Breaking the Impasse on Nuclear Disarmament: Q&A with Kathleen Lawand

Leadership and political will are two important elements needed for nuclear disarmament, according to Kathleen Lawand, Head of the Arms Unit at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Noting that nuclear weapons are the only weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) not yet prohibited by international law, Ms. Lawand said it was critical for states to move forward on discussions toward disarmament. She stressed that the process must be inclusive.

“Civil society, the Red Cross Movement, expert organizations, and the United Nations, are playing a critical role in pressuring governments to build that political will,” she said. “We’re all working toward the same goal.”

Ms. Lawand spoke to the Independent Commission on Multilateralism’s Jimena Leiva-Roesch on the margins of the ICM’s retreat on weapons of mass destruction, non-proliferation, and disarmament, held in Geneva, Switzerland on February 4-5th.

Seeing the longstanding impasse in the nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation debate in the multilateral system, what do you think civil society and organizations like the ICRC can do in moving the debate forward?

I can begin by saying that already, over the last five years, civil society and, in particular, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, have been playing a very significant role in multilateral debates on nuclear disarmament. Until the Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons that took place in 2010, and the years that preceded that Review Conference, the debates on nuclear disarmament were really focused on narrow military and security concerns of states—of nuclear-armed states, umbrella states, and other states concerned with the continuing existence of nuclear weapons.

What changed, as of the late 2000s, is that more and more groups, including that of the ICRC through our president at the time—this was back in 2009—started voicing our deep concerns about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. And this is a message that very much resonated with more and more states. In particular, states felt, in a sense, that the true issues of nuclear weapons—that is, their effects on people, on societies, on the environments—were not really being debated in discussions on nuclear disarmament.

So we’re very pleased that our message has been taken up. We formalized the message at the level of the entire global Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in 2011, when our movement adopted a historic resolution calling on states—with urgency and determination—to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit the use of, and completely eliminate, nuclear weapons on the basis of their humanitarian consequences.

This was really because of our deep discomfort and knowledge that we would be unable, as a global movement, a humanitarian movement, to respond in any meaningful way to any use of nuclear weapons. The devastation caused by any use of nuclear weapons would not allow us to make a proper response in humanitarian terms. Therefore, the only conclusion is to eliminate these weapons. And, as I said, this message resonated very much with states. This is what has led, as we’ve seen in recent years, to the message increasingly being taken up and states such as Norway, Mexico, and Austria organizing intergovernmental conferences dedicated to having a facts-based, evidence-based discussion on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. So just looking at the facts, and on the basis of those facts, one can only arrive at the conclusion that these weapons must be eliminated as soon as possible.

In December 2015, the UN General Assembly endorsed the so-called Humanitarian Pledge, a platform from which states could launch negotiations on a treaty banning nuclear weapons, the only WMD not yet prohibited, as such, by international law. Many have said the pledge provides governments with an opportunity to move beyond fact-based discussions on the effects of nuclear weapons, to the start of actual treaty negotiations. What do you think is a next step to ensure that the pledge takes hold and is able to deliver on its promise?

I think it’s trite to say that now what’s urgently needed is political will of states to move forward on this call that not just the ICRC and the Red Cross Movement is making, but multiple actors. Multiple groups of states have for years been calling for negotiations of nuclear disarmament.

We believe that civil society, the Red Cross Movement, expert organizations, and the United Nations, are playing a critical role in pressuring governments to build that political will. We would hope this can happen as soon as possible, but this may still take some time. We do have quite some hopes for the Open-ended Working Group that the UN General Assembly has agreed to establish and that will begin meeting at the end of February 2016, to discuss elements that may comprise effective measures toward nuclear disarmament, and what interim measures can be taken to reduce the risks of accidental or intentional use of nuclear weapons.

But what’s critical now is that states move forward on these discussions. I think an important point is that there is today unprecedented awareness of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. This is thanks in part to the intergovernmental conferences on the humanitarian impact; all the work that the ICRC and Red Cross Movement have been doing; our publications on that impact; organizations such as the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research that have published and brought together existing information and updated it; the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War; and others. The evidence is there, so now we have to move on to action.

This is where the Open-ended Working Group can play a very important role in an inclusive, democratic way, to allow all states and also nongovernmental actors, civil society, to participate, exchange, and identify the best ways of moving forward. We highly encourage nuclear-armed states in particular to participate fully in these debates, in good faith, because we’re all working toward the same goal. They have committed to nuclear disarmament and this is an ideal forum now, for them to work toward that goal.

One of the key recommendations in the retreat is that leadership is now very much needed, so that we can actually transform this into concrete actions and plans.

Absolutely, if we look at the lessons learned from the campaign to ban antipersonnel landmines, leadership played a crucial role. It was the courage of individual diplomats who dared to raise issues and spark debates within their own governments, with their own military, in the face of the devastating consequences of landmines on civilians that was being witnessed. It’s that courage that allowed the international community to agree on a ban on antipersonnel mines. And that courage is needed now for nuclear disarmament.