Roundtable discussion in Bangkok

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On 26–27 March 2015, the WMD project of International Law and Policy Institute (ILPI) organised its ninth regional roundtable meeting on nuclear weapons in Bangkok, Thailand

By Torbjørn Graff Hugo & Magnus Løvold
19 May 2015

The meeting was organized in collaboration with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Thailand (TMFA) and brought together more than 30 participants mainly from the Asia-Pacific region, including government officials (from 13 different states), academics and civil society actors. The main objective was to share thoughts and ideas on how the humanitarian initiative on nuclear weapons can be taken forward, and specifically on how to close the ‘legal gap’ identified at the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons.

Summary of the discussions
The meeting started with an introductory session aimed at providing a basic level of knowledge about nuclear weapons to all the participants. The rest of the discussion was divided into four thematic sessions.

The introductory session featured contributions from a number of the participants, based on a PowerPoint presentation on basic facts about nuclear weapons. UNIDIR and several members of the TMFA contingent provided the factual presentations. The number of questions from the floor was limited, but the participants nevertheless seemed to appreciate the opportunity to brush up on their knowledge of the issue.

The deliberations during session 1 started with a collective reflection on the developments within the humanitarian impacts initiative in the field of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. Many participants highlighted that this initiative represented the most significant and promising initiative and this field at the moment, and that the evidence emerging on the humanitarian and environmental consequences of nuclear weapons has served to demonstrate a core rationale for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation—as well as to stress the importance of breaking the deadlock in multilateral disarmament forums. It was also pointed out that these conferences have changed the terms of the international nuclear weapons debate and shifted the focus away from a “narrow” debate about the utility and acceptability of nuclear deterrence to a debate focused on the effects that these weapons have on people, society and the environment. Participants also said that this approach has enabled states, international organizations and NGOs to engage new actors and create new arenas for discussions about nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.

Several participants saw the Pledge delivered by Austria at the end of the Vienna Conference as a useful tool for generating progress on nuclear weapons. Others indicated that the pledge did not go far enough in terms of paving the way for a political process to address the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons—that it should have been even more ambitious. The idea of a ban treaty was also discussed in some depth, and questions were raised on a number of issues, including on what the added value of a ban treaty was if the nuclear-armed states did not participate.

The second session turned the focus to the 2015 NPT Review Conference. For a number of reasons, not least the slow pace of implementation of the action plan from 2010, expectations among the participants in terms of what the NPT could deliver on disarmament was not very high. One participant warned that the 2015 Review Conference could be marked by a ‘crisis of implementation’, and several participants expressed the view that it seemed difficult, if not impossible, to convince the nuclear-weapon states (NWS) to undertake any real disarmament obligations within the NPT framework.

Most participants saw value in bringing the evidence on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons into the 2015 Review Conference. It was suggested that the humanitarian impacts initiative could serve as a ‘pressure valve’ for the 2015 Review Conference by directing the attention of states and other stakeholders away from the deadlocked nuclear disarmament forums and towards the more constructive and forward-looking outcomes of the humanitarian impacts conferences. Few participants seemed concerned that the humanitarian impacts initiative would be blamed if the review conference failed to agree on an outcome document.

The third session aimed to identify concrete measures to fill the legal gap in the field of nuclear weapons, as identified in the Austrian Pledge and in the New Agenda Coalition’s Working Paper submitted to the 2014 NPT Preparatory Committee. Recognising that the nuclear-armed states have yet to endorse this agenda, some argued that it would be a mistake to give those states the opportunity to block progress on this issue. Several participants stressed the need to build upon the momentum created by the humanitarian initiative, and start negotiating a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons, even if the nuclear-armed states refused to participate. There was seen to be a need for stronger measures to increase pressure on the nuclear-armed states in order to move the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament agenda forward. Other participants highlighted the importance of continued engagement with the nuclear-armed states, and pointed out that the participation from the United States and the United Kingdom at the Vienna Conference was a positive development in this respect.

The session also examined the legality of nuclear weapons under international law with a particular focus on the 1996 International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion. In this respect, one participant pointed out that international law is not static and should be constantly developed to reflect societal notions on acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.

The fourth and final session featured a more focused discussion on concrete measures that states in the region could take to further the humanitarian impacts initiative and move the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation agenda forward. Several participants pointed out that all states in the region could and should associate themselves with the Austrian Pledge, and many government officials indicated that their governments had already done this or was in the process of doing so. Some participants argued that states in Southeast Asia should work to develop a joint position on this issue, and pointed out that leadership by regional and sub-regional groups in other disarmament processes had been essential for the success of these processes. Participants identified several avenues where a joint Southeast Asian position could be discussed, including at the ASEAN summit on 24 – 28 April, at the Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zones meeting in New York in late April, and at the 2015 NPT Review Conference.

Click here for the full report from the roundtable meting.


Relevant Regional Pages

Southeast Asia
Central Asia
South Pacific

Relevant ILPI Publications

Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons
Summarizing the presentations made at the Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, this report presents some of the consequences that can be expected from any use of nuclear weapons, and explains in brief terms why the international community would struggle to provide adequate, timely and appropriate assistance to those affected by any such disaster.

Humanitarian Initiative at a Glance
A global discussion about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons has intensified in recent years. This brief overview presents excerpts from key documents and statements in this discussion, and combines this with information drawn from the statistical report Counting to Zero about the role that different States have played in support of this initiative.

An Introduction to the issue of Nuclear Weapons in Southeast Asia
This article provides an overview of the issue of nuclear weapons in Southeast Asia, with particular emphasis on the establishment of the Southeast Asia nuclear-weapon-free zone (SEANWFZ). The paper also considers the role of Southeast Asian states in the humanitarian discourse on nuclear disarmament and in international efforts to prohibit and eliminate all nuclear weapons.

Relevant legal documents

The Treaty of Bangkok
The Southeast Asia Nuclear-weapon-free zone treaty or the Bangkok treaty was signed on 15 December 1995. The treaty came into force on 28 March 1997 and has been ratified by all ten signatory states.

Treaty of Semipalatinsk
The Central Asian Nuclear-weapon-free zone treaty or the treaty of Semipalatinsk was signed by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan on 8 September 2006. The treaty was ratified by all signatory states and came into force on 21 March 2009.

The Treaty of Rarotonga
The South Pacific Nuclear-weapon-free zone treaty was opened for signature on August 6 1985. The treaty entered into force on 11 December 1986 and has been ratified by all 13 signatory states.