Brethren letter urges US to take part in talks about nuclear disarmament

The Church of the Brethren’s interim general secretary Dale Minnich has sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry urging the United States to participate in international talks about nuclear disarmament.

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In related news, former general secretary of the Church of the Brethren Stan Noffsinger has been in Geneva, Switzerland, as a representative of the World Council of Churches (WCC) at the UN Open-Ended Working Group on Nuclear Disarmament. Noffsinger is continuing as a Church of the Brethren member on the WCC Central Committee, elected by the WCC Assembly. See the story below or the WCC release at .

Letter on nuclear disarmament

The letter concerned the May 2-13 meeting of the Open-Ended Working Group on taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations. The Church of the Brethren is sending the letter as part of the WCC, which has been holding meetings in Geneva related to the Open-Ended Working Group, and as a member of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

The letter urges, among other actions, that the US establish a new precedent by taking an active part in this main session of the Working Group, engage with other countries in good-faith negotiations, and focus on the “concrete effective legal measures that will need to be concluded to attain and maintain a world without nuclear weapons” in two core areas: the legal provisions necessary for an explicit, comprehensive, and binding prohibition of nuclear weapons; and prohibitions against assistance or inducements to carry out the prohibited actions.

The full text of the letter follows:

20 April 2016

The Honorable Mr. John Kerry
Secretary of State
Department of State
Washington, DC 20001

Dear Mr. Secretary:

Greetings from the Office of the General Secretary of the Church of the Brethren.  We are writing in regard to the 2-13 May 2016 meeting of the Open-Ended Working Group on taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations. 

This letter assesses the OEWG’s task in terms of the obligation to negotiate in good faith.  It considers results and remedies for advancing cooperative security.  On that basis we would request that the United States of America:

A. Establish a new precedent by taking an active part in this main session of the Working Group.

B. Engage with other states in good-faith negotiations in order to build on the findings of the humanitarian initiative and translate its positive momentum into substantive progress.

C. Focus on the “concrete effective legal measures that will need to be concluded to attain and maintain a world without nuclear weapons” in two core areas:
a. The legal provisions necessary for an explicit, comprehensive and binding prohibition of nuclear weapons.  Judging from other similar legal instruments, these will include a ban that applies to development, production, possession, acquisition, deployment, stockpiling, retention and transfer.

b. Prohibitions against assistance or inducements to carry out the prohibited actions.  The scope should include participating in or financing nuclear weapons programs; claiming or accepting protection from nuclear weapons; the stationing of nuclear weapons on the territory of a non-nuclear-weapon state; hosting another state’s nuclear weapons; participation in preparations for use; assisting with nuclear targeting; supplying nuclear-capable delivery vehicles; supplying fissionable material without comprehensive safeguards; and stockpiling weapons-grade fissile material.

This Working Group’s first session was constructive and well-led.  All states have been encouraged to participate.  It is an important opportunity for the international community.  However, we share in the widespread disappointment over the results of recent disarmament diplomacy.  We therefore look to our government to help to reverse what has become a pattern of chronic failure.  Here are three parameters for such progress. 

Exercise basic obligations. All states, not only nuclear-weapon states, are under general and specific obligations to negotiate nuclear disarmament in good faith.  The UN Charter, various General Assembly resolutions and Article VI of the NPT oblige all governments to do so.  The 1996 decision of the International Court of Justice affirms the task as a double obligation – an obligation to negotiate and an obligation to bring to conclusion.  We expect our government to exercise this obligation at the OEWG.

Assess results. Numerous examples in the field of nuclear disarmament indicate that good-faith negotiations have become rather scarce. Certain processes consist of repetitious speeches instead of genuine debate; some are stalled indefinitely; others have never started.  Conclusive negotiations are rare; unilateral decisions are common.  Even when there are agreements, results are often meagre compared to rhetoric.  Examples include: outcomes from the Conference on Disarmament and the Disarmament Commission; proposals for a Fissile Materials Treaty, a Fissile Materials Cut-off Treaty, Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space, a Middle East Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone, comprehensive Negative Security Assurances and de-alerting agreements; entry-into-force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; and commitments from NPT Review Conferences, especially those related to disarmament.  We expect our government to endeavor to help break this pattern at the OEWG.

Good-faith remedies.  One critical practice is to negotiate in good faith.  Characteristics of this approach include:

-- Good faith is recognized and exercised as a fundamental working principle of international law, one without which international law may collapse.  Current chronic failures in nuclear disarmament may be understood as a collapse of law in this field.

-- Good faith generates legitimate expectations.  Regrettably, nuclear-armed states have chosen not to participate in the Working Group (or in much of the humanitarian initiative).  Perhaps this suggests an aversion to dealing with the legitimate expectations of other states? If so, it would indicate a serious breach of good faith.

-- Good faith supports negotiation through to a successful conclusion, sustains awareness of the interests of other parties and perseveres until constructive compromise is reached. 

-- The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties implies that good faith is a general obligation of cooperation among all states which are party to a treaty. 

The obligation to negotiate in good faith is an obligation to adopt a certain behavior in order to achieve a certain result. The legally binding bargain at the heart of the NPT shows this clearly. The NPT obligation to negotiate nuclear disarmament in good faith is the “necessary counterpart to the commitment by the non-nuclear-weapon states not to manufacture or acquire nuclear weapons”.  The obligation requires:

-- The behavior of negotiating in good faith. Such behavior is a legitimate expectation of the non-nuclear majority of NPT signatories in return for their fulfillment of the reciprocal obligation not to acquire nuclear weapons.

-- Good-faith negotiations which achieve a certain result.  In the case of the NPT, the result is “effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament”.

Shared outcomes.  Collective efforts undertaken since the NPT Review Conference in 2010 have generated outcomes which enjoy the support of growing majorities of states and civil society organizations.  The broad support is due in part to the fact that these outcomes have exercised the obligation of states to negotiate in good faith. What is more, the outcomes have rekindled the majority will to do what only a majority can do—to make new law and close the existing legal gap around nuclear weapons.  Various interventions and Working Papers propose new legal measures for consideration by the Working Group. 

The OEWG itself faces a good-faith test on two levels: First, are the negotiations open to all and block-able by none?  Early indications are positive on this count.  Second, will the outcomes help to fulfill universal humanitarian obligations which nuclear weapon put at risk?

Thank you for your attention. We would appreciate hearing your response to these concerns and having the opportunity to discuss our government’s contributions to the OEWG. The Office of Public Witness for the Church of the Brethren located in Washington, D.C. would be more than willing to further engage in this conversation or questions you might have regarding this request. 

We are making these requests as part of the World Council of Churches, an association of churches from all regions which is committed to achieving a nuclear-weapon-free world, and as members of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.  

With best wishes for substantive progress at the Working Group,

Sincerely yours,
Dale E. Minnich
Interim General Secretary
Church of the Brethren

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