Multilateral disarmament talks began at the United Nations last month (February 2016) on practical measures for building global security without nuclear weapons. Despite claiming to be committed to multilateral disarmament, the UK government was not represented at the negotiations – and nor were any other of the world's nuclear armed states.
Despite the boycott from the nuclear armed states, the talks – taking place under the auspices of the UN's 'Open Ended Working Group' (OEWG) – opened up a refreshing and productive dialogue between non-nuclear nations and those under the 'nuclear umbrellas' of nuclear-weapon states, such as NATO member states, Japan, South Korea and Australia.
The OEWG has been set up as a result of frustrations among the majority of the world's nations, which have pledged not to develop nuclear weapons, with attempts by the nine nuclear-armed states to block moves towards disarmament and their failure to comply with agreed disarmament action plans.
Its role is to address "effective legal measures, legal provisions, and global norms" that could be used to attain and maintain a world free from nuclear weapons, and make recommendations on other measures that could contribute to taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations, including transparency measures, steps to reduce the risks of accidents involving nuclear weapons and the accidental use of nuclear weapons, and addressing the humanitarian consequences that would result from any nuclear detonation.
Many nations and civil society groups which support global nuclear disarmament are hopeful that the Working Group's discussions will end in a recommendation to introduce a new international treaty which would ban nuclear weapons.
The OEWG was set up following a resolution tabled at the UN's First Committee in October 2015, which was adopted at the UN General Assembly meeting in December. The February discussions will be followed by further meetings of the Working Group on May and August and a final report will be submitted in October.
However, many of the countries which rely most on nuclear weapons for their security, particularly the five nuclear weapon states recognised under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (the United Kingdom, United States, China, France and Russia) voted against setting up the Working Group at the General Assembly meeting. Thirty four states closely allied to the five, mostly either members of NATO or under the US nuclear umbrella, abstained during the vote. UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said that the UK would not be participating in the Working Group because "productive results can only be ensured through a consensus-based approach that takes into account the wider global security environment".
Following the February meeting big gaps still remain between the different groups on which nuclear disarmament measures should be pursued. However, further dialogue in the May and August OEWG sessions could help to to bridge the differences and allow agreement on legal measures that need to be be negotiated to achieve a nuclear-weapon-free world.
According to non-proliferation expert Rebecca Johnson, the UK boycott of the Geneva talks "begs fundamental questions" about what the UK is doing to comply with its nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament obligations. "Why should anyone take Britain seriously when this government is wasting billions on an outdated weapon system that most countries are determined to prohibit?", she asks.