversation
U.S. participation in the Vienna talks has been seen as particularly critical, given its massive nuclear arsenal. According to data from the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a Geneva-based advocacy group, the U.S. currently possesses some 7,315 nuclear warheads and “spends more on its nuclear arsenal than all other countries combined.”
“The U.S. has a clear responsibility to engage in such a discussion, given the thousands of nuclear weapons it possesses,” Daniela Varano, a spokesperson for ICAN, as well as a key organizer behind the Vienna conference and previous ones, told MintPress. “ICAN encourages all states, whether nuclear-armed or not, to participate at this important conference.”
Varano notes that the Vienna conference will be framed as a continuation of the discussions held in Norway and Mexico, a process she says has already been “successful in changing the conversation” about nuclear weapons.
She continued: “At the same time, we note the appetite amongst many states for discussions about potential political and legal initiatives to address nuclear weapons, and feel confident that Vienna will be a further step towards negotiations on a legally binding instrument to ban nuclear weapons.”
Until Friday, the U.S. and the other four formally acknowledged nuclear-armed states – the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, known as the P5 – have collectively expressed concerns that the conferences could divert international focus away from the formal global framework governing the world’s nuclear arsenal.
This includes the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which since 1970 has been a lynchpin in the global system. A major review of the NPT is slated for next year, however, and supporters of the new humanitarian-focused talks are hoping the clear global interest expressed at the Norway, Mexico and Austria conferences will help to push the NPT in a new direction.
While the NPT process has allowed for substantive discussion and action around the issue of proliferation, critics have become increasingly frustrated that the nuclear powers have refused to allow the forum to be used to advance disarmament – much less any outright ban on nuclear weapons. While the NPT directs nuclear-armed states to pursue “good faith” negotiations toward disarmament, the number of nuclear-armed countries has risen, with tens of thousands of such weapons in existence today.
The current movement, then, attempts to refocus global attention on the humanitarian, rather than the merely strategic, implications of nuclear weapons.
Still, in its announcement confirming that it would attend the Vienna conference, the State Department made clear that its previous concerns the alternative process have not changed.
“As we have said previously, the [NPT] is the focus of our efforts on disarmament, as well as on nonproliferation and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy,” the statement notes. “However, this conference is not the appropriate venue for disarmament negotiations or pre-negotiation discussions and the United States will not engage in efforts of that kind in Vienna.”
Toward the review
Nonetheless, the decision to send a U.S. delegation to Vienna has received strong initial approval from civil society, which has mounted a strengthening effort in recent weeks to convince the U.S. to attend.
“The U.S. announcement that it will attend the upcoming meeting on the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear war is a welcome breakthrough,” the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s Slater said. “It’s noteworthy that the U.S. is not participating as part of a five-member bloc, as it did when it boycotted the prior meetings.”
Indeed, the U.S. is the first formally acknowledged nuclear power to attend the humanitarian impact conferences. Two other nuclear-armed states, India and Pakistan, did attend the Norway and Mexico events, but both countries’ nuclear programs remain outside of the NPT framework. Other “undeclared” nuclear powers, including Israel and North Korea, have likewise refrained from participating in the conferences.
With the U.S. announcement, focus is now turning to these other countries.
“U.S. participation will provide support to key U.S. allies and partners, including Japan, South Korea, and those in Europe, which will be attending the conference. Along with many of our colleagues, we strongly urge all other nuclear-armed states to join the United States in Vienna,” Daryl G. Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, a Washington watchdog group, said Friday in statement.
“Beginning with the Vienna conference and into 2015 … key states need to make a unified push for further U.S.-Russian arms cuts combined with a global nuclear weapons freeze by the other nuclear armed states, including China, India, and Pakistan. This could create the conditions for multilateral action on disarmament and open the door for a realistic, verifiable process for the elimination of nuclear weapons.”
Recent weeks have already seen a flurry of diplomatic, political and civil society pressure to try to convince the U.S. and other nuclear-armed countries to participate in the Vienna conference.
“We firmly believe that it is in the interests of all States to participate in that Conference, which aims to further broaden and deepen understanding of this matter,” Dell Higgie, the ambassador of New Zealand to the United Nations, said on Oct. 20 on behalf of 155 countries.
“This work is essential, because the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons affect not only governments, but each and every citizen of our interconnected world … For these reasons, we firmly believe that awareness of the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons must underpin all approaches and efforts towards nuclear disarmament.”
A week later, a group of highly respected former nuclear experts and other foreign policy luminaries wrote to the White House, State Department and Pentagon to likewise “strongly urge” U.S. participation at Vienna. Doing so, the letter notes, would strengthen the U.S. hand at next year’s official review of the NPT, a twice-a-decade event.
Others, meanwhile, are hoping the NPT review will allow for a show of strength from the 150-plus states supporting the new humanitarian-focused policy direction. It is notable that this process is taking place outside of the auspices of the NPT and the rest of the formal international nuclear framework. Supporters point to the significant participation at the first two conferences as indication that the new movement has real substance – and, potentially, influence.
“States participating in the upcoming Vienna conference must now move from education to action, and call for an effective political and diplomatic process to ban and eliminate nuclear weapons,” John Loretz, program director for International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, an advocacy group, told MintPress.
Point of no return
The Vienna conference and its predecessors are the result of an initiative started in 2011 by the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. That year, the group undertook a major campaign to remind the global community of the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons – and that there exists no legal ban on the use of these weapons.
In August, the U.N. released a report warning that, in the event of the detonation of a nuclear weapon, whether purposefully or otherwise, the multilateral system would be “unlikely to be able to offer much humanitarian assistance.” In September, the U.N. system marked the first International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.
In a statement last month, the ICRC lauded the “increased attention” that governments are giving to the humanitarian argument. “It is our hope that the 2015 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference will recognize the urgent need for robust action to advance nuclear disarmament,” the group said.
Indeed, at the February summit, the Mexican chair of the event energetically dubbed the conference a “point of no return” for the movement.
“[I]n the past, weapons have been eliminated after they have been outlawed. We believe this is the path to achieve a world without nuclear weapons,” Ambassador Juan Manuel Gomez Robledo stated.
“The broad-based and comprehensive discussions on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons should lead to the commitment of States and civil society to reach new international standards and norms, through a legally binding instrument. It is the view of the Chair that the [Mexico] Conference has shown that [the] time has come to initiate a diplomatic process conducive to this goal.”