Skip to content

New Life for Nuclear Disarmament at the UN?

April 20, 2009

Keynote Address

Coalition for a Strong UN Annual Meeting
April 18, 2009

John Loretz
Program Director, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War

I think it’s fair to say that a discussion about the prospects for achieving a nuclear-weapons-free world—and the important role the United Nations can and must play in getting us there—couldn’t come at a more opportune time.

I’ve been working on this issue going on 30 years now, and I share the sense of hope and excitement that we now have a US president who has made the elimination of nuclear weapons the policy goal of this country. President Obama has gone so far as to say that the US, as the only country ever to have used a nuclear weapon, has a moral responsibility to lead us to a world without nuclear weapons. He is right, and he’s going to need plenty of courage, persistence, and support to make it happen.

I’d like to refresh our memories about the nature of nuclear weapons, and what’s at stake as long as they continue to fill the world’s arsenals. This is an unavoidable consequence of inviting a speaker from IPPNW, but it’s also an important thing to do whenever the topic relates to these unconscionable instruments of mass extermination.

The 12.5-kiloton bomb detonated in the air over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 created ground temperatures that reached about 12,600 degrees (F) and incinerated the city. More than 100,000 people died and approximately 75,000 were injured among a population of nearly 250,000.

The 21-kiloton bomb detonated in the air over Nagasaki three days later leveled 2.6 square miles, killed 75,000 people immediately, and left 75,000 terribly injured. The cancers, birth defects, and other generational effects of radiation exposure among survivors and their families in both cities persist to this day.

A similar explosion over New York City today would kill more than a quarter of a million people.

A nuclear war involving only 100 Hiroshima-sized weapons targeted on megacities — something now within the capability of India and Pakistan, for example — would kill 20 million people outright, a number equal to half of all those killed worldwide during the six years of World War II. As if that weren’t horrifying enough, the smoke and soot thrown into the upper atmosphere would cause a sudden global cooling severe enough to disrupt agriculture worldwide for at least a decade. The resulting “nuclear famine” among populations already living on the edge of starvation could kill another billion people.

A nuclear war between the US and Russia—whose leaders have persisted up until now in keeping thousands of weapons ready to be launched on missiles in a matter of minutes—would kill hundreds of millions and could trigger a nuclear winter. As remote as that possibility might seem two decades after the end of the Cold War, it has never gone away.

The stakes could not be higher. Increasing knowledge of how to construct nuclear weapons, increasing availability of the materials with which to make a bomb, increasing numbers of people desperate enough to use the bomb, and, most important, a lack of international resolve to fulfill the pledge of disarmament make the use of nuclear weapons inevitable if we do not act decisively.

The bottom line is that sooner or later we will either abolish nuclear weapons, or they will abolish us.

On March 23, IPPNW released a Medical Appeal signed by more than 300 physicians and medical leaders from 39 countries —senior faculty and deans of medical schools, heads of medical associations, health ministers, medical journal editors, and Nobel laureates—calling on President Obama and Russian President Medvedev to confront “this gravest threat to human survival” and to “end the nuclear weapons era once and for all.”

The release of the letter was timed to precede the first meeting of the two leaders at the G-20 summit in London this month, and coincided with an intense period of diplomatic and media interest in the goal of a nuclear-weapons-free world, including the joint US-Russian statement and the subsequent speech by President Obama in Prague, which cemented the dramatic shift in US nuclear policy to which I just referred. These recent events have transformed IPPNW’s work—and that of civil society as a whole—from that of an opposition movement trying to prevent the development of new nuclear weapons and their global spread, to that of advocates for a new, widely shared vision of a world in which nuclear weapons no longer exist.

Now comes the heavy lifting, which includes making important decisions about how to frame the entire project of getting to zero so that individual, incremental steps taken in the short term are clearly seen as parts of a whole, rather than as ends in themselves. Getting down to 1,000 or fewer warheads each in a new US-Russian agreement to replace the expiring START would constitute real progress. But reductions in arsenal size — even deep reductions — need to be treated as a down payment toward the goal of elimination.

At some point, the other nuclear weapon states must become engaged in the process. One possible pathway is closing the gap between the enormous arsenal sizes of the US and Russia and the arsenals of China, France, and the UK, which number in the hundreds. That would be a sign of real good faith and could help kick start negotiations among the five NPT nuclear weapon states. India and Pakistan, who have said two things consistently—that they will not join the NPT as non-nuclear-weapon states and that they would join negotiations on a global nuclear disarmament treaty if the US and Russia make the first move—would find it increasingly difficult to avoid sitting at the table.

A big unanswered question, in my view, is how to engage Israel, which has never acknowledged its nuclear arsenal but, at the same time, has given unmistakable signals that it will not relinquish its nuclear weapons in the absence of a Middle East peace agreement and security guarantees. Experts with whom I’ve consulted believe that multilateral negotiations on a nuclear weapons convention could proceed a long way before this issue would have to be addressed directly.

Working with international lawyers, scientists, and other civil society experts, IPPNW has offered a roadmap toward a nuclear-weapons-free world in the Nuclear Weapons Convention — a comprehensive framework for global nuclear disarmament. The Model Convention we helped to draft has been a working document of the General Assembly since 1997 and majorities of UN Member States have repeatedly voiced their support for it.

A lot will have to change in the UN system if it is to make a constructive contribution to the goal of a nuclear-weapons-free world.

The first resolution of the General Assembly, adopted in 1946, called for “the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction.”

That urgent task not only remains unfulfilled more than 60 years later, but, with regard to nuclear weapons, it has barely begun. Nuclear arms control and disarmament proposals continue to be offered in a piecemeal, disconnected fashion while existing arsenals are “modernized” and new arsenals come into existence. Procedural disputes have been used as stalling tactics.

The UN Conference on Disarmament, the world’s sole multilateral disarmament negotiating body, is engaged in no negotiations. The UN First Committee sends dozens of strongly worded resolutions on different aspects of nuclear disarmament to the General Assembly each year, and each year the General Assembly adopts them and moves to the next item on its agenda.

NPT Review Conferences and Preparatory Committee sessions have been dominated by debates about whether disarmament or non-proliferation should come first, when the Treaty obliges Member States to pursue both simultaneously.

Former Secretary-General Kofi Annan made this point eloquently in 2006, at the conclusion of his term: “[T]hese two objectives –- disarmament and non-proliferation -– are inextricably linked, and…to achieve progress on either front we must also advance on the other.…It would be much easier to confront proliferators, if the very existence of nuclear weapons were universally acknowledged as dangerous and ultimately illegitimate.”

In making that assertion, Secretary-General Annan reiterated the view of the International Court of Justice, which, 10 years earlier, had advised the General Assembly that all states had an obligation, under international law, “to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.”

Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, who told the Conference on Disarmament in January 2008 that it must “rekindle the ambition and sense of common purpose that produced its past accomplishments,” has more recently called the Nuclear Weapons Convention “a good point of departure” for negotiations.

I’d now like to take a closer look at the two UN bodies with primary responsibility for working on nuclear disarmament — the First Committee and the Conference on Disarmament — and end with the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which is coming up for a pivotal five-year review in May 2010.

First Committee

The UN has six specialized committees that meet each year during regular General Assembly sessions, and that return to the GA with recommended resolutions. The very first resolution adopted by the General Assembly in 1946 called for “the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction.”

In keeping with the priority given to that first resolution, the GA made its First Committee responsible for disarmament and international security. Every year, the General Assembly adopts dozens of First Committee resolutions by majority vote or by consensus.

Unlike the Conference on Disarmament, the First Committee is not a negotiating body. Its purpose is to facilitate discussion, compromise, and consensus building, and to help states reach common understandings about the value of disarmament proposals and the most effective and acceptable ways to pursue them.

Unfortunately, the First Committee shares one trait in common with the CD: its discussions rarely seem to get anywhere because of the rigidity of its process, and the relative ease with which states can block consensus. The FC offers delegates an opportunity to be flexible and creative, and to consider security issues from each other’s perspectives rather than just from their own. Yet delegations too often remain entrenched in their own governments’ policies and security doctrines and are unwilling to deviate from hardened positions. Rather than engage in real debate, therefore, the First Committee has largely degenerated into what Reaching Critical Will calls “a resolution-generating machine, from which repetitive, redundant resolutions are tabled and voted on year after year.”

The 63rd session of the General Assembly was no different, in that regard, from those of the recent past. The GA last December adopted 57 First Committee resolutions on w e a p o n s   o f   mass  destruction, conventional weapons, and regional disarmament and security, including 22 resolutions on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation issues.

In the latter category were resolutions on the risk of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, decreasing the operational readiness of nuclear weapons, a ban on new types of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear disarmament (that is, the complete elimination of nuclear weapons), a nuclear weapons convention, reducing nuclear danger, the central role of the NPT in achieving a nuclear-weapon-free world, nuclear-weapons-free zones, entry into force of the CTBT, and a UN conference to eliminate nuclear dangers.

The GA adopted all these important resolutions by large-to-overwhelming majorities. For the most part, the yeas and nays depicted the fault lines on these issues between the nuclear weapon states and their allies (whether willing or reluctant) and the non-nuclear-weapon states. The US, for the record, voted against every single nuclear disarmament resolution in 2008, with the exception of two that it sponsored—one to solicit support for Bush administration counter-proliferation programs; and the other to demand compliance with non-proliferation obligations, innocuously worded to mask its ulterior motive, which was to send a message to Iran. (Not surprisingly, Iran and several other members of the non-aligned movement abstained.)

Many of us in the NGO community were perplexed by the vote of support for the nuclear weapons convention, mention of which was embedded in a resolution reiterating the unanimous conclusion of the International Court of Justice that there is an obligation under international law for states to pursue nuclear disarmament in good faith and, in particular, to commence multilateral negotiations leading to an early conclusion of a convention to eliminate nuclear weapons. That resolution got 127 votes. The Model Convention is a working document of the GA and of the NPT. Yet to this day NGOs get nothing but resistance to our requests for substantive discussion of the Convention among governments and UN diplomats. We plan to confront this situation head on at the upcoming NPT PrepCom, as I’ll explain in a bit.

All of the First Committee resolutions, once adopted, essentially went back into the hopper for resubmission during the 64th session.

A properly functioning First Committee could do a lot to advance creative thinking about disarmament and to promote good faith implementation of disarmament and non-proliferation obligations. A more effective and accountable First Committee should be high on the list of goals for strengthening the UN and reforming its institutions.

Conference on Disarmament

The CD came out of the General Assembly’s First Special Session on Disarmament in 1978, and was created to fill the need for a single multilateral negotiating forum on disarmament issues, including nuclear disarmament.  The CD’s rules require decision making by consensus, which is frequently given as the reason why the only successfully concluded disarmament treaties in the subsequent 30 years have taken place outside the CD.

The last time the CD took a decision to negotiate on a substantive issue—fissile materials—was in 1998. Those negotiations never started. Since 2000, the CD has declared its intent to focus on four core issues: nuclear disarmament, a fissile materials ban, prevention of an arms race in outer space, and negative security assurances. The word “focus” may be a bit of a reach, because the CD has been in gridlock during this entire decade, and has not even been able to agree on a program of work, let alone conduct actual negotiations on any of these issues.

The hangup on the fissile materials ban has centered on the problem of verification — not disagreements over how to verify compliance with a treaty in a technically sound and politically acceptable way, but disputes over whether verification should even be a subject of negotiations. The Bush administration said that a fissile materials ban could not be verified (more to the point, it was not about to countenance the idea of intrusive inspections in the US itself), but said it was willing to negotiate a treaty without verification measures—an approach similar to that taken in the deeply flawed Moscow Treaty (SORT) negotiated by the US and Russia in 2000. Not surprisingly, most other CD members have rejected this notion, consensus has not been achievable, and the discussion has gone in circles.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was a different kind of example of the dysfunctionality of the CD. After consensus on the draft CTBT was blocked in the CD by India and Iran in 1996, Australia, with the support of 127 state co-sponsors and NGOs such as IPPNW, brought a CTBT resolution to a special session of the General Assembly, where it was approved by an overwhelming 158 to 3 vote. Even liberated from CD deadlock, the CTBT has yet to enter into force.

(Interestingly, one of the more divisive issues within the CD has been the role of civil society and, in particular, the influence of NGOs. NGOs, as a rule, have not been allowed to address the CD for several years, although this is common practice in other UN forums, including the First Committee and NPT Reviews and Preparatory Committee meetings.)

The situation has degenerated to the point where the head of one delegation to the Conference on Disarmament recently referred to “the cycle of hope, missed opportunities, and despair” that has characterized the CD’s work for many years. Some have gone so far as to suggest that the CD is actually an obstacle to nuclear disarmament, because it stands in the way of efforts to promote alternative negotiating forums.

Some useful ideas have been proposed for breaking the deadlock in the CD and getting things back on track. The Blix Commission and others have recommended that the CD conduct its normal business by two-thirds majority voting, and that it adopt veto-free procedures. Another suggestion is that the CD restrict itself in the short term to some single achievable piece of work, so that it can have a success on which to build. Hope is also being expressed that a change in US attitudes and behavior under the Obama administration will open up new possibilities for productive work in the CD, with or without changes in operational norms. We’ll get a sense of that soon enough.

Non-Proliferation Treaty

In a couple of weeks, the parties to the NPT will gather at UN headquarters in New York for the third and final Preparatory Committee for the 2010 NPT Review. This is a critical meeting for a number of reasons. Frustrations over non-compliance with Article VI of the Treaty have reached a breaking point; anger over the nuclear double standard and erosion of confidence in the non-proliferation regime—with Iran and North Korea as the current focal points; and a growing sense among NGOs that the Treaty is being exploited by the proponents of global nuclear energy expansion have all contributed to a widely shared belief that the NPT is at a crossroads.

The Treaty has always had its problems, but they have gotten worse over the last decade after a brief period of raised expectations. At the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, the parties agreed “to pursue systematic and progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally, with the ultimate goal of eliminating those weapons.” They went further in 2000, committing themselves to an “unequivocal undertaking” to eliminate nuclear weapons, and endorsing specific benchmarks spelled out in a 13-step action plan. By the way, each of these benchmarks — including entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a ban on the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons, reduced operational status, a diminished role for nuclear weapons in security policies, and the continued development of verification capabilities, among others — is an integral part of the Model Nuclear Weapons Convention.

With the arrival of a neoconservative regime in the US, all that changed. During the PrepComs for the 2005 Review, the US not only walked away from the commitments made in 1995 and 2000, but shamelessly blocked any mention of their existence from subsequent reports. The US was not alone in causing trouble, but the other NPT member states did not — or did not want to — confront John Bolton and his Bush-appointed successors. The 2005 Review failed, and the attitude of many delegations during the first two PrepComs for 2010, it seems to me, was to deliberately run out the clock on the Bush administration and to quietly develop proposals that might receive a better reception from his successor. That’s where we are right now, and the NGOs preparing to descend on Conference Room 4 in two weeks are waiting with bated breath for evidence of a meaningful change for the better.

The Member States of the United Nations set out to achieve a nuclear-weapons-free world in the 20th century, and failed to reach that goal. This failure can be traced back, in part, to the fact that the General Assembly did not insist upon the commencement of negotiations on a time bound schedule.

In contrast, Mayors for Peace, under the leadership of Hiroshima Mayor Taditoshi Akiba, has called for the elimination of all nuclear weapons by 2020 — the 75th anniversary of the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This goal—endorsed by IPPNW — is achievable if negotiations on a Nuclear Weapons Convention commence no later than the conclusion of the 2010 NPT Review.

We face an enormous challenge, even in a political climate where the elimination of nuclear weapons has moved into mainstream thinking about global security policy. Those who favor a nuclear-armed world—as long as they can decide who gets to own nuclear weapons and who does not—are already starting to push back from their exile in right-wing think tanks. A United Nations that overcomes its institutional shortcomings, and becomes an effective champion of a world without nuclear weapons, can play an important role in getting us to the long-awaited end of this road.

One Comment
  1. Andy Kanter permalink
    April 22, 2009 7:47 am

    Thanks, John! This is a great summary! I will be in and out of NY during the NPT PrepCom which is unfortunate as I don’t know if I will make it to anything. Can you provide a specific agenda of IPPNW/PSR activities at the meeting?

Comments are closed.

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: