External Affairs

India Undecided About Joining UN Conference on Nuclear Ban, Despite Abstaining From Vote on Setting It Up

India said it is not convinced the proposed conference in 2017 can address the global community's expectation for a comprehensive instrument on disarmament.

New Delhi: India may have abstained from voting on the resolution adopted by the UN First Committee (the UN General Assembly, or UNGA, panel on disarmament), which calls for a conference to be held next year to negotiate a legally-binding convention to ban nuclear weapons, but it has not completely ruled out joining the new forum.

On October 27, the UN First Committee approved draft resolution L.41 with 123 votes in favour. There were, however, substantial naysayers from 38 countries, including the US, the UK, Russia and France. Meanwhile, India was among the 16 countries who abstained.

In an explanation of the vote delivered on Friday, India’s permanent representative to the UN conference on disarmament, D. Bala Venkatesh Varma, said that with disarmament being on the agenda of the Conference on Disarmament (CD), New Delhi was not persuaded that the negotiations would amount to much. The CD is the world’s only permanent multilateral body that was set up to negotiate arms control and a disarmament pact.

“We are not convinced that the proposed Conference in 2017 convened under UNGA rules of procedure can address the longstanding expectation of the international community for a comprehensive instrument on nuclear disarmament,” Varma said.

Draft resolution L.41 calls for a UN conference to negotiate a “legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination”. The dates are for five days in March and then three weeks in the summer from June 15 to July 7.

“Disarmament is a Charter responsibility of the UNGA. In exercise of this responsibility the First Special Session on Disarmament of the UNGA established the disarmament machinery with the CD as the single multilateral disarmament negotiation forum. Nuclear disarmament continues to be on the CD’s agenda,” the Indian representative said.

Varma also pointed out that India didn’t participate in the Open Ended Working Group (OEWG), which met in 2016, and therefore, “reserves its position on its Report and the recommendations therein”. The draft resolution was based on the discussions of the OEWG.

India last participated in the OEWG in 2013, but has since kept away based on the reasoning that the CD was the right platform to work towards nuclear disarmament.

In its explanation, India also said that it shared the “widely felt frustration” of the co-sponsors of the resolution that there has been no visible steps taken towards ending nuclear weapons.

To bolster its claim of being a supporter of disarmament, India pointed out that it had also introduced resolutions on legal steps to prohibit use, and reduce salience, of nuclear weapons.

India had co-sponsored three resolutions, all of which were adopted. Among these was a resolution for the UNGA to request the CD to commence negotiations for an international convention prohibiting the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons under any circumstances.

While India abstained from voting on the resolution on disarmament, official sources told The Wire that participation in the 2017 conference has not been ruled out and a decision is yet to be taken.

In fact, India was careful to keep the channels of communication open with the supporters of the resolution, with a line of praise towards the end of the explanation.

“We would wish to place on record our appreciation for the effort made by some of the cosponsors to reach out to India. Continued dialogue and consultation is necessary to bridge the current divides on nuclear disarmament which remain deep and substantive,” said Varma.

A senior Indian government official pointed out that India wanted to convey that it sympathised with the basic principle. “It is the tactical approach on which we differ. India is ready to start negotiations on nuclear disarmament tomorrow in the CD,” he said.

How countries voted

When draft resolution L.41 was passed on Thursday, there was cheers and applause in the packed meeting room, especially from civil society members.

However, officials pointed out that the numbers in favour were lower than expected, due to fierce lobbying by the US.

Among the P-5, there was a surprise with China abstaining rather than following others in voting against the resolution. Unpredictably, North Korea was the only nuclear weapon state to vote in favour of the resolution. Israel voted against, while Pakistan abstained.

Among the other South Asia countries, Nepal, Bhutan, the Maldives, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka were all in favour of the resolution, while Afghanistan did not cast its vote.

Despite a strong push by European civil society, all NATO members voted against the proposal. Only the Netherlands abstained, despite a call from the Dutch lower house of parliament to vote in favour of the resolution.

In their explanations tabled at the First Committee, the primacy of the CD and the need for consensus was mentioned by several countries but they still cast their votes differently.

South Korea, which is under the US’s nuclear umbrella, voted against the resolution stating that “jump-starting discussions on a new treaty” would not address existing challenges.

The Pakistani representative also argued that abstention was the only choice since progress could only be achieved “through a consensus-based process that would ensure undiminished or increased security for all States”

However, Iran made the same argument that negotiations had to be carried through the CD, but still voted in favour of L.41.

Japan, the only country to have suffered a nuclear bombing, voted against resolution stating that it was concerned that the “fragmentation of the disarmament community would undermine effective disarmament”.

Despite fears that the 2017 conference will not be effective without the participation of nuclear weapon countries, civil society groups were euphoric about the passage of the resolution. “This treaty won’t eliminate nuclear weapons overnight. But it will establish a powerful new international legal standard, stigmatizing nuclear weapons and compelling nations to take urgent action on disarmament,” said Beatrice Fihn, the executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.