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UN Sets Ground for Future Disarmament Battles
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Jim Wurst

The UN General Assembly committee dealing with nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament issues ran a wait-and-see session in October 2008, with progress perhaps stymied by the upcoming presidential transition in the United States. The session, which ended four days before the U.S. election, debated and voted on 58 resolutions. Under the umbrella of nuclear disarmament, the committee usually considers numerous drafts on specific issues-such as operational status, security assurances, and nuclear-weapon-free zones-and three comprehensive, omnibus drafts each year.

Each session, countries or groups of countries present draft resolutions on a broad range of disarmament issues, including nuclear, biological, chemical, and space issues; conventional arms such as land mines and cluster munitions; as well as on the machinery by which the United Nations debates these issues, such as the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament (CD). After three weeks of debate on the issues and the drafts, each draft is considered with the goal, usually unrealized, of adopting resolutions by consensus. The majority of drafts on nuclear issues usually pass with large majorities.

Three omnibus drafts on nuclear disarmament were introduced in the Disarmament and International Security Committee, also known as the First Committee, by the New Agenda Coalition (NAC), the Nonaligned Movement (NAM), and Japan. There were slight changes in the language of previous years; nearly all of the additional phrases focused on the nuclear-weapon states' responsibility to eliminate their arsenals under the Article VI disarmament provisions of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

The NAC, comprised of Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, and Sweden, continued its annual practice of presenting a draft reaffirming the international community's commitments to the NPT and the decisions taken by its nearly 190 states-parties at its once-every-five-years review conferences. In introducing the draft, Ambassador Leslie Gumbi of South Africa said, "The NAC continues to view these issues of nuclear disarmament and nuclear nonproliferation as being inextricably linked, and wishes to stress that both therefore require continuous and irreversible progress."

The text entitled "Towards a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World: Accelerating the Implementation of Nuclear Disarmament Commitments" had the most changes of the three omnibus drafts. Paragraphs were added elaborating on the responsibilities of states-parties to the NPT and the preferred outcome for the remainder of the current NPT review process. For the last two years, states-parties have been preparing for the next treaty review conference in 2010 and will hold their final preparatory session in April.

One addition, for example, calls on the nuclear-weapon states to "accelerate the implementation of the practical steps towards nuclear disarmament" agreed to at the 1995 Review and Extension Conference and the 2000 Review Conference. These measures, in particular the 13 practical steps agreed to in 2000 and a 1995 resolution calling for a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, have for the most part stalled. The 13 steps include negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), which is stuck in the deadlocked CD, and cuts in strategic and nonstrategic nuclear weapons. More broadly, the United States and France have been walking back from the 2000 commitments, calling them out of date and "suggestions" rather than commitments. Another addition called on the 2009 preparatory committee meeting to "identify and address specific aspects where urgent progress is required" to reach a nuclear-weapon-free world.

The resolution spearheaded by Japan and a range of co-sponsors from developed (Canada, Germany, Switzerland) and developing (Chile, Paraguay) countries was entitled "Renewed Determination Towards the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons." It contained a few new elements that highlight the responsibilities of the nuclear-weapon states, in particular the United States and Russia. One calls on the nuclear powers to "undertake reductions...in a transparent manner" and to increase transparency and confidence-building measures. Another addition calls on the United States and Russia to pursue "the conclusion of a legally binding successor" to START, which expires at the end of 2009. As usual, the bulk of the resolution focused on the range of treaty-based commitments by the nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon states required for the elimination of nuclear weapons. It was less explicit than the NAC draft in calling for a nuclear-weapon-free world, which is one reason the Japanese text has traditionally gained greater support in the voting.

Although the votes were mostly on track with last year, the NAC resolution did show a bit more progress in swaying abstainers. The 2008 vote was 141 to five, with six abstentions; in 2007 the same five voted no (France, India, Israel, North Korea, and the United States), but 13 had abstained. The movement from abstention to yes this year came from Australia and some NATO countries, including Greece, Hungary, and Poland. There was also a slight shift on the Japan-led draft. In 2007, three countries voted no: India, North Korea, and the United States. This year, those three were joined by Israel. The abstentions shifted from 10 last year to six this year.

The third draft, the NAM comprehensive text on "Nuclear Disarmament," contained every nuclear disarmament initiative endorsed by the group of developing countries. These include no-first-use and de-alerting of nuclear weapons, the creation of an ad hoc committee on disarmament at the CD, the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the negotiation of a "non-discriminatory, multilateral...and verifiable" FMCT, and a halt to qualitative improvements in nuclear weapons. Similar to the other two, this year's version has a couple of additions, each designed to sharpen the focus on the elimination of nuclear weapons. The 2008 vote was 104 to 44 with 21 abstentions, following the pattern of last year. Because the NAM draft goes far beyond generally agreed treaty language, it has the least success in gathering positive votes.

The United States voted against all three resolutions. In explaining its vote against the NAC draft, the U.S. representative said that although Washington supports the NPT, the keystone to the NAC draft, it could not support some of the elements, so it voted no. The Bush administration has not supported U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and maintains that parts of the 1995 and 2000 NPT commitments have been superseded by events. China abstained on the "Renewed Determination" text while voting in favor of the other two, saying the draft has elements that were "not feasible in current circumstances," without elaborating on which elements were not feasible.

As much as a trend can be read into the debate, it is that the non-nuclear-weapon states are sharpening their argument ahead of the third and final preparatory session for the 2010 NPT Review Conference: that the success of the NPT cannot be separated from real progress in nuclear disarmament.

Last year, the most dynamic resolution was on the operational status of nuclear weapons. The key line "calls for further practical steps to be taken to decrease the operational readiness of nuclear weapons systems, with a view to ensuring that all nuclear weapons are removed from high alert status." Co-sponsored by Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Nigeria, Sweden, and Switzerland, the text walks a fine line between calling for meaningful actions and not too greatly offending non-nuclear NATO countries. In its second year, there was little debate because the draft changed little. The vote was about the same as well. There were 134 yes votes and three votes against: France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. China and Russia abstained. In total, 32 countries abstained, largely NATO members and states applying for NATO membership. France, the United Kingdom, and the United States made a joint statement after the vote, saying they "disagree with the basic premise" of the resolution. They said their weapons "are subject to the most rigorous command and control systems" and "the relationship between alert levels and security is complex, and not reducible to such simple formulaic responses."


Posted: December 4, 2008