"...the Arms Control Association [does] so much to keep the focus on the issues so important to everyone here, to hold our leaders accountable to inspire creative thinking and to press for change. So we are grateful for your leadership and for the unyielding dedication to global nuclear security."

– Lord Des Browne
Vice Chairman, Nuclear Threat Initiative
October 20, 2014
UN Nuclear Disarmament Debate Stalled

Wade Boese

If a recent month-long UN disarmament meeting is a signpost for where key nuclear arms control talks are headed next year, a dead end might be around the corner.

From Oct. 4 to Nov. 5, UN members discussed, disputed, and voted on a smorgasbord of nonbinding arms control resolutions at the First Committee, which is the UN General Assembly’s annual forum on disarmament and international security matters. Members endorsed a verification study, supported stricter controls for shoulder-fired missiles, and backed curbing the illegal small arms trade. Yet, no such consensus emerged on nuclear weapons.

Countries without nuclear arms pressed those possessing such weapons to do more to give them up, while nuclear-weapon states—the United States most vehemently—argued greater attention must instead be devoted to stopping the nuclear club from expanding.

To be sure, this is an age-old argument between the nuclear haves and have-nots, but this latest round came amid the lead-up to a review conference next May on the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which entered into force in 1970. Only India, Israel, and Pakistan—all three of which possess nuclear weapons stockpiles—have stayed outside the treaty. North Korea’s January 2003 withdrawal from the accord has not been recognized by the other 188 NPT states-parties.

Many countries are looking to the treaty review conference, which occurs every five years, as an opportunity to bolster what they fear is a weakening foundation for the global nuclear nonproliferation regime. The general concern is that the bargain between the non-nuclear-weapon states to forgo nuclear arms in exchange for access to nuclear technology for peaceful purposes and the nuclear-weapon states to disarm is eroding.

The First Committee meeting highlighted the sharp divisions over who shoulders the blame for the treaty’s perceived ills and how to remedy them.

Illicit attempts by non-nuclear-weapon states, most notably Iran, to acquire nuclear weapons are the greatest source of danger for the treaty, U.S. officials forcefully and repeatedly insisted. Solving this problem, they said, will require all states-parties to put a premium on ensuring and enforcing treaty compliance.

Assistant Secretary of State for Verification and Compliance Paula DeSutter stated Oct. 22 that “detecting a violation is not an end in itself; it is a call to action.” The United States is upset that other countries have resisted its attempts to take Iran before the UN Security Council for Tehran’s exposed illegal nuclear activities.

Many other countries, however, including the New Agenda Coalition of Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, and Sweden, pointed their collective fingers at the nuclear-weapon states for failing to fulfill their side of the NPT deal. “If the nuclear-weapon states continue to treat nuclear weapons as a security enhancer, there is a real danger that other states will start pondering whether nuclear weapons would not be a security enhancer also for them,” Swedish Ambassador Anders Lidén warned Oct. 4. The New Agenda Coalition sponsored a resolution that garnered 135 affirmative votes calling on the nuclear-weapon states to pick up their disarmament pace.

France, the United States, and the United Kingdom opposed the resolution, arguing it failed to take into account their past nuclear reductions and neglected “the full range of obligations of all of us toward nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament.” Israel and Latvia joined the three nuclear powers in their dissent.

On Oct. 8, Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control Stephen Rademaker labeled any allegation that the United States had not made progress toward nuclear disarmament as “unjust and untrue.” Washington later sponsored a resolution with Moscow touting their past nuclear reduction activities. It received the First Committee’s unanimous blessing, although the New Agenda Coalition noted that the removal of nuclear warheads from service under the May 2002 U.S.-Russian Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty “cannot replace irreversible cuts in and actual destruction of nuclear weapons.”

Japan offered a resolution advocating additional steps that the nuclear-weapon states, as well as others, could pursue toward nuclear disarmament. It won the support of 151 states. Only India and the United States rejected the initiative; another 16 countries abstained.

Washington’s opposition to the Japanese resolution stemmed from provisions that endorsed bringing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) into force and negotiating an “effectively verifiable” fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) to ban the production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium for weapons purposes.

In October 1999, the U.S. Senate rejected the CTBT, which prohibits all nuclear test explosions. Since taking office, the Bush administration has repeatedly voiced its opposition to the treaty. Meanwhile, the administration asserts that an FMCT cannot be crafted to detect cheating sufficiently and should therefore be negotiated without a verification mechanism. (See ACT, September 2004.) These viewpoints led the United States to cast the sole negative votes against separate First Committee resolutions backing these two measures.

The FMCT dispute does not auger well for another UN body, the 65-member Conference on Disarmament (CD). Although supposedly the home for international arms control negotiations, the conference, which operates by consensus, has not produced an agreement since 1996, when it finished crafting the CTBT.

Washington wants the CD to initiate FMCT negotiations on U.S. terms early in 2005, but the near unanimous support for an “effectively verifiable” treaty at the First Committee indicates the United States faces an uphill battle. A U.S. government official explained to Arms Control Today Nov. 16 that the United States is not ruling out the discussion of verification measures during FMCT negotiations, but that Washington would not participate in negotiations if they presuppose completing an “effectively verifiable” treaty.

One diplomat critical of the U.S. approach to an FMCT told Arms Control Today Nov. 16 that Washington’s decision to “march to a different drummer” constitutes a “recipe for further delay” at the CD.

The lingering standoff between the United States and a strong majority of other CD members, led by China and
Russia, on concluding an agreement to prevent an arms race in outer space also points to continued deadlock at the conference. The United States and Israel were the only countries to abstain from a First Committee vote urging the CD to take up the space issue.

Russian Ambassador Leonid Skotnikov pledged to the First Committee Oct. 5 that Moscow “shall not be the first to place any weapons in outer space” and called on other countries to follow Russia’s lead. The United States, which is exploring basing missile interceptors in orbit (See ACT, October 2004), contends there is no space arms race, so an agreement is unnecessary.

If the CD remains mired in deadlock during the first half of 2005, which several diplomatic sources say is a safe bet, it could further reinforce the divisions between countries heading into the NPT Review Conference, making efforts to forge a consensus on future implementation of the treaty more difficult.