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"I actually have a pretty good collection of Arms Control Today, which I have read throughout my career. It's one of the few really serious publications on arms control issues."
– Gary Samore
Former White House Coordinator for Arms Control and WMD Terrorism
REMARKS: Time for the World to Wake Up
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September 2019
By Heinz Fischer

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) remains a shining example of how science and technology can help contribute to positive political and diplomatic outcomes.

(Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)The treaty has had a significant positive impact since it was adopted in 1996. With the notable exception of North Korea, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) has achieved de facto implementation despite not having entered into force, with no other nuclear state having carried out a nuclear test since 1998.

And despite the lack of entry into force, the CTBT and CTBTO have made important contributions in making it easier to detect nuclear tests, and in establishing a strong normative taboo against states carrying out nuclear tests.

This has made a notable contribution to protecting the world from the deeply harmful environmental and health impacts of nuclear testing, and is an important step on the path towards total disarmament.

All this has been possible because of the hard work and commitment of a group of scientists and technology experts who nearly 30 years ago undertook intensive, complex and sensitive groundwork to pave the way for a deal.

Their efforts made it easier for the diplomats to negotiate the final text, because there was already a scientific and technological consensus on the parameters.

Therefore, all of us express our admiration and gratitude for all that this organization has done over the decades to support nuclear non-proliferation and the true cause of peace.

But I fear it is a bittersweet moment, because there is today an acute risk that rash and hubristic policy shifts could undo all the valuable work the CTBTO and others have achieved, bringing us closer to the brink of a devastating nuclear war than any time since the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

We currently find ourselves at one of the most dangerous times for arms control efforts for many decades. The bilateral arms control architecture developed between the United States and the Soviet Union towards the end of the Cold War is being rapidly unraveled, through a combination of neglect, hubris and erroneous threat analysis.

The risk of a catastrophic nuclear event, whether by accident or design, is increased by the paralysis in international bodies charged with upholding peace and security, most notably the United Nations Security Council.

Ban Ki-moon had the honor of addressing the Council earlier this month in New York as a member of The Elders, the group of independent leaders founded by Nelson Mandela who work for peace, justice and human rights.

Together with Mary Robinson, he spoke frankly to the Council and particularly its five permanent members—all nuclear-armed states—to remind them of their uniquely heavy responsibility to develop effective processes of nonproliferation and disarmament.

But there are only few signs of the P5 and other states with nuclear weapons capabilities showing willing to meet these, as national and international politics appears increasingly driven by polarization, isolationism and an alarming disdain for the very principles of multilateralism.

The imminent expiration of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in August is the most significant blow, with the potential to threaten the stability not only of Europe, but also much of Asia, if it leads to a renewed arms race involving the United States, China, India and Pakistan.

The decision of U.S. President Donald Trump to withdraw from the INF is symptomatic of a much broader negative context of unilateral moves and repudiation of previous agreements.

Consider the possible collapse of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—an agreement negotiated so painstakingly here in Vienna, and which was universally deemed to be working well before the American decision, with all the implications we see now for rising tensions between Iran and the United States and wider Middle East security.

Consider as well the recent U.S. withdrawal from the Arms Trade Treaty, and growing concern as to whether the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the United States and Russia will be extended beyond February 2021.

The world needs to wake up to the severity of the current threat, and the nuclear states must get serious about taking steps towards disarmament to avert an incalculable catastrophe.

Nuclear weapons constitute an existential threat to the future of humanity, just as much as climate change.

And just as science plays an indispensable role in the fight against climate change, so it must now be mobilized in the service of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation.

This includes exact and dispassionate analysis of new technological developments that risk complicating and destabilizing traditional practices of arms control and disarmament, including artificial intelligence, cyber-technology and space-based delivery and tracking systems.

In the longer term, total disarmament is likely to require the multilateral agreement of a Nuclear Weapons Convention.

This may seem a remote prospect today. But, in order for such a convention to be a realistic possibility in the future, there is an important need for substantial work to be done now to find technological solutions that can enable total disarmament to take place with confidence that effective verification and enforcement mechanisms are in place.

All of us need to treat these issues with the utmost seriousness and urgency.

This is why The Elders have launched a new initiative on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, which was presented by Mary Robinson and Lakhdar Brahimi to the Munich Security Conference this February.

They are calling on the nuclear powers to pursue a “minimization agenda” that could help to reduce the nuclear threat and make concrete progress towards disarmament.

Nuclear states should and must make progress in four areas:

  • doctrine—all states making a “no first use” declaration;
  • de-alerting—taking almost all nuclear weapons off high alert status;
  • deployment—dramatically reducing the numbers of weapons actively deployed;
  • and decreased numbers—for Russia and the United States to adopt deep cuts in warhead numbers to around 500 each, with no increase in warheads by other states.

Above all, the nuclear states must work to reduce tensions and take practical, concrete steps to demonstrate to the world that they do not intend to keep these weapons indefinitely.

In this regard, it would be a tremendously positive step for the nuclear states to make concrete progress towards finally bringing the CTBT into force. Ban Ki-moon is calling upon the eight remaining “Annex 2 states” who have not yet ratified the CTBT—six of whom possess nuclear weapons—to do so at the earliest opportunity. There is no good reason to fail to sign or ratify this treaty, and any country that opposes this is failing to meet its responsibilities as a member of the international community.

Steps towards disarmament need to be implemented with the understanding that the binary divide of the Cold War, with Washington on the one side and Moscow on the other, is no longer dominant.

Instead we live in a world of interlinked nuclear chains, where decisions by one state can have a ripple effect beyond any one immediate strategic environment. The threatened collapse of the INF is a case in point; its demise will not just raise security threats on the European continent but also spark instability and potential strategic escalation in other regions, especially Asia.

The only way to tackle these threats is to internationalize and multilateralism the issue, including via the United Nations and bodies such as the CTBTO. Only by facing this threat together, as a global community, can we hope to find a durable solution.

No country individually, nor the international system collectively, has the capacity to cope with the humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons.

When the first atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, it made no distinction between combatants and civilians, old and young, or victims and the first responders trying to help them.

For the very survival of humanity, nuclear weapons must never be used again, under any circumstances. The only guarantee of the non-use of nuclear weapons is their complete abolition.

We will only reach this goal if the broad mass of humanity understands the urgent nature of the threat, and the political and moral imperative for drastic action to cut the number of warheads and fundamentally reassess strategic defense postures and doctrines.


Adapted from a speech by Heinz Fischer, co-chair of the Ban Ki-moon Centre, at the opening ceremony of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Science and Technology Conference in Vienna, June 24.