20 June 2017
Conference on Nuclear Weapons, 17th & 18th Meetings (AM & PM)

Focus on State Obligations to Assist Explosion Victims, as Conference Continues Negotiations on Legally Binding Instrument Banning Nuclear Weapons

The obligations of States parties to assist victims of nuclear weapons use or testing took centre stage today, with participants divided over whether to impose that primary burden on the nuclear weapons-possessor responsible, as the Conference working to codify a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons continued negotiations.

Conference President Elayne Whyte Gómez (Costa Rica) presented the section of the draft convention (document A/CONF.229/2017/CRP.1) intended to lay out the “positive obligations” of States parties relating to assistance for victims and environmental remediation.  She pointed out that its current language was based on a number of similar disarmament treaties.  Such instruments — which reflected a relatively contemporary perspective — included the 1997 Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction, and the United Nations Convention on Cluster Munitions.

Many speakers welcomed the inclusion of a requirement that States parties to the proposed convention provide assistance as well as environmental remediation to victims, noting that it reflected the international community’s collective humanitarian and environmental concerns.  However, opinions diverged on the right of States struggling with the consequences of nuclear detonations to request and receive assistance from other countries, especially those nuclear-weapon-States bearing actual responsibility for the destructive detonations.

Egypt’s representative was among the delegates expressing concern that the text, in its current form, did not go far enough in laying out the specific obligations of those liable for the use or testing of nuclear weapons.  In that regard, Egypt called for a structural amendment by which greater responsibility for providing medical care, psychological counselling and victim rehabilitation would be borne by the nuclear-weapon State responsible for the detonation.

Ecuador’s representative emphasised:  “There is international liability in these situations,” while pointing out that the Asia-Pacific region had not been responsible for the use of nuclear bombs in 1945, nor had Algeria perpetrated the nuclear tests carried out on its territory in 1960.  The proposed convention must be clear about where ultimate responsibility for such activities lay, he said, stressing the need to protect the rights of States that had suffered the consequences of nuclear detonations.

Chile’s representative struck a different tone, pointing out that the draft convention’s future universal ratification could only come about through political will — including on the part of the nuclear-weapon States absent from the Conference.  Participants should therefore take a “careful and thoughtful” political approach in drafting the section on positive obligations in order to avoid discouraging those States from acceding to the instrument.  “We should find a balanced position that will not create significant impediments for States who we hope will join this Treaty.”

Indonesia’s representative, among a number of other speakers, echoed the need to do more to reach out to the “unconverted”.

The representative of the Marshall Islands recalled that nuclear testing had ravaged some areas of the Pacific, a legacy that made it critical that the draft instrument provide adequate assistance, including psychological support, to the victims of those tests.  It was ineffective to shift the entire burden to States that had not carried out tests, he stressed.

The representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) noted that the plight of victims had been instrumental in shaping today’s negotiations.  “Our efforts would fall short if this treaty does not do its utmost to provide assistance to those who have suffered.”  Recalling that the ICRC had submitted a proposal calling for the section on positive obligations to reflect a “needs-based approach”, in line with international humanitarian law, she said it included recommendations to strengthen the issue of assistance to victims and move it to another section of the document.

Following that discussion, participants considered, as a single bloc, the draft convention’s sections on national implementation, international cooperation, meetings of States parties and costs.

Ireland’s representative said national implementation lay at the heart of every international treaty, adding that her delegation favoured a simple, strong and implementable text, emphasizing:  “We want an instrument that will make a real difference on the ground.”  He urged participants to ensure that the text’s provisions avoided causing “unreasonable practical or legal difficulties”, including loopholes that might allow States parties to circumvent their obligations.

Viet Nam’s representative, speaking for the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), said the text should include a firm recognition that States parties bore primary responsibility for national implementation activities.  It should also establish an assistance framework by which States would help others to carry out those activities, including in the areas of disarmament education, raising awareness, assisting victims and environmental remediation.

Others speaking today were representatives of Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, New Zealand, Uganda, Brazil, Chile, Sweden, Nigeria, Cuba, Philippines, Iran, Malaysia, Mexico, Guatemala, Argentina, Ghana, Netherlands, Singapore, Colombia, Thailand, Kazakhstan and South Africa.

Also participating were an observer for the Holy See as well as representatives of the following: International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, Mine Action Canada, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, Amplify Youth Network, Soka Gakkai International, Harvard Law School, Princeton University, Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament and the Autonomous University of Baja California.

For information media. Not an official record.