Open Ended Working Group

Geneva saw something new this week: actual constructive conversation about nuclear weapons. The United Nations established the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in its current form in 1978, expecting it to be the main forum for disarmament negotiations for a number of different types of weapons, including nuclear weapons. But the rules of the CD–limited membership, any one member can block action–have caused its work on nuclear weapons to stagnate for 20 years. This week was the opening session of the Open Ended Working Group on Disarmament (OEWG), a new body created to allow discussion on nuclear weapons disarmament in a different setting.

The OEWG is chaired by Manuel Dengo, an experienced and wily diplomat from Costa Rica who seems to have figured out how to unlock the frozen debate on nuclear weapons. The sessions have been marked by quite spirited and frank discussions and experienced diplomats shake their heads and whisper in the hallways that they’re hearing new things from their colleagues. The staff of the group even plays soft, jazzy music on the sound system in the meeting hall before sessions–another subtle and effective cue that these are informal, relaxed discussions.

BASIC is represented at the OEWG.  (Photo credit: Ward Wilson)

I’ve been attending this week and was invited to speak on the opening panel. I suspect that Ambassador Dengo deliberately put me up front because he knew that I would say things that would shake up the delegates and, perhaps, energize those delegates who felt that change was needed. I talked about the fact that nuclear weapons advocates had been wildly wrong in their early assessments of nuclear weapons, that nuclear weapons advocates still had some of their facts wrong (bombing Hiroshima didn’t win World War II and Cold War crises are evidence of the weakness of nuclear deterrence, not its reliability), and my belief that this is a new moment in the discussion about nuclear weapons. It is a time of opportunity when the room for maneuver opens up and there are possibilities. You can read the full text here.

Already the new venue has drawn interesting results. It was not clear at the outset whether any of the nuclear weapons states would participate. The P5 (United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France and China) had decided not to attend. But on the first day representatives from both India and Pakistan were present and they got drawn in to the conversation. India has now asked for time to describe for the OEWG the Gandhi proposal for disarmament. It is a coup of sorts to have actual nuclear states participating in a somewhat free-wheeling discussion. Unlike the CD, in the OEWG nuclear states don’t have the power to block any thing that they find uncomfortable. The OEWG looks like it might be a very interesting new development and, possibly, a place where real work might get done.

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