Vienna Plan: A Progressive Path for Nuclear Disarmament
All states serious about getting rid of weapons of mass destruction should join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and take part in its framework of collective action to make it happen.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), the newest disarmament treaty on the block, is already making waves at its first Meeting of States Parties. Adopted in 2017, the TPNW entered into force in 2021 and has thus far attracted sixty-five state parties and eighty-six signatories. Beyond being the first international treaty banning nuclear weapons, the TPNW also has positive obligations to assist victims of nuclear weapons use and testing and remediate contaminated environments. The treaty sets a powerful norm for nuclear disarmament based on principles of humanity and equality between states—founded on nuclear weapons abolition.
In June, states and civil society met in Vienna for the first Meeting of States Parties. States parties unanimously adopted the Vienna Declaration, a clear and decisive condemnation of nuclear weapons, and a pledge to work towards their elimination. States also adopted the treaty’s first Action Plan—a roadmap for states parties to advance toward nuclear disarmament and implementation of the treaty.
The Vienna Action Plan is significant not only as the only plan to be adopted on nuclear weapons in more than a decade but also because it advances bold and progressive principles for the nuclear weapons field and disarmament law more broadly. As highlighted by state parties in the Action Plan, the TPNW “builds upon, contributes to, and complements a rich and diverse disarmament and non-proliferation architecture.” An analysis of the most recent action plans from the Mine Ban Treaty, Cluster Munitions Convention, and Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) shows how the Vienna Action Plan breaks new ground with strong and innovative commitments to the inclusion of civil society, affected communities, and Indigenous peoples; gender and disarmament; universalization; victim assistance, environmental remediation, and international cooperation; scientific advice, and disarmament verification.
The emphasis on the inclusion of civil society, communities affected by nuclear weapons use and testing, and Indigenous peoples in the work and meetings of the treaty is one of the key advancements of the Vienna Action Plan. Specific action items are dedicated to inclusion within the context of the implementation of the treaty articles. In a significant step forward, the action plan also addresses inclusion as a general principle to be applied in all treaty implementations.
Concerning universalization of the TPNW, Action 13 commits states to “encourage and support involvement and active cooperation of all relevant partners,” including “the United Nations and the UN Secretary-General, including UN regional centres for peace and disarmament, other international institutions and organizations, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and other non-governmental organizations as well as parliamentarians and interested citizens.”
On victim assistance and environmental remediation, Actions 19 and 27 articulate clear commitments to inclusion. States parties commit in Action 19 to “engage with relevant stakeholders, including international organizations, civil society, affected communities, indigenous peoples, and youth, and work cooperatively to advance effective and sustainable implementation of Articles 6 and 7.” In particular, they will “closely consult with, actively involve, and disseminate information to, affected communities at all stages of the victim assistance and environmental remediation process.” In Action 27, they commit to “draw on the input of relevant stakeholders, including international organizations, civil society, affected communities, indigenous peoples, and youth” to develop guidelines for voluntary reporting on the implementation of these articles.
The unusual attention to inclusion in the Vienna Action Plan is most apparent in the section dedicated to “Principles of inclusivity and cooperation among stakeholders in the implementation of the Treaty.'' These actions commit states not just to closely cooperate with the ICRC, ICAN, academia, affected communities, and other civil society organizations and integrate gender considerations, but also to facilitate their active participation, taking into account the different needs of people in communities affected by nuclear weapons and of indigenous peoples, including by contributing (on a voluntary basis) to facilitate their representation at treaty meetings.
These commitments are further enshrined in the decision of the Meeting of States Parties to include ICAN and the ICRC as observers in the Coordination Committee to oversee the intersessional working groups taking forward the action plan’s commitments.
Gender and Disarmament
The Vienna Action Plan is also revolutionary for the nuclear weapons field in putting states’ verbal commitments to a progressive approach to gender into concrete actions. Like with inclusion, this is integrated into actions on the implementation of specific articles of the treaty and also addressed as its own category, to be applied in the implementation of the treaty as a whole.
Action 25 recalls the treaty’s requirement to conduct victim assistance in a “gender-sensitive” manner, “given the disproportionate impact of nuclear weapons use and testing on women and girls and indigenous people.” In establishing a network of scientific and technical experts to support the treaty, Action 34 specifies that they must be “geographically diverse and gender balanced.” Action 39 on inclusivity commits states parties to “integrate gender considerations across the work of the Treaty’s implementation.”
As with inclusion, it is the section dedicated to “Implementing the Gender Provisions of the TPNW,” Actions 47-50, which marks a particularly critical advancement from previous disarmament treaty action plans. States committed through the Vienna Action Plan to operationalize their gender commitments at the national level, including by establishing a state as a Gender Focal Point (Chile) to support implementation and report on progress, recommending “that gender considerations are taken into account across all TPNW national policies, programs and projects,” and working on guidelines in the intersessional period on age and gender-sensitive victim assistance and the integration of gender perspectives in international cooperation and assistance.
More than any other recent humanitarian disarmament treaty action plan, the Vienna Action Plan makes getting more states to join it a priority, with fourteen actions dedicated to states parties’ work to implement Article 12 to universalize the treaty. Universalization steps include how states can engage in promoting the values of the treaty through direct diplomatic engagements, as well as ways to share knowledge about the practical steps of ratification and identifying gaps in information to facilitate accession.
While some critics of the treaty have argued that countries with active civil societies will be more likely to join it in response to pressure from their populations, the clear commitment from states to encourage all states, regardless of governance structure, in international and bilateral meetings to join the treaty underscores the universal pressure of international law.
Victim Assistance and Environmental Remediation
The humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons use and testing have been a driving force behind the creation of the TPNW. The Vienna Action Plan sets out the first framework of solidarity for states to provide victim assistance and environmental remediation to address nuclear harm, building on the precedent of other humanitarian disarmament treaties.
This approach is unique in the nuclear disarmament architecture. While the 2010 NPT Review Conference Final Document encouraged “all Governments and international organizations that have expertise in the field of clean-up and disposal of radioactive contaminants to consider giving appropriate assistance as may be requested for remedial purposes in these affected areas,” neither the NPT nor the 2010 NPT Action Plan committed states to actionable steps to provide this assistance.
The Vienna Action Plan reinforces and adds to the requirements written into the treaty’s Articles 6 and 7. It articulates that implementation must be based on “principles of accessibility, inclusivity, non-discrimination, and transparency and in coordination with affected communities,” and provided “in a manner that is age- and gender-sensitive.”
All states agreed to establish a government representative (focal point) responsible for this work within three months and adopt any national laws to implement it, examine how to establish an international trust fund to fund this work, and consider a reporting format.
Crucially, states that consider themselves to have been affected by nuclear weapons use or testing will assess the needs of people affected and the contamination of the environment, as well as national assessments of capacities to address them, and complete initial assessments by the next Meeting of States Parties in 2023. They will also develop plans for implementing assistance and environmental remediation, including budgets and timeframes. Other states parties in a position to do so are committed to providing “technical, material and financial assistance” to those states affected by nuclear use and testing.
Scientific Advisory Group
The Vienna Action Plan introduced a new structure for nuclear disarmament, drawing on precedents from the Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty: a scientific advisory group. Scientists have already made significant contributions to the treaty and its implementation, for example, by providing research to support states’ determination of deadlines for nuclear weapons destruction when a nuclear-armed state joins or removal when a state hosting another's nuclear weapons joins.
Experts from “the broadest possible pool in the field of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation,” as well as the humanitarian consequences and risks associated with nuclear weapons and humanitarian responses, will comprise the scientific advisory group. In further acknowledgment of the treaty’s commitment to inclusion and diversity, this includes the establishment of a “geographically diverse and gender balanced network of experts and institutions to support the goals of the TPNW” that are to be engaged by states parties by the next Meeting of States Parties.