UN nuclear talks: imbalances and underrepresentation in discussion
By Elizabeth Minor
In October 2015, states voted at the UN General Assembly to hold talks in 2016 on the legal measures and norms that will need to be concluded to attain and maintain a world without nuclear weapons. The discussions at this open-ended working group (OEWG) on nuclear disarmament, the second session of which is taking place at the UN this week, are in principle open to the contribution of every country. However, the profile of those that have spoken to the OEWG so far, since it started its work in February, suggests that some perspectives may be overrepresented, and some underrepresented, at this forum.
Over the course of the February session of the OEWG and the first day of May’s discussions, 43% of the states that are part of a nuclear alliance or assert protection from others’ nuclear weapons (including those that host nuclear weapons on their territories) have spoken. By contrast, only 20% of the states that have endorsed the Humanitarian Pledge spoke. Nuclear alliance states have made 29% of all individual country statements so far, with 59% of statements coming from countries endorsing the Pledge. However, only 14% of states depend on others’ nuclear weapons in their security doctrines, and 64% have endorsed the Pledge.
These figures suggest that the positions and interests of states that are reliant on nuclear weapons may be being heard at the OEWG out of proportion to their numbers. Countries that have joined the Humanitarian Pledge have committed to fill the legal gap with respect to the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons, and to take steps to stigmatise, prohibit, and eliminate these weapons in light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences. OEWG speaking patterns so far suggest that these countries (and others that support the Pledge’s goals) should speak up more during the May session. This is important for states to do towards fulfilling their Pledge, and in order for the discussion to adequately reflect the proportion of governments sharing this view. Speaking patterns will have some significance to how the report of the OEWG to the UN General Assembly will represent the forum’s work and recommendations.
Lower-income countries are significantly underrepresented at multilateral disarmament forums, including most nuclear disarmament discussions. (Participation has been far more equal at the meetings of the Humanitarian Initiative on nuclear weapons). See here for recent research by Article 36 around this issue. This general pattern of underrepresentation is observed in statements to the OEWG, where 31% of high-income countries have spoken, 25% of upper middle-income countries, 21% of lower middle-income countries, and 9% of low-income countries so far (country categories are based on OECD-DAC lists). A high proportion of low and middle-income countries are members of nuclear weapon free zones and have endorsed the Humanitarian Pledge, and a large proportion of high-income countries are members of a nuclear alliance.
States with smaller missions in Geneva—or no mission at all, of which there are several—were far less likely to attend February’s session (see analysis from the International Law and Policy Institute on this). Lower-income countries are more likely to be part of group statements (such as by regions or alliances) at disarmament forums. This may often be a measure taken by these countries to participate to a greater degree in meetings at which they may not have the capacity to make an individual statement or even to attend. In the context of low-income country underrepresentation, it perhaps should be considered how such statements should be taken into account, and what measures can be taken to increase representation. A sponsorship programme is being run for the OEWG, as was acknowledged on Monday. This is a positive measure and likely to have an impact on attendance and participation. The nuclear-armed states have absented themselves by choice from the OEWG’s discussions. The more complex barriers to participation presented to other states, however, pose a different set of challenges.
This article was first published in Reaching Critical Will’s OEWG Report.
Coverage of the Open Ended Working Group from Reaching Critical Will
Article 36’s project on patterns of marginalisation at multilateral disarmament forums