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I salute the Arms Control Association … for its keen vision of the goals ahead and for its many efforts to identify and to promote practical measures that are so vitally needed to achieve them. -

– Amb. Nobuyasu Abe
Former UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs
January 28, 2004
UN Vote Backs Talks on Nuclear Arms Ban
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Tom Z. Collina

In a sign of rising frustration among states without nuclear weapons at the slow pace of disarmament efforts, the UN’s disarmament committee in New York passed a resolution in November with the support of 129 states calling for the “urgent” start of multilateral negotiations to eliminate nuclear weapons and designating Sept. 26 as the international day for their “total elimination.”

“Our delegations joined the call of the overwhelming majority of states for more urgency, focus, and new momentum for nuclear disarmament,” Ireland’s representative said after the Nov. 4 vote, also speaking on behalf of Austria, Liechtenstein, Malta, New Zealand, and San Marino.

First proposed in October, the resolution was meant as a follow-up to the high-level meeting on nuclear disarmament held Sept. 26 in the UN General Assembly. Speaking on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement, which drafted the language, Indonesia’s representative, Desra Percaya, said Nov. 4 that the resolution underlined the strong support expressed at the high-level meeting for taking effective action toward a nuclear-weapons-free world. (See ACT, November 2013.)

The resolution, approved by the UN General Assembly First Committee, which deals with nuclear disarmament, calls for the “urgent commencement” of negotiations in the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva for the “early conclusion” of a comprehensive convention on nuclear weapons to prohibit their “possession, development, production, acquisition, testing, stockpiling, transfer and use or threat of use, and to provide for their destruction.”

The resolution also declares Sept. 26 the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons to “mobilize international efforts” toward a nuclear-weapons-free world and calls for a second UN high-level meeting by 2018 on nuclear disarmament “to review the progress made in this regard.”

The resolution was approved by a vote of 129-28 with 19 abstentions and, unlike many of the other resolutions on which votes were taken, commits UN member states to future actions. The General Assembly is scheduled to vote on the resolution Dec. 5; the measure is expected to pass by a similar margin.

The General Assembly approves resolutions by majority vote, but the CD works by consensus. Therefore, no agreement on nuclear weapons elimination can be reached without the support of the five original nuclear-weapon states.

Four of those five—France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—voted against the resolution. China voted in favor of it, but said that countries with the largest nuclear arsenals should continue to take the lead in reductions. All five states are parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

In a joint statement, France, the UK, and the United States said that “a practical step[-]by[-]step process is the only way to make real progress” on disarmament and that “there are no short cuts.” The states said that they are seeking “early commencement” of negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) at the CD and “prompt” entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

India and Pakistan, which have nuclear weapons but are not members of the NPT, voted in favor of the resolution.

The other states that voted against the resolution or abstained are members of NATO, such as Germany, which collectively “share” U.S. nuclear weapons, or are “nuclear umbrella” states that have nuclear security agreements with Washington, such as Japan.

Many non-nuclear-weapon states argue that the step-by-step process is not working and, according to a European diplomat, is “not very credible.” They point out that the FMCT talks have been stalled in the CD since the late 1990s and the United States has not made progress toward ratification of the CTBT since the Senate voted against ratification in 1999.

Noting that the next NPT review conference will take place in 2015, the joint statement by the three nuclear-weapon states said that planning a conference on nuclear disarmament in 2018 “is not consistent with the NPT agenda” and “risks weakening commitment among states to securing a successful outcome” at the review conference.

Since 1975, NPT review conferences, held every five years, have often been fraught with discord over the slow pace of disarmament efforts. Three of them—in 1980, 1990, and 2005—failed to agree on a final document, considered by many states and independent observers to be a key measure of the success of the month-long meetings. There is widespread concern that the 2015 conference also may fail to reach consensus on a final document.

In their Nov. 4 joint statement, Ireland and the five other countries said they saw the resolution on nuclear weapons elimination as “entirely consistent” with the NPT, noting that Article VI of the treaty requires “effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament” and that the 2010 NPT Review Conference agreed to “the objective of achieving a world without nuclear weapons.”