UN General Assembly to vote on nuclear ban negotiations

A majority of countries have voted to endorse a report to the UN General Assembly (UNGA) that recommends beginning negotiations on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. The report is the culmination of a series of meetings held by the open-ended working group on nuclear disarmament (OEWG), which was established by a UN resolution last autumn. The recommendation and the level of support for a treaty mean that negotiations for a ban are almost certain to begin next year.

After lengthy discussions on a consensus text it was expected that the report would be unanimously approved by all states present, but Australia called for the vote in a surprise move. This was the culmination of a series of manoeuvres by allies of the US to attempt to dilute the report recommendations and obscure the true extent of support for negotiations. Although none of the nuclear-armed states sent representatives to the OEWG process, nuclear umbrella states (states whose security doctrines include reliance on the protection of an ally with nuclear weapons) proposed a so-called 'progressive approach' as an alternative to a legally binding treaty: a series of steps that are intended to pave the way for eventual disarmament by the nuclear-armed states on their own terms.

From the early stages of the OEWG process it has been clear that a majority of states supported negotiations on a ban treaty. In May 127 states submitted a statement calling for them to begin as a matter of urgency, and while not all these states were able to send representatives to the OEWG, there was also majority support from those in attendance. Despite this, proponents of the 'progressive approach' strove to prevent the report text from explicitly calling for negotiations. The August meetings of the OEWG focussed on the report text and many of the detailed discussions were held in closed session, with NGOs barred from observing the proceedings and no public record being kept of what was said.

The compromise text which emerged from the closed sessions acknowledged that a majority of countries supported negotiations but did not explicitly recommend them to the General Assembly. From the statements made in the initial plenary, many states were not happy with this compromise wording but had accepted it in order to get consensus on the draft. When Australia read out a statement on behalf of 14 nuclear umbrella states criticising the draft the expectation was that they would still be willing to endorse the compromise text, despite their objections. Technically Australia forced a vote on the text as an individual state, but as all 14 states voted against the final text and none of them offered a statement after the voting it seems likely that Australia's action was planned and coordinated within the group of 14.

As the vast majority of states in the OEWG process were willing to endorse the draft, there was never any chance of the vote preventing the report from being adopted. However, when it became  clear that there would be no consensus, there were immediate calls for changes to the text so that it included a recommendation of negotiations, as supported by the majority. While these changes were adopted, several nuclear umbrella and neutral European states who had supported the compromise text were not willing to vote in favour of the amended version. The final tally of votes was 68 in favour, 22 against and 13 abstentions.

It seems likely that this was the intended outcome of Australia's actions: having participated in discussions in order to dilute the text as much as possible, they hoped to provoke changes which would further fracture the consensus, enabling them to paint the final report as controversial. A recent statement by the US State Department, which rejected the OEWG as “polarizing” and suggested it could damage disarmament efforts, certainly suggests a desire to characterise the initiative in this way.

The move by Australia may have fulfilled their objectives in the short term, but is likely to be counter productive in the long run. A former Australian Ambassador to the UN described his country as acting as a US surrogate in the OEWG, and no doubt many countries will have taken a similar view. It seems likely that this will harden the resolve of those states which support a ban.

Although the nuclear-armed states seem likely to use the lack of consensus to try and discredit future negotiations, in retrospect the failure of the nuclear umbrella states to strike a common position is likely to be the most significant development of the OEWG. Of the “progressive” states, 19 voted against the report, but only 14 supported the statement made by Australia before the vote was forced (Albania, Australia, Belgium, Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, South Korea and Turkey). Significantly, five of the “progressive” states abstained on the vote for the report (Finland, Japan, Netherlands, Norway and Portugal).

While the breaking of consensus meant that no nuclear umbrella states voted for the report, a statement by the Netherlands and Norway stated that they deeply regretted the lack of consensus, that they wanted the OEWG to send a strong signal to states which did not participate in the process and wanted to remind states that they were all obliged to work towards the goal of nuclear disarmament in good faith. The statement was couched in diplomatic language, but the obvious implication of this last remark is that they considered that the move to break consensus was not undertaken in good faith.

No umbrella states have publicly stated that they will participate in negotiations, but many of them will face significant internal pressure to engage with the process, and some may feel it is better to try and shape the outcome. While the treaty will only be binding on signatory states it is likely to include a staged process for nuclear-armed states and nuclear umbrella states to manage the transistion from their current position to implementation of all the provisions of a ban. It is hard to believe that any umbrella state with a genuine interest in disarmament would wish to boycott discussions about how that process should operate.
Whatever the final outcome of negotiations and the position of their allies, states who continue to possess nuclear weapons are likely to find that the future diplomatic climate is much more hostile to their unwillingness to face up to their disarmament obligations. Quite apart from the impending ban, it is difficult to see how the US can justify avoiding measures suggested in the progressive approach that their allies have spent much of the past year advocating in the OEWG. These include bringing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty into force (which the US has still not ratified, nearly two decades after it was signed), beginning talks on a successor treaty to new-START, and beginning talks on a treaty banning production of new fissile material for weapons.

The OEWG reportlists numerous practical measures that nuclear weapons states are encouraged to take under the “progressive” approach and NIS will publish analysis in the coming months of the extent of the UK’s compliance with the measures promoted by its NATO allies and the effect of full complience on the UK’s nuclear programme.

Now that the report has been adopted by the OEWG it is due to considered by the UNGA in the Autumn. Technically any state can table a resolution on any subject, but the usual custom is that a state which has initiated resolutions on a topic will submit them in subsequent years. In this case this would mean Mexico would submit a resolution establishing negotiations for a treaty as envisaged in the report, though the content of any resolution will be the subject to intense negotiations between potential supporters before it is proposed.

All security and disarmament resolutions are voted on by states in the First Committte of the UNGA, which meets from 3rd October to 2nd November. Successful resolutions are then voted on by the UNGA. Given the level of support for negotiations to begin the most likely outcome is that a resoloution that establishes them will be successful and a date will be set for them to begin in 2017.

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