The 2016 OEWG Conference Advocates for Prohibition Treaty

This analysis is based on the fourth draft of the OEWG report, found here.

The 2016 open-ended working group (OEWG) on nuclear weapons concluded on 19 August after three rounds of talks. A subsidiary group of the United Nations, this OEWG enabled state participants to explore and make recommendations to the UN First Committee on specifically legal or other measures promoting nuclear disarmament, issues of transparency, risks involving accidental or technical detonation or malfunction of weapons systems, and other specific issues like public awareness and environmental impact. Though they were invited to attend, no nuclear weapons states (NWS) participated in the conference. The final report explicitly stated that participation of NWS is critical as effective disarmament requires absolute consent from all parties.

Whilst the OEWG was in or between sessions, the British Parliament voted (in July) to renew its Trident nuclear submarine system, citing threats stemming from Russian aggression and North Korea. The DPRK has conducted several ballistic missile tests aimed at Japan and the mainland United States. A month out from the final OEWG session rumours from Washington indicated President Obama’s intention to refer a nuclear test ban treaty to the UN Security Council and to consider a no first use declaration. (There was also a media obsession with Republican candidate Donald Trump’s qualifications for handling the “nuclear codes”).


From the outset participating states and organisations highlighted the frustration with the pace of progress on disarmament, citing inefficiency in the “disarmament machinery” of the UN as a major reason for the OEWG, as well as previous negotiation failures. Participants also pointed out that the nuclear states, under article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) are obliged in “good faith” to take part in negotiations like that of the OEWG and their failure to do so hurts not only the credibility of the NPT but also confidence in the future of the nuclear disarmament agenda.

Most participating states supported the idea of a legally-binding treaty or mandate to prohibit nuclear weapons as a an “interim” step leading to their eventual elimination. Such a treaty might legally enforce the NPT articles prohibiting the acquisition, transfer or assistance to other states seeking nuclear weapons programmes. Many agreed that this treaty would both strengthen the nonproliferation regime and place greater emphasis on the “progressive stigmatization” of nuclear weapons. The enforcement of the nuclear taboo through direct legal means is not necessarily a new idea – it was in fact central to the effectiveness of the NPT – but the continued interest in the idea suggests a greater faith in the power of stigmatisation on states either seeking programmes or those already in possession of them.

Either alongside or alternative to such a treaty, some interest was expressed in establishing a nuclear weapons convention. Meant for both nuclear and non-nuclear states, the purpose of this convention would be to organise – without immediate obligation – a timetable for meetings and practical steps to be taken for disarmament. This led to a call for a more general disarmament framework or chapeau agreement to either produce “mutually reinforcing instruments” or  subsidiary protocols to create a long-term plan for a nuclear weapons-free world.

Several alternative courses of action were offered but most boiled down to the “hybrid” or “progressive” approaches. The hybrid approach called for the rapid agreement of a prohibition treaty governing the legal measures for disarmament alongside the enforcement of various protocols to further this goal, including state assurances of commitment to disarmament and full participation in the international verification and inspection of national arsenals.

The progressive approach instead emphasised elements of the existing regime with specific reference to the NPT, as an alternative to a prohibition treaty. It focused on working with existing treaties or practical measures states could develop over time. This included the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a ban treaty on the production (and potentially stockpiling) of fissile material, a further bilateral treaty between Russia and the United States, multilateral disarmament negotiations, as well as the reinforcement of existing institutions like nuclear weapons-free zones and the IAEA.

Many elements of the human security agenda found their way into this framework as well. Explicit reference was made to looking beyond national interests toward a more collective view of security but also the effects on peripheral, developing or non-nuclear states as sites of nuclear testing or attack. Among the list of recognised humanitarian consequences the document took note of the “unique impact” of nuclear weapons on women and girls.

Final recommendations

The resolution recommended the UN General Assembly (First Committee) call for a conference in 2017 – open to all states, organisations and members of civil society – to negotiate a nuclear prohibition treaty. The final document noted that some states disagreed with this legal approach which so strongly focused on a ban when this remained a controversial topic, and proposed negotiations that explicitly address national, regional and global security concerns while simultaneously pursuing disarmament through legal means. Transparency measures for nuclear states regarding the security, alert level, and status of their stockpiles, actions to increase public awareness of the nuclear issue, and measures to decrease the risk of accidental detonation or technical malfunction attracted widespread support.

Despite differences among participants on which approach would be the most practical, the majority of participants agreed that the conference was heavily influenced by the humanitarian agenda. From the outset much of the support for a prohibition treaty stemmed from concern regarding the effects of nuclear explosions on both civilians and the environment. It is for this reason that the group encouraged among its public education measure the appointment of nuclear attack survivors to ambassador-like roles for the non-proliferation regime. Their active presence in the public, many members agreed, would serve as a reminder of the consequences of nuclear weapons.


The principal norm shift surrounding this year’s OEWG seemed to be away from efforts to gently persuade states to reduce the roles of nuclear weapons in their national security strategies towards efforts that increase the stigmatisation of nuclear weapons. This relies heavily upon the taboo on the detonation or explicit threat to use nuclear weapons, and the idea that this can be extended to include their possession. Many think that in a world of few options, this is perhaps the most feasible action for the non-nuclear weapons states to take, and their combined pressure to encourage nuclear weapons states to provide assurances, participate in talks, and negotiate treaties could be more effective in the immediate future than an indefinite, vague hope that progress may be achieved against the evidence.

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