Widening Rifts on Disarmament on Display at UN

December 2019
By Belen Bianco and Shannon Bugos

The 74th session of the UN General Assembly First Committee, which deals with disarmament and security issues, reflected stark tensions among nuclear- and non-nuclear-weapon states on efforts towards nuclear disarmament as well as strains over the beleaguered 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

The UN General Assembly heard heads of state speak on Sept. 28 in New York, kicking off First Committee meetings on a range of global disarmament and security issues. (Photo: Kena Betancur/Getty Images)This year’s meeting started with Russia denouncing the United States for denying visas to members of its delegation, causing this year’s session to begin two and a half days late.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov first accused the United States of failing to “fulfill its commitments on the timely issuance of visas” for diplomats attending the conference on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty at UN headquarters in New York on Sept. 25. (See ACT, November 2019.) Ultimately, Russia chose to propose a resolution that would convene the First Committee session for 2020 in Geneva or Vienna. The committee rejected the resolution, but Moscow stated that it would continue to revisit the possibility of holding the First Committee at other venues until it views the issues as resolved.

This session of the First Committee was the first since the U.S withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty this past August, leading to many states voicing their consternation with the deterioration of the arms control system. The European Union expressed its “concern that [the INF Treaty] could not be preserved” and joined the United States in blaming Moscow for its demise. For its part, the Russian Federation accused the United States of “leaving this agreement no chance of salvation.”

Attendees also touched on the fate of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which will expire in February 2021 unless the presidents of the United States and Russia agree to a five-year extension.

The United States refrained from making any comments about the treaty’s extension, with Thomas DiNanno, deputy assistant secretary of state for defense policy, emerging threats, and outreach, only mentioning New START during general debate on Oct. 10 to say that some of the new long-range nuclear delivery systems Moscow is developing would not be subject to the agreement. DiNanno stated that the administration is seeking “a new era of arms control, one in which Russia and China are at the negotiating table and willing to reduce nuclear risks rather than heighten them.” (See ACT, November 2019.) Robert A. Wood, U.S. permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament, echoed DiNanno’s statement in Oct. 22 remarks during a thematic debate on disarmament and confirmed that the United States and Russia “continue to implement” New START.

Meanwhile, Russia reiterated its “readiness to address in a serious manner all issues related to possible extension of this agreement” and highlighted that doing so “would buy time to explore possible approaches to new emerging weapons and military technologies.”

In response to U.S. insistence on a new trilateral arms control agreement, Fu Cong, director-general of the Department of Arms Control at the Chinese Foreign Ministry, stated during the general debate that “pending lowering its nuclear arsenal to the level of China’s, any and all U.S. accusations targeting the Chinese military strength cannot but be as hypocritical and hollow as they are feeble and futile.”

Following the demise of the INF Treaty, New START is the only remaining arms control agreement limiting U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. The treaty caps deployed U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 warheads and 700 missiles and heavy bombers each.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 multilateral agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, additionally emerged as a main topic of confrontation during the First Committee session, although the United States did not comment on the agreement.

The EU urged Iran to “refrain from any further steps that risk aggravating the situation” and called on all countries to “refrain from taking actions that impede the implementation of the JCPOA.” The statement came about two months after Iran announced it will no longer adhere to certain obligations imposed by the agreement and more than a year after the United States withdrew from the deal and reimposed sanctions.

In its remarks during general debate, Iran underscored that its measures are “reversible” and exhorted the other JCPOA signatories, especially France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, to “either prove their goodwill by taking timely, adequate, serious, and practical steps to preserve the JCPOA, which is now in critical condition, or along with the U.S., accept the full responsibility for any possible consequences.” Russia chimed in to highlight the “fairly responsible and extremely restrained policy” of Tehran “against this backdrop” of U.S. withdrawal.

There were also different perspectives regarding the path forward on the Korean peninsula. Some countries, such as Germany, demanded that North Korea first “credibly” embark on the course to complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization before sanctions relief. Others, including South Korea, focused on the importance of dialogue as the way to achieve progress on a negotiated solution.

In its formal statement on the thematic discussion of nuclear weapons on Oct. 22, the North Korean delegation labeled its nuclear forces as “a self-defensive measure to cope with the hostile policy” of the United States, while stating that “the peace and security of the Korean peninsula will entirely depend on the future attitude of the U.S., and [North Korea] will prepare itself to deal with all circumstances.”

In total, this year’s First Committee session took action on 60 draft resolutions and decisions, ultimately approving 59 and rejecting one, which was the proposal to move next year’s session outside of the United States. The actions on draft resolutions unveiled the sharp antagonism among world powers. For instance, the United States prioritized pushing back “on various initiatives that the Russians and the Chinese are putting forward” and, as a result, broke consensus on at least six proposals this year, while Russia did so in two.

Other issues addressed included the goal of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East. The only resolution on the issue, which urged “practical and urgent steps” toward the establishment of the zone, was supported 172–2, with two abstentions. Only the United States and Israel voted against it. This marks a clear difference from last year’s results, in which 103 supported a similar resolution, 71 abstained, and three were against.

Some states continue to seek to bridge divides on nuclear disarmament issues with limited success. As it did last year, the United States abstained on Japan’s resolution titled “United Action with Renewed Determination Towards the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons,” which Tokyo has advanced annually since 1994. In an effort to win U.S. support, this year Japan softened key elements of the resolution, sparking criticism among many non-nuclear-weapon states that had historically supported the resolution for not being ambitious enough. In its explanation of its vote, the United States thanked Japan for “streamlining the text and refocusing it on the future” and expressed hope for future iterations of the resolution to further reduce “divisions on nuclear disarmament matters.” Nonetheless, the United States did not vote in favor.

Other issues under discussion included chemical weapons, cyberspace, and weapons in outer space. On chemical weapons, the controversy revolved around the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ newly acquired capacity of investigation and attribution of responsibility for chemical weapons attacks.

On issue of security in cyberspace, the United States and Russia presented separate documents, given the difficulties of agreeing on one single text. Neither resolution was approved by consensus. Resolutions on outer space security were also not approved by consensus. Instead, major players underscored their commitment to the prevention of an arms race in outer space while accusing each other of placing or planning to place weapons there.

Middle Eastern Free Zone Conference Held

The first conference on the establishment of a Middle Eastern zone free of weapons of mass destruction convened at UN headquarters in New York on Nov. 18. The establishment of a zone has been a longtime objective of states in the region and has been a perennial issue of debate at the United Nations and in the context of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Differences between key Arab states, led by Egypt, and nuclear-armed Israel over the conference’s purpose, agenda, and format have stymied past efforts to convene the meeting.

The November meeting was mandated by a UN General Assembly resolution approved in 2018. On Nov. 23, the conference, which was chaired by Sima Bahous of Jordan and attended by all states in the region except for Israel, issued a political declaration reaffirming its commitment to pursue the objective of a zone free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction “in an open and inclusive manner.” Several nuclear-armed states attended, including China, France, Pakistan, Russia, and the United Kingdom.

In his remarks to open the conference, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said, “Serious deliberations on a Middle East zone free of nuclear, chemical and other weapons of mass destruction would be an opportunity for the states of the region to engage in direct dialogue on arrangements that could address their security requirements.”—DARYL G. KIMBALL