The Austrian pledge to ban nuclear weapons

Author(s): Dr Rebecca Johnson
17 December 2014, Open Democracy

Driven by “the imperative of human security for all", Austria pledged at the HINW conference to work to "stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons in light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences and associated risks”.

The Third International Conference on the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons (HINW), closed last week with a compelling “Austrian Pledge” to “identify and pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons”. 

A comprehensive  Chair’s Summary was the anticipated outcome of the Vienna Conference, and few were expecting Austria to go beyond this.  In presenting the Austrian Pledge, Secretary-General of Austria’s Foreign Ministry Dr Michael Linhart explained that the facts and findings of the Vienna Conference – as well as previous HINW conferences held in  Oslo and Nayarit – had showed that more diplomat action was needed.

The Austrian pledge will go down in history. Driven by “the imperative of human security for all and to promote the protection of civilians against risks stemming from nuclear weapons”,  Austria promised to disseminate the evidence and findings from the Vienna Conference and “cooperate with all relevant stakeholders, states, international organisations, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movements, parliamentarians and civil society to stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons in light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences and associated risks”. 

While the Austrian Pledge is widely interpreted as a commitment to take forward a multilateral process to ban nuclear weapons, Dr Linhart also called on “nuclear weapons possessor states” to take “concrete interim measures to reduce the risk of  nuclear weapons detonations, including reducing the operational status of nuclear weapons and moving nuclear weapons away from deployment into storage, diminishing the role of nuclear weapons in military doctrines, and rapid reductions of all types of nuclear weapons.”

The Vienna Chair’s Summary fulfilled its primary role of giving a broadly balanced “birds eye view” of the main findings from the in-depth panels and the major themes drawn from the closing debate, in which over 100 of the 158 governments participated, along with representatives from international NGOs.  With many looking ahead to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference in May 2015, it was important that so many NPT states welcomed how the Vienna, Nayarit and Oslo conferences have reframed the debate and re-energised efforts to fulfill the NPT’s nuclear disarmament (Article VI) obligations.  In one panel, two of the ambassadors most responsible for the successful outcome of the 2010 NPT Review Conference – Libran Cabactulan and Axel Marschik – discussed the adoption and relevance of the paragraph in the disarmament action plan in the final outcome document from the 2010 NPT conference that expressed “deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons  and reaffirms the need for all States at all times to comply with applicable international law, including international humanitarian law.”  

Building on this, at least 45 governments in Vienna explicitly called for further multilateral negotiations to prohibit nuclear weapons, some echoing the  Nayarit Conference Chair’s call for “the commitment of states and civil society to reach new international standards and norms, through a legally binding instrument”.

For the first time in the HINW process two NPT nuclear-armed states – the United States and Britain – attended, as well as India and Pakistan, two nuclear-armed nations that have rejected the NPT.  In addition, though the Chinese government was not formally represented behind a name plate, they sent observers to Vienna to keep them in the loop.  Though these nuclear-armed governments were warmly welcomed, some of their statements were troubling, as they seemed unable to engage with the evidence demonstrating the security dangers and military uselessness of such weapons of mass suffering, choosing instead to underline their desperate reliance on nuclear weaponry for the foreseeable future.

The United States shocked many – including its own allies – by following the powerful testimonies of two survivors of American nuclear testing, Michelle Thomas of Utah, USA and  Abacca Anjain-Maddison of the Marshall Islands, with a tone deaf, standard text that just reiterated US nuclear policies and